NSA's intrusions are quite a wake-up call

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A national security state is never pretty. It does things, usually to foreigners, that make us wince over the moral costs we're willing to pay to feel safe in the world.

For instance, who in a national security state really "likes" killer drones? Still, drones are considered a necessary evil by people who are in no hurry to accept moral culpability for shadow wars fought in their name. As long as our military intelligence apparatus continues to refine its efficiency in killing terror suspects "over there," you won't hear a peep out of us.

Thanks to drones that never fail to make distinctions between civilians and alleged terrorists, we have become the most benign national security state history has ever produced. The killing of innocent civilians by American drones is relatively rare, the national security state assures us. Why would it lie to us about something as fundamental as that?

In a national security state, lawmakers who aren't competent enough to run a midsized lemonade stand think nothing of drafting and enacting draconian laws they insist are compatible with democracy. That's why our elected representatives were able to conceive and pass the Patriot Act in the panicky weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks. Their wisdom has proven so irrefutable in the dozen years since that neither the Democratic nor Republican parties even flirts with the idea of repealing the Patriot Act. Excesses? What excesses?

The national security state insists that its presidents have a bipartisan disregard for such abstract concepts as civil liberties so long as a single terrorist roams free somewhere on the planet. President Barack Obama may have won two elections by appealing to the hopes and dreams of an electorate hungry for a progressive vision of government power, but that doesn't mean he wants civil libertarians erecting statues in his honor. He's determined to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with his predecessor down the path to 24-hour government surveillance of everything.

The Guardian broke a story Wednesday that would have genuinely shocked us before the era of the national security state. According to the British paper, in late April the FBI requested that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order Verizon to hand over billions of phone call records to the National Security Agency for a three-month period that will end on July 19.

Verizon complied by handing over tons of "metadata" -- records of calls made and their duration, but not the contents of the calls -- to the NSA. The government refuses to say why it needs this information, but the assumption is that the unprecedented request was prompted by the drama swirling around the Boston bombing suspects. It isn't known whether other carriers have been similarly ordered to hand over records, but, again, it wouldn't shock us.

The reaction to the news has broken along predictable lines. Civil libertarians are appalled. Liberal commentators are only half-joking when they warn Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist (and constitutional lawyer) who broke the story, to expect enhanced scrutiny as the Obama Justice Department seeks the source of the leak about the NSA phone records grab.

Republicans are in a bind, though. As much as they want to denounce the Obama administration for an act of Orwellian over-reach against the American people, they know that in principle they're not against what the NSA did. The Obama administration is merely exercising the extra-Constitutional powers given to its predecessor to keep the nation safe. Grabbing billions of phone records may be the Patriot Act on steroids, but the GOP has no real problem with it. Any outrage expressed against Mr. Obama for doing what George W. Bush did is for the sake of the rubes.

"What is the objective of getting these numbers and collecting all these numbers from millions of Americans?" Brian Kilmeade, the most clueless member of "Fox & Friends" morning troika, asked on Thursday. "Are they overseas calls? Is there terror activity? Is there reason to be suspicious? Or is this [an] abuse of the Patriot Act?"

It would never occur to Mr. Kilmeade or his colleagues that the Patriot Act is itself an abuse of the U.S. Constitution. But in a national security state, we're taught that our enemies are everywhere, not just overseas. A couple of days ago, we woke up only to discover that the enemy looks and sounds suspiciously like -- us!


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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