(From The New York Times)
The National Security Agency’s ability to spy on vast quantities of Internet traffic passing through the United States has relied on its extraordinary, decades-long partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T.
While it has been long known that American telecommunications companies worked closely with the spy agency, newly disclosed N.S.A. documents show that the relationship with AT&T has been considered unique and especially productive. One document described it as “highly collaborative,” while another lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.”
Crony capitalism comes in many forms. Bailouts for big banks. Subsidies for sugar, corn, and Hollywood. Overly inflated defense contracts. Bridges to nowhere which benefit certain bidders. There are thousands and thousands of examples. But perhaps one of the most insidious forms is when telecommunication companies help the government to spy on Americans without a specific warrant.
The 4th Amendment means something. It is the law. Just because we have people seeking to do us harm does not mean that the 4th Amendment isn’t the law. We have always had bad guys looking to do us harm. We had 45 years of Cold War without flushing the Constitution down the toilet. Indeed we understood that the Constitution fundamentally was the reason we were fighting the Cold War. We should keep this in mind.
At the same time, the government has been fighting in court to keep the identities of its telecom partners hidden. In a recent case, a group of AT&T customers claimed that the N.S.A.’s tapping of the Internet violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. This year, a federal judge dismissed key portions of the lawsuit after the Obama administration argued that public discussion of its telecom surveillance efforts would reveal state secrets, damaging national security.
So the judge said that the lawsuit could not go forward, even though the issue at hand concerns the potential serious violation of the Constitution, because of “national security”?
National security may be an issue, but does it trump the exploration of whether an action is lawful? I suppose that in this case it does. But that should not be.
We must be clear here. We are not saying that spying is unnecessary nor that it shouldn’t be done at all. There are real threats to American security and surveillance within the parameters of the Constitution are reasonable and likely necessary. But extra-constitutional surveillance, even if it makes things easier for the NSA, and/or speeds their efforts is not OK. Such a state of affairs is extremely dangerous for everyday people who are doing absolutely nothing wrong. The government is not God. The everyday American should be able to know that as a citizen they are protected by the rule of law, not subject to the whim of a bureaucrat somewhere.