What would make it all right?

I’m greatly offended by the massive surveillance of our digital lives by the NSA, GCHQ and probably other intelligence agencies, as exposed by the Snowden leaks, all in the name of security. Who better to make the case against such power-grab than Obama himself, from 2007 (emphasis mine).

“This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”

Let us also look at how he justified the surveillance in June this year, long before more widespread violations were exposed, including blanket surveillance of private communications of American citizens and foreign leaders (emphasis mine).

But I think it’s important for everybody to understand — and I think the American people understand — that there are some tradeoffs involved.  I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs.  My team evaluated them.  We scrubbed them thoroughly.  We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of safeguards.  But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.  And the modest encroachments on the privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content, that on net, it was worth us doing.  Some other folks may have a different assessment on that.

But I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.  We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.  And what I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity.  And the fact that they’re under very strict supervision by all three branches of government and that they do not involve listening to people’s phone calls, do not involve reading the emails of U.S. citizens or U.S. residents absent further action by a federal court that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation — I think on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about.

So what brought about this change in his attitude? A cynic would just quote the old maxim “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But is there a more nuanced view that explains this?

For us to believe this administration’s claim that they have struck a balance between security and rights, we must believe that these agencies and their covert tactics are protecting us from far greater threats to our security than we as a society are aware of today. It is interesting, even if quite morbid, to imagine what these threats might be. Could it be that the Al Qaeda is only months away from acquiring a dirty bomb? Could the widespread surveillance have uncovered sleeper cells at home with imminent access to biochemical weapons? Could cyberwarfare between nations be at the point where allies and enemies alike have digital WMDs aimed at each other, akin to cold war-era Mutually Assured Destruction?

If we are to assume this (untold?) narrative, does that change our perception of these violations of our privacy? Instead of standing up against them, should we be thanking the powers that be for their prudence and benevolence? Instead of painting Obama as a hypocrite, should we appreciate his Machiavellian sacrifice of his cherished principles for the greater good? By making it harder for these agencies to do their job, are we foolishly running into the deadly embrace of our “enemies”? On the other hand, as a cynic would argue, this thinly veiled reference to untold fears is exactly what allows an authoritarian regime to expand its powers and stay in power.

We could decide to focus our anger at the administration not for its surveillance, but instead for its non-disclosure of these threats. But one could argue that a society is only as secure as it thinks itself to be. Could a revelation of the fragility of that security, in the face of such unimagined threats, lead to a panic-stricken, terrified reaction? Could it play into the hands of the terrorists and create an atmosphere of distrust and insecurity, unraveling the threads that hold our society together?

I don’t have answers, and I suspect that noone else does either, save History.