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Sensible Security or American Dystopia: Is It Too Late to Choose?

Obama's Progress Broken. (Image: Lance Page / Truthout; Adapted: shoehorn99, Thomas Hawk, Belle Dee)

Remember back in the days of television shows like “My Three Sons,” “The Brady Bunch” and “Bewitched?”

Back in the 1960’s, when these shows were at the height of their popularity, national security was a very different thing.

First and foremost, intelligence agencies had to have a warrant for everything. And, there were even restrictions for spying on other countries.

During the Cold War, the U.S. government still needed to go through the proper channels, and obtain the warrants necessary in order to spy on the Soviet Union.

National security and spying were important, but so too was protecting our basic rights and liberties.

Senator Obama would have fit perfectly in the 1960’s.

During his time in the U.S. Senate, Senator Obama repeatedly stood up for our liberties and freedoms, in the face of an ever-growing national security complex.

As Sen. Rand Paul pointed out in an op-ed in The Guardian last week, in 2007, then-Senator Obama teamed up with then-Senator Chris Dodd in threatening to filibuster the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

At the time, Senator Obama opposed provisions in FISA that would have granted immunity to telecom companies that shared private client information with the government without proper due process.

In 2007, Senator Obama’s office released a statement saying that, “Granting such immunity undermines the constitutional protections Americans trust the Congress to protect. Senator Obama supports a filibuster of this bill…”

In February of 2008, as Senator Paul also points out, Obama again spoke out against FISA, saying that, “We can give our intelligence and law enforcement community the powers they need to track down and take out terrorists without undermining our commitment to the rule of law, or our basic rights and liberties.”

But fast-forward 5 years, and the now-President Obama appears to be a shell of his former self.

The man who once said that the intelligence community could do its job without trampling on the rights of American citizens now believes that “modest encroachments on privacy” are ok.

Slowly but surely, President Obama has expanded national security during his time in office, to a point where we are left asking, “Just how much bigger could it get?”

How out-of-control has our national security addiction become, just in the name of saving fewer American lives than the number of people who slip and die in bathtubs every year?

Conor Friedersdorf over at The Atlantic has put together a great piece, talking about the powers that Bush and Obama are leaving to future presidents, if we do nothing to change the system as it is today. And those powers are very, very scary.

His list is impressive and frightening: things like a precedent that allows the president to kill citizens in secret without prior judicial or legislative review; indefinite detention without habeas corpus or due process; ethnic profiling to choose the targets of secret spying; collecting DNA from people who have been arrested even if they haven’t been convicted; and a torture program that could be restarted with one presidential signature.

When it comes to indefinite detention, there’s a section of the Patriot Act that allows for the indefinite detention of any illegal alien who the Attorney General of the United States believes may cause a terrorist act.

And, security agencies and police forces across the country are already using ethnic and racial profiling to single out possible terrorists or criminals. In New York City alone, the NYPD has stopped and interrogated more than 4 million innocent individuals since 2002, according to the NYCLU.

Meanwhile, last week, the Supreme Court upheld the police practice of taking DNA samples from people who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime, ruling that it is simply the 21st century version of fingerprinting.

But what about some of the most egregious abuses of national security that have been undertaken over the course of the last decade?

Hundreds – maybe thousands – of innocent civilians have been killed by U.S. drone attacks over the last 10 years, without acknowledgement, apology, or compensation.

In the fall of 2011, after a U.S. drone strike had killed American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, U.S. officials then hunted down and killed his 16-year-old son and American citizen Abdulrahman, even though he had no ties to terrorist organizations other than being the son of a radical jihadist.

Closer to home, government officials have been abusing the powers granted to them by the PATRIOT Act on a very frequent basis.

In 2004, citing the Patriot Act, FBI agents used a GPS tracking device to search and secretly examine the home of Brandon Mayfield, an American citizen, who was wrongfully jailed for two weeks on suspicion of involvement in the deadly Madrid train bombings.

These are just a few of the many abuses that have occurred in the name of “national security” and “protecting American lives.”

Thanks to the privatization of the national security state, which began with Reagan and has continued in every administration since, the Senator Obama who stood up for civil liberties and freedoms in an age of increased national security interest has been replaced by a President Obama who views “modest” intrusions on our privacy rights as just fine. Even when done by a for-profit company answerable only to its stockholders.

The recent revelations out of the NSA have made it clear that, we, the American people, have a choice to make, assuming we haven’t already passed the point of no return.

Do we want government officials in charge of national security, or private, for-profit corporations that are constantly lobbying and working the press for an ever-larger national security state? When our executive branch of government does spy, do we want them to seek judicial and legislative approval?

Or do we want to live in dystopic American state, a la the movie Minority Report, where the U.S. government can do anything it wants, with no oversight, just so long as it claims that its actions are in the interest of “national security” and “saving American lives?”

Sensible security by an accountable government or an American dystopia run by the Blackwaters of the world? Hopefully it’s not too late for us to choose.

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