Project August: Day 19 – Wherein I Object to NSA Spying

I will give you a fair warning up front, this will be a political post. I am going to talk about politics. From a libertarian perspective, of course. And what, more specifically, is the topic today? The National Security Agency spying on people. Yes, I said spying. You have been warned. Those of you offended by libertarianism and/or expressed concern over abuse of government authority should consider turning back now.

Why do I call it spying? If any foreign government had agents here in the U.S. doing what the NSA is doing, it would be called espionage, in other words: spying. It is no less so when the U.S. government does it to its own people.

But before we get too far, Project August requires me to use a post from another blog as a prompt. Today, I am going to refer you to the The Beacon. The post I am using for Project August purposes today is “NSA Spying Threatens Law-Abiding Americans” by Randall Holcombe.

I was talking with an older German citizen about the NSA’s data collection program that has recently been the subject of much debate. He worked for the East German government during the Cold War and viewed the NSA’s activities as similar to the Stasi’s under communist rule, but potentially more threatening.

The argument often given for the NSA’s activities is to stop terrorist activities before they occur. Rather than waiting for someone to break the law, our government hopes to stop them before they act. President Obama has told us that many potential terrorist attacks have been thwarted thanks to the NSA’s analysis of their huge database containing all our phone calls, emails, internet searches, and so forth.

The Stasi — the East German secret police — undertook significant data collection themselves, but in the pre-computer era were necessarily less effective and less comprehensive than the NSA. My German acquaintance told me that in East Germany they viewed a good Stasi agent as someone who could identify traitors before even the traitors themselves realized they would act against the government. Traitors had certain characteristics in common, and by analyzing individuals, the Stasi was able to spot individuals with those characteristics that could indicate they would act against the state.

This put me in mind of an article I saw some weeks ago, “Memories of Stasi color Germans’ view of U.S. surveillance programs” by Matthew Schofield.

Wolfgang Schmidt was seated in Berlin’s 1,200-foot-high TV tower, one of the few remaining landmarks left from the former East Germany. Peering out over the city that lived in fear when the communist party ruled it, he pondered the magnitude of domestic spying in the United States under the Obama administration. A smile spread across his face.

“You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” he said, recalling the days when he was a lieutenant colonel in the defunct communist country’s secret police, the Stasi.

In those days, his department was limited to tapping 40 phones at a time, he recalled. Decide to spy on a new victim and an old one had to be dropped, because of a lack of equipment. He finds breathtaking the idea that the U.S. government receives daily reports on the cellphone usage of millions of Americans and can monitor the Internet traffic of millions more.

“So much information, on so many people,” he said.


Even Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said.

“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”

And now back to Randall Holcombe’s post:

Over time, expect the definition of a terrorist to grow to eventually encompass anyone who would work against the government, much as the definition of organized crime has grown well beyond the Mafia the definition originally targeted. Already, the IRS has targeted groups that used terms like constitution and patriot in their names. If you want to protect your constitutional rights, or are a patriot, we already know those are suspicious and potentially anti-government activities. Domestic spying, like the NSA is doing and the Stasi did before, is a threat to all citizens, and is designed to be. Those in power want citizens to avoid any activity that might be viewed as challenging that power, because it encourages others to join them.

Between the IRS scandal of targeting right-wing groups and President Obama talking about “economic patriotism”, yes, I do very much believe this NSA spying is going to help pave the way for the U.S.  government to things that are very much of a totalitarian authoritarianism nature. I almost said lead the way, but it does not lead the way. The politicians are doing that.

They lead the way every time they insist the government do something to protect this country. Whether they are protecting the country from terrorism or poverty or performance enhancing drugs in sports, they lead the way for increasing and concentrating government power over the lives of citizens. And with the excuse for the supposed need of government to have greater power comes the justification that government must have the authority to exercise that power in any way it sees fit because it needs to be able to do its job.

There is a romantic notion that the path to authoritarianism is ever only some power mad crazy man leading a revolt that good people can stop as long as we fight back against the overt expression of fascism or some such. The problem with that is the path to authoritarianism is almost always gradual and approved of by the people. Indeed, citizens are often the ones demanding the government do something. Unfailing faith in government to solve problems with force is what enables the path to authoritarianism.

And that unfailing faith is exactly what the vast majority of politicians—including President Bush (the younger) and President Obama—have been preaching. They want us to trust government to protect us from terrorists, poor education, poverty, illness, drugs, unemployment, and on and on. All with force or the threat of force behind every government action. This will lead us to a better and safer society, they tell us.

No, the government spying on its citizens with one hand and targeting people of a particular political persuasion for harassment with another hand does not create a better and safer society. It creates a society like that of East Germany or the Soviet Union. Or Nazi Germany. Yes, I said it. Are we that bad yet? No. But we are on the path to get there, make no mistake about that.

Fortunately, some folks are starting to take objection to that path. The increasing expression of libertarian ideas in the U.S. have the authoritarian friendly folks in a panic. Good. That means libertarian ideas are gaining ground.

I am tempted to now go into a long refutation of the idea that libertarianism is impractical and utopian. But I have touched on that before, and will again. And I have made my point that the NSA spying on U.S. citizens is a dangerous thing. And this post is now over 1200 words long. So let’s move on.

Being on day nineteen of Project August means I am more than halfway through. Just twelve more days to go. There is a good chance at this point that Project August will be successfully completed. Even though still no one has made any suggestions for blog posts I can use. Slackers.

Anyway, thank you again to all those who had kind words to say to me over the past few days. I do appreciate it.

Remember, friends and neighbors, if you think that you are not doing anything wrong and so you have nothing to hide from the government, then you are probably just not yet aware of what you are doing wrong.

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