I was talking to someone almost young enough to be my grandson the other day about the stunning news that the federal government now has the capabilities to pry into the private lives of average Americans far greater than even the most deranged tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist could conjure up in a fever dream following a night of eating welsh rarebit washed down with root beer, scotch, and two hours of Fox News or MSNBC — with a an “X-Files” marathon chaser on Syfy.
I get a headache just thinking about it.
Anyway, he wondered why such an important story about the NSA’s secret access to the computers and telephones of millions of Americans was broken by journalists in another country — in this case The Guardian in London — rather than say, by the New York Times. After all, the young man I was speaking to is a budding reporter who spent time here at the Times-News writing a story or two as a student before going out into the world and getting himself a paying gig while it still exists.
“It’s always about sources,” I told him. “If the (Department of Justice) is impounding phone and other records and harassing news reporters in the U.S., where else can whistleblowers go?”
He accepted that assessment without apparent concern.
A day or two later I thought again about what I told this young reporter, a vanishing breed at a time when print journalism jobs are drier than a Nevada butte and the government has suddenly decided that press freedom was a once quaint idea that no longer matters. I did so as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tries to avoid U.S. authorities in Hong Kong. I pondered this while people on flip-flopping sides of the political spectrum are alternately calling Snowden a “traitor” or a “hero” for leaking the information, something critics say harms national security without citing exactly why.
In truth, Snowden is neither of those things. He’s merely someone who pointed out something that looked very wrong based on long-held American principles. He’s a guy who decided to do the right thing.
And now he’s in trouble for it.
THERE HAS been a lot of talk over the last few years about the First Amendment of the Constitution. That’s the one guaranteeing freedom of speech, the press and religion. It seems pretty clear to me but it’s obvious that people remain more mixed up than oatmeal cookie dough about it. They love the First Amendment when it’s convenient but jettison it pretty quickly when the going gets tough — which almost always happens. Freedom ain’t easy, or else every nation would do it.
Folks debate the Second Amendment a lot as well. It, too, seems clear — like it or not. People want to fiddle with it, though, because they argue that times change and the need for guns in every home ended in the last century. They also contend that the right to bear arms doesn’t mean a Howitzer should be available for legal purchase at the corner gun store.
Then there’s the Fourth Amendment. It doesn’t get talked about much because most think a lawyer is required to understand it.
But they’re wrong. It, too, is pretty clear to everyone except attorneys for the government.
Here’s what it says.
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The Fourth Amendment was created to protect U.S. citizens from the intimidating power of government and its law enforcement agencies. So what then to make of DNA testing or mining Internet activity with a surveillance mechanism? The PRISM Internet program allows the government to grab data secretly via companies like Facebook, Verizon and Google, giving it unfettered access to the emails, video chats and pictures of millions of customers.
I’m not a lawyer, but I’m relatively sure this is pretty far out of bounds unless the government is pursuing individuals on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
THIS IS WHERE we are as a nation: The United States has become a country where a free press can’t operate effectively for fear of government intervention or punishment should it cross certain unseen and largely arbitrary boundaries. It has become a country where people are potentially monitored by federal law enforcement even if they’ve done nothing wrong. It has turned into a country where those who point out potential government malfeasance find themselves on the lam. We have, it seems, become a nation so leery of terrorist attacks, random violence and our own neighbors that it has become more convenient to chuck the freedoms we once cherished above all else in return for the mirage of security.
The scariest part? Most aren’t worried one bit about it. In the social media world privacy is cheaper than a box of balloons. There are bigger issues to worry about, apparently.
Which brings me back to the young reporter I mentioned earlier. A day or two after our initial conversation, he messaged me. He was still talking about the NSA and its ability to probably read the online conversation we were having keystroke by keystroke. A stand for freedom was required, he said.
So he asked Verizon for a discount.