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July 23, 2013

A worthy amendment to limit NSA spying

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“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” –Thomas Jefferson

Conservatives get off track on issues like privacy when they lose sight of the fact that government’s first priority is NOT to protect Americans’ security, but is rather to protect Americans’ freedom. If you assume that government’s first job is to protect national security, you are already on the thinnest end of the wedge that eventually leads to a surveillance state, which is simply the last bus stop just before a police state. Our system, including the justice system, by design correctly values freedom over security anytime the two come into conflict, which as it turns out is pretty often.

So public horror at the disclosure of widespread data collection on the activities of ordinary Americans by the National Security Agency is entirely warranted. People realize that, while there is always going to be a tension between security and privacy, discovering that the federal government is building massive databases of our phone communication, Internet activity, credit card transactions and God knows what else suggests that the government has crossed the line and is prioritizing security over freedom.

[As a side note, I’m fond of saying that anyone willing to take that deal—to trade freedom for security—is taking the sucker’s side of the bet, because if government promises you security in exchange for your freedom, government is making a promise it can’t keep. Don’t forget that Vladimir Putin pretty much called up the feds and told them about the Boston Marathon bombers, but our government couldn’t stop them. Maybe they were too busy spying on our web searches to bother following up on Putin’s lead.]

I’ve been giving a lot of talks to groups lately on this topic, trying to convince folks that it’s conservatives who should be the real civil libertarians, since we’re the ones skeptical of government. The very same problems inherent with government—the perverse incentives, etc.—all exist within the Defense Department, the FBI and the security agencies, just as much as they do within the Agriculture Department and the Department of Health and Human Services.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece cross-referencing the NSA spying scandal with the debates about encryption in the late 1990s. In case you forgot, or in case you weren’t paying attention back then, federal law enforcement didn’t want us to have encryption, and the reason was for our own good, of course. Big Government wanted us to give up some of our freedom in exchange for a promise of greater security. Fortunately, we won that debate.

More directly, eleven years ago I wrote a piece warning directly about the post-9/11 attempts by the federal government to protect us by taking away our freedoms. We thought we succeeded in getting the Total Information Awareness program shut down eleven years ago, but we were wrong, as we’ve recently discovered.

I’ve taken too long to get to the point, I know, but I thought it needed some context. Here’s the point: Congressman Amash (R-MI) has offered an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act (H.R. 2397) that places reasonable funding limits on NSA spying activities. It’s a short, easily readable amendment (PDF), and you should read it. It says the only data collection efforts under a FISA court order funded by Congress are those that pertain to “a person who is the subject of an investigation described in Section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.” In other words, properly limited to a person under investigation, as opposed to the blanket gathering of information from all Americans.

Free people can band together and create the necessary institutions to protect themselves. On the other hand, a police state isn’t worth defending. It’s time to push back against the federal government’s overzealous attempts to protect us by taking away some of our freedom and privacy, and the Amash amendment is a worthy start.

Let it begin here.

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