Sivil Liberties Vs National Security in the Us

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The US currently does not strike the right balance between engaging in intelligence surveillance and civil liberty considerations. On Oversight and Accountability, Lowenthal framed his discussion by quoting the Roman poet Juvenal – “Sed quis custodiet ipso custodes”, meaning “But who will guard the guards?”. At this moment, we need additional rules and reforms to better guard ourselves and our civil liberties from those who guard us through intelligence surveillance. A specific example of where we should constrain government surveillance authority is terrorist watchlists and databases. An important parallel to be drawn to a previous instance of expansion of U.S. government’s power and resultant efforts to moderate its overreach is the U.S. IC reform period of the 1970’s.

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The modern threats to national security and public welfare have evolved. For the most part, I believe the U.S. IC has appropriately evolved to address these threats. However, I believe that the U.S. IC is due for a series of oversight regulations and reforms after its expansion under the Patriot Act. On Ethical and Moral Issues in Intelligence, Lowenthal posed an important ethical question – could secrecy “lead to a temptation… to cut corners or take steps that might be deemed unacceptable if they were not cloaked in secrecy?”  I hold that secrecy has led government officials to cut corners – a specific example where government officials have cut corners is with terrorist watchlists and databases. There have been cases where people who shouldn’t be on these lists have ended up on these lists. According to a 2014 report from Vox, the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) had nearly 700,000 names. Of those 700,000 people, nearly 280,000 were not recognized to have an affiliation to a known terrorist group – that was more than a third of the database at the time. In a famous instance, the late Senator Ted Kennedy was once accidentally placed on a terrorist watchlist. A specific way I would constrain surveillance authority would be to require greater transparency of how and why people end up on these lists and databases.This is just one example of government overreach under the norms of the Patriot Act and why surveillance authority must be constrained.

To better understand the need to constrain government surveillance authority, a parallel can be drawn between now and the U.S. IC reforms of the 1970s. The U.S. IC significantly expanded after World War II with the passage of the 1947 National Security Act. During the Cold War, it further expanded with the creation of agencies such as the NSA in 1952 and the DIA in 1961. However, in the 1970s, these expansions were met with calls for regulation and reform of the U.S. IC. The House of Representatives established the Pike Committee and the Senate established the Church Committee. The Church Committee found that the CIA had exceeded rules of it charter by engaging in assassination plots. Both the Church and Pike committees promoted the establishment of permanent intelligence oversight bodies in Congress. Ultimately, two to three decades of unchecked U.S. IC expansion during the Cold War – “a war that wasn’t really a war” – was finally put in check by the 1970’s U.S. IC reforms. Since 2001, the U.S. has engaged in a similar “war that isn’t really a war”, the War on Terror. Both the Cold War and the War on Terror have taken place in a gray area between peacetime and wartime. This gray area during the Cold War blurred the lines between peacetime and wartime intelligence surveillance practices – and the gray area of the War on Terror has blurred the same lines, leading to costs to civil liberties.

The years since 2001 have seen expansion of the IC at the cost of civil liberties. The 2013 Snowden leaks confirmed these costs – the leaks demonstrated that “the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) authorized blanket surveillance activities as well as specifically targeted ones and, in some cases, collection rules were violated, albeit inadvertently. Some proponents of making adjustments to civil liberties vs national security argue that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact,” meaning that it doesn’t have to be followed down to the letter – really, this is just a degradation of our Constitutional protections of our civil liberties. In this modern era, the US has not struck the right balance between intelligence surveillance and civil liberty considerations, and thus we must seek out our own proper Constitutional protections of our civil liberties.

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