WASHINGTON — Welcome to the new normal, the U.S. national security state that’s grown like mad since the 9/11 terrorist attacks nearly a dozen years ago.
Personal privacy has shrunk. Government secrecy has grown. Law enforcement intrusions, both overt and covert, are routine.
And while airport security lines hint at how life changed following Sept. 11, 2001, the full scope and apparent irrevocability of the changes nearly defy description. Street cameras track your movements. Strangers can read your emails. Police can spy on your political gatherings.
And it’s all become so commonplace that most of the time, like the proverbial frog in a pot of warming water, we take it for granted.
“Some of the impacts have been obscured,” Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said Friday. “One could say that personal privacy has been compromised for years, but we are only now becoming aware of it.”
But even in this new normal, a shock or two can awaken the complacent. That’s what happened this week, in a one-two punch.
On Wednesday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper revealed that the National Security Agency is
collecting telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers. On Friday, the Guardian and The Washington Post reported that the NSA is tapping directly into the central servers of nine companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook.
The ensuing uproar provoked President Barack Obama to offer a defense.
“I think it’s important for everybody to understand … that there are some tradeoffs involved,” Obama said Friday. “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
In his first remarks on the surveillance program disclosures, Obama said he welcomes a debate but insisted that the nation must strike an appropriate balance between security and civil liberties.
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said she hopes this week’s revelations serve as a wakeup call for Americans. But, she said, while she welcomes Obama’s desire for a debate, she noted that it’s difficult when the programs have already started.
In the new normal, political debate can be one-sided. In a similar vein, secret courts make key decisions behind closed doors and say very little about them.
On Friday, Obama said the programs are “fully overseen” not just by Congress but by a special court put together to evaluate such things, all done “consistently with the Constitution and rule of law.”
If anyone wants to go further than the “top-line data” about phone calls, Obama said, “they’d have to go back to a federal judge” and explain why they wanted to dig further into the call information.
While debate is OK, Obama said, however, that he does not “welcome leaks” about the programs. If everything the government does to try to prevent terrorist attacks is “on the front page,” then potential attackers can “get around our preventive measures.”
Intelligence agencies collect data only on when and where calls take place, not their content, he said, and he stressed that those intelligence programs are subject to extensive “checks and balances” from courts and Congress.
The administration’s approach is not “trust me,” he said. “We’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight.”