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American democracy and the NSA

Decisions about use of government authority to maintain national security should be debated in an open and transparent fashion.

We are asked by Obama and the NSA to trust the government, or to accept that the ends justify the means.

Imagine a government that spies on its citizens, often without warrants. A government that holds secret court hearings, or a government that asserts the right to detain and jail citizens indefinitely, in some cases in distant places away from family and lawyers. Or a government that asserts the right to hunt down and execute its citizens on suspicion of being the enemy. 

schultz portrait
David Schultz

Such a government we would describe as lawless, standing in contempt of human rights and individual liberties. It is a government some would describe as lawless. This is the government that some like Sens. Ron Wyden, Rand Paul and others think is beginning to emerge in the United States as a result of stories about NSA surveillance of telephone calls and e-mail messages. It is a government, they say, that needs to confine and define the discretion of public officials to prevent the violation of individual rights.

The hallmark of the a free society is a rule of law that limits the discretion of public officials to violate individual rights. A constitutional democracy is one where the government is subject to  legal limits, a respect for what legal philosopher Lon Fuller once called an “inner morality of law” that recognizes not simply formal procedural regularity but what political theorist David Dyzenhaus calls a substantive respect for freedom. Nazi Germany may have had procedural regularity, but it lacked the real respect for rights. 

No unbridled authority

Yes, public officials need discretion to make choices, but those choices cannot be made with unbridled authority. To a large extent this was the criticism of the American colonies when they asserted their independence from England in 1776. The Declaration of Independence catalogs a list of grievances and abuses of rights by King George III, including a failure to respect “laws for establishing judiciary powers.”  

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There needs to be a balance established with the law, as publicly debated, defining the scope of discretion that public officials may exercise.

The American constitutional system was a reaction to the abuses by the king. It places both procedural and substantive limits on what the government can do. The due process and equal protection clauses are there to prevent arbitrary and capricious decisions and to ensure that every person is treated the same. The Bill of Rights places a substantive limit on what the government can do to people (may not abridge freedom of speech), and it demands, as stated in the Fourth Amendment, that the government needs to have particularized suspicion to search, detain, or arrest individuals. One cannot have a Captain Louis Renault (from the movie Casablanca) “round up the usual suspects” approach to investigating crimes.

But to many, 9-11 changed many things, including government respect for constitutional limits on its powers when it comes to respect for individual rights. It began with the Bush administration and continues under Obama. Recent revelations of the NSA surveillance programs  tracking telephone numbers and Internet data, along with the U.S. Postal Service photographing each piece of mail smack too much of an Orwellian Big Brother. These actions are taking place without warrants, or with warrants issued in secret court hearings by a tribunal that rarely denies a government request.  

This news comes on top of what we have known for years that  the federal government, dating back to the Bush administration, has been monitoring phone calls, that America citizens along with foreign nationals were held in Guantanamo Bay, or rendered to secret CIA facilities abroad and tortured, force-fed, and often detained for years without access to legal counsel or opportunity to appear before a judge. Or that the president now asserts the right to use drones to kill Americans abroad suspected of being terrorists, without respect for due process or proof  of guilt.

Maybe we’re safer, but we don’t know

The justification for all this is national security. Perhaps we are a safer nation for all this, but we do not know. It is the same government officials whom the law is supposed to restrain who are making the case for why their actions are justified. We are asked by Obama and the NSA to trust the government, or to accept that the ends justify the means. But how are we to judge whether these actions are justified if we even do not know about them unless individuals such as Edward Snowden leak or whistleblow?

This is not what a democratic government is supposed to do. Decisions about use of government authority to maintain national security should be debated in an open and transparent fashion. The government should be required in open court subject to public scrutiny to justify why it needs to monitor communications among its citizens, demonstrating that it has met the constitutional burden of particularized suspicion. This is what Americans fought a war of independence for, and it is supposedly what separates the United States from undemocratic countries. Limiting discretion to protect rights is what the law is supposed to do, it is why the law matters.

David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships. He is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). Schultz blogs at Schultz’s Take, where this article first appeared.


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