What If President Obama’s Massive NSA Spying Is Keeping Us Safe?

Is this just the price we pay for security? Why should we trust the President for saying so?

So wait a minute: What if this massive NSA spying project is necessary? What if it’s really keeping us safe?

That’s what a friend of mine—a lawyer, smart, somebody pretty well acquainted with Democratic Party politics—asked me to consider last week while I was busy declaring that President Obama had completely betrayed the cause of civil liberties. Maybe, he said, President Obama came into office intending to follow the ACLU line on domestic spying—but after hearing a few briefings about the nature of terrorist threats facing America, perhaps, decided that wiretapping, well, everybody was the only way to keep us safe.

“I’m against all the things you’re against,” my friend said. “I’m also against Philadelphia being blown up. Someone has to balance those things.”

It’s a worthy question. It’s all well and good to quote Benjamin Franklin about the character of those who would trade liberty for security, but there’s every reason to believe that yes, most Americans would be willing to make the tradeoff for a guarantee of relative safety. Have you been through airport security lately? The loud dissenters against the scanning machines are few and far between. We might as well be realistic about that.

And yeah, I’m also against Philadelphia being blown up. It’s where my stuff is at.

But I’m skeptical that the actual threat posed by terrorism is worth both the huge effort and the casual reach into the everyday lives of American citizens. Why?

• Terrorism isn’t actually that dangerous: Reason Magazine, a libertarian publication, did the math a couple of years back and concluded that you almost certainly won’t die in a terror attack:

A rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.

This spring’s Boston Marathon attack might’ve shifted those odds somewhat, but probably not by much. The truth is this: 9/11 terrified us and changed our politics, but it’s also an extreme outlier in terms the number of victims it claimed and amount of property damage it did—the Boston attack, with the dead and injured numbering in the dozens has been far more typical—that 9/11 almost can’t be seen from the bell curve that covers most such events.

Terrorism—even failed terrorism—often seems an even bigger threat to your favorite politician’s job than to your life: Remember when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to ignite his underwear on a U.S.-bound flight? That was Christmas 2009. The panic after the failed attempt was as overwrought as if the attempt had succeeded. Instead of seeing the case as a successful thwarting of a terrorist attack, the media and politicians—particularly Republicans, invested in making President Obama look weak—chose to portray it as the devastating failure of the national security apparatus. Given that framing, the incentives facing the President and many politicians ran in one direction: always toward a bigger, more comprehensive national security apparatus—regardless of its actual effectiveness.

Authorities say the NSA program thwarted the planned bombing of New York subways in 2009. But as critics have noted, that proves that fishing expeditions can turn up fish. It tells us nothing about whether a more narrowly tailored program, with more protections for individual liberties, might also have been effective.

• If the threat was that persistent, and contained that much potential to end the Republic, our leaders—particularly President Obama—owed it to citizens to level with them. They didn’t ever say, until confronted, anything like this: “Because of the threat facing us, Americans must make a sacrifice of some of their privacy, some of their secrecy, some of their ability to live beyond the government’s knowledge and observance. We’ll be tracking your activities—but only as a means of figuring out who the bad guys are, and only in pursuit of thwarting and prosecuting them. And here are the rules we’ve put into place to ensure that ordinary, innocent Americans don’t have to worry about this data being abused.”

They didn’t ever say, until confronted, anything like this: “Because of the threat facing us, Americans must make a sacrifice of some of their privacy, some of their secrecy, some of their ability to live beyond the government’s knowledge and observance. We’ll be tracking your activities—but only as a means of figuring out who the bad guys are, and only in pursuit of thwarting and prosecuting them. And here are the rules we’ve put into place to ensure that ordinary, innocent Americans don’t have to worry about this data being abused.”

Instead, the President told us at his inaugural that we didn’t have to choose between principles and safety. (Last week was a different story.) But something changed, and he didn’t tell us anything had changed until he was caught. He treated Americans as less than citizens, adults charged with examining the issues and offering guidance to the government that, after all, represents them. He treated Americans like children. Ultimately, he treated us like subjects. (Before Republicans start sneering in agreement: This started under President George W. Bush. So stop.)

Simply put: We have no reason to believe the President is justified in taking these extraordinary measures except for the kind of “trust us” swagger the President’s team adopts on ocassion. That’s not good enough. That’s not how our government is supposed to work: We delegate our authority, yes, but we do not forfeit our status as a sovereign people. Period.

I’m happy to believe the President came to the White House in 2009 with the best of civil libertrian intentions. I’m just not sure it matters, entirely. We expected better, more from this president. If he couldn’t keep the promise, he should’ve said so a long time ago. He didn’t. So here is where we’re at.

Around the Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.