Remember when Big Brother was only watching you?
Those good old days are gone, now that we know the federal government is not only collecting our phone records but charting every inch of cyberspace through a program that was top secret until the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers spilled the beans this week about PRISM, which allows the National Security Agency to search our computer history, content of e-mails, file transfers and live chats.
No doubt they have joined The Associated Press and Fox News on the list of media outlets whose work is being investigated and perhaps even criminalized by the Justice Department of the "most transparent administration in history."
In light of Ben Franklin's famous 1755 quote – “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” – this is an issue that lends itself to cheap demagoguery. But the terrorist threats that prompted the scrutiny in the first place are far too real to insist that the right to privacy must trump national security concerns in all cases.
And that is precisely why the avalanche of recent revelations has been so disturbing: Despite halfhearted assurances from President Obama and others, there is growing evidence that the federal government's hunger for heretofore personal information has grown increasingly large and indiscriminate, forsaking probable cause for a fishing expedition.
The consequences of an intelligence failure are of course terrible, and getting potentially deadlier all the time. But the argument that might have justified or at least excused snooping in the past – “if you've done nothing wrong you've nothing to fear” – has been undermined by some of the very people making it now.
The fact that the federal government wants to know everything it can about everyone should worry even those who trust officials to use the information properly. But as the IRS scandal has made apparent, Americans' supposedly confidential information too often subjects them to harassment and may even be “leaked” for political or ideological purposes. That's the same agency that will soon have authority over our health care.
No one is really safe from a government that is both all-knowing and willing to decide for itself when otherwise legal activities are “wrong.” Such a government would be at least as dangerous as any terrorist threat. Today it's conservatives who are targeted. But that could change, and probably will, if laws mean nothing.
Some Republicans who were silent when the domestic snooping began under George W. Bush (albeit in a much smaller form) claim they are shocked by what has happened, just as some Democrats who condemned Bush seem far less concerned now. Politics will always breed and even reward hypocrisy, but the law works only when it is clear and consistently applied, in reality and perception alike.
Reportedly, much of the domestic surveillance has been conducted with Congress' knowledge and consent. It may even be legal, in letter if not spirit. But that is precisely why a vigilant press is so crucial. In a free country – remember when that phrase was invoked without irony or cynicism? – citizens have a right to decide for themselves, at least in broad terms, how much liberty they are willing to trade for security.
And government officials should understand that the degree to which that trade is made will be determined in large part by the degree to which they earn or abuse the public's trust. This administration is under fire now because it has demanded so much but offered so little in return.
Like the proverbial frog placed in a pan of comfortably warm water, Americans are at long last beginning to realize that the waters of freedom are evaporating at an alarmingly fast pace. That will change only if any additional increase in heat is felt by the politicians and bureaucrats who demand our trust and respect but by their actions have demonstrated they are worthy of neither.