5.15.2007 | Frontline: Spying on the Home Front
How far is the government going in spying on its own citizens? That's the question posed by Frontline's latest insightful documentary on our government's inner workings. But the bigger question should be: how far is the government allowed to go, constitutionally speaking? The issue centers over two possible readings of the Fourth Amendment, which states rather simply:
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.
Under one reading (mine included), the government cannot violate a person's privacy without getting a warrant first. But a new, more interpretive reading advanced by the Bush administration and its supporters says that any search can be conducted without a warrant as long as it's reasonable. Not only that, but a former Bush administration lawyer argued that the president's constitutional duties as commander-in-chief can override acts of Congress (i.e. the law).
This insidious shift in how our governing document is interpreted is not only risking our privacy. It seems a minor consideration compared to the even greater – and graver – risk to our fundamental system of checks and balances. Instead of going to Congress to authorize a new surveillance system after September 11 (and remember, this was when Congress and the president were of the same political party), the president decided he could change the status quo at will. If we were at war it would be one thing, but Congress only authorized the use of force when we went into Afghanistan after 9/11. Legally speaking, we are not in a state of war.
These are uncharted legal territories. Not only are we fighting a different kind of enemy, but we have unprecedented potential to use technology to pry into various aspects of people's lives. What is privacy, if it exists, and to what degree can the government violate it, how, and when? The answer to these questions will determine our future as a constitutional republic. Without appropriate safeguards against abuse, our rights are in danger.
Whatever is decided, precedent is already being written, and court decisions may end up defining the answers where Congress has remained silent. What's missing from all this is the voice of the people, a vigorous public debate about the balance between liberty and safety we will strike in a new age of terror. It's up to us to help change that by writing letters to newspapers and our members of Congress.
Benjamin Franklin said that those who would give up essential liberty for even a little temporary safety deserve neither. Let's hope that in the coming days, weeks and years that our country can live up to the better part of those words.