The revelation that the National Security Agency is gathering millions of phone calls every day re-stokes the ongoing debate the country has been having since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: What is the right balance between protecting our privacy and protecting our country?
It’s the same argument that happened around the passage (and reauthorization) of the Patriot Act, the use of drones against American citizens and the targeting of leakers by the Obama administration. And, time and again, the American public makes clear that their desire to feel safe from attacks foreign and domestic trumps their desire for privacy.
President Barack Obama made quite clear where he comes down in this push-and-pull between security and privacy during a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan last month.
Here’s Obama’s relatively lengthy response to a question about the Justice Department’s seizure of a large number of phone records from Associated Press reporters:
“I can talk broadly about the balance that we have to strike. Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various, dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk.
“U.S. national security is dependent on those folks being able to operate with confidence that folks back home have their backs, so they’re not just left out there high and dry, and potentially put in even more danger than they may already be. And so I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me as commander-in-chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.
“Now, the flip side of it is we also live in a democracy where a free press, free expression, and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable, and helps our democracy function.”
Read between the lines of that answer and it becomes clear that Obama defaults to the desire to protect the country rather than protect peoples’ privacy.
Civil libertarians will argue that choosing between security and privacy is a false choice — and that always citing national security concerns as a justification for the gathering of so much private information puts the government, whether controlled by a Democrat or a Republican, on a very slippery slope.
Yet majorities of the country express support for gathering phone calls, using drones and, to a lesser extent, accepting the Patriot Act. A February 2011 Pew poll showed that 42 percent said the Patriot Act was “a necessary tool that helps the government find terrorists” while 34 percent said it “goes too far and poses threats to civil liberties.”
People support these measures because fear is a very powerful motivator of public opinion. Also, most Americans, while they value their privacy, tend to view themselves as people with little to hide. The general attitude is “I’m not breaking any laws so why should I worry about the government collecting some phone calls if it helps them stop an attack?” You can almost hear civil libertarians’ minds blowing over that line of thinking.
The “security > privacy” equation has governed decisions made by a Republican and now a Democratic administration since 2001. Barring a wholesale change in public sentiment, which seems extremely unlikely, that same approach is likely to predominate not only through the final three years of Barack Obama’s presidency but also in the next administration — no matter which party wins the White House in 2016.