While the materials Edward Snowden copied and disseminated during his stint as a National Security Agency contractor put the nation’s security policies under an unprecedented microscope, many in and out of government had been worried about whether the post-9/11 security fetish was undermining basic constitutional liberties.
Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, had been warning in vague terms for some time that he thought the National Security Agency was overstepping its bounds. But he could say very little because of the highly classified nature of the information he obtained as a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.
It was Mr. Wyden who asked Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper in March of last year whether the NSA was keeping “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans” and was astounded by Mr. Clapper’s denial that any such thing was going on. Mr. Wyden clearly knew better and knew that Mr. Clapper was lying. It was only after the Snowden revelations, however, that everyone else knew this as well and that Mr. Clapper was forced to apologize in the midst of calls for his resignation.
The balance, if that’s what one wishes to call it, between security and traditional American freedoms has always been tenuous. Had Mr. Snowden not absconded, he would have been charged under a not-very-updated version of the Espionage Act put together during World War I by President Woodrow Wilson and his attorney general and signed into law in 1917. This was the legislation that led to the arrest and imprisonment of many Wilson critics, as well as dozens of reporters who were deemed disloyal, and justified the infamous Palmer Raids, designed to root out dangerous anarchists and communists after the war.
During World War II, the Roosevelt administration not only interred Americans of German, Japanese and Italian descent purely because of their ethnic background, it did all it could given the available technology to monitor the mails and telecommunications not just of foreigners but of American citizens they suspected might be a security risk.
The Cold War brought its own excesses, as officials fearing Soviet infiltrators and spies assembled the foundations of the security apparatus we have today. In each of these eras, the threats we faced were real, but the measures employed to thwart them too often got out of hand.
The question lawmakers and others must answer is whether the threats we face today from terrorists are so great that the constitutional guarantees in the Bill of Rights by the nation’s founders handcuff those charged with protecting the American people or whether it is possible to provide the security needed in the modern world without fundamentally undermining traditional individual rights.
In the aftermath of 9/11, then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld observed that if we as a nation allow terrorists to alter the way we live our lives, they will have won. Young conservatives of my generation usually included on their reading lists a slim volume penned by Yale professor William Graham Sumner at the time of the Spanish-American War. It was titled “The Conquest of the United States by Spain,” and in it Mr. Sumner warned that if, in defeating an enemy, we allowed ourselves to morph into a mirror image of that enemy, what will we have won?
It was a good question then and a better one now.
Intelligence services of earlier eras didn’t have the technology to assemble data on, or track the every move of, their citizenry in the way we can today. The East German Stasi or Stalin’s NKVD or J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI could only dream of the potentially Orwellian world in which we now live.
The question we must not just ask but answer is when do security measures designed to protect a free people undermine the very freedoms their designers were sworn to protect.
• David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.
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