Last week, something incredible happened in the U.S. House of Representatives: a bipartisan coalition formed around an important issue. That's how Congress has conducted business during most of its 224-year history, but we all know that hasn't been the case in quite some time. Yet last week, an uncommon alliance of Tea Partiers and liberal civil libertarians banded together to block the National Security Agency's phone data collection program. To nearly everyone's surprise, the amendment to a defense bill intended to restrict the NSA's ability to spy on Americans not suspected of terrorist activity nearly passed.
The vote was 217-205 against the amendment — introduced by GOP Rep. Justin Amash and Democrat Rep. John Conyers, both of Michigan — with 94 Republicans joining 111 Democrats. Remarkably, more Republicans voted for the Obama administration's position against the amendment than did Democrats. Apparently, the power of the NSA invoking the "national security" boogeyman is great enough to override a majority of GOP House members' contempt for Obama. In the same way, civil libertarians on both the left and the right are so resistant to an expanding national security state, they put aside their mutual suspicions and worked to protect Americans' privacy.
It's about time. It's no secret that the hard right and hard left share a passion for civil liberties; the only surprising thing about last week's coalition is that it took so long to develop. Here's hoping defenders of civil liberties from both sides of the political equation will continue to communicate and build a reliable coalition dedicated to stopping government abuses of citizens' rights — an ominous trend that acquired legitimacy under Bush's Patriot Act, and has been continued, if not expanded, under President Constitutional Lawyer. Such a coalition is more needed than ever; hopefully it's readying itself for another assault on the NSA's out-of-control Big Brotherism. It is imperative that the collecting of phone records of nearly every U.S. citizen and resident be stopped.
Why? For starters, using its supposed authority to do absolutely anything to head off terrorist plots, the NSA strong-armed U.S. telecommunications companies like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint to turn over the "meta-data" (who called whom, when, for how long, etc.) for Every. Damned. Call. made by Every. Single. American, "on an ongoing daily basis." Note that they don't just want calls made by suspected terrorists or known foreign spies or even run-of-the-mill hoodlums. The NSA wants (and has) everything.
Secondly, America has a little something called the Fourth Amendment, which protects all of us from unreasonable search and seizure. It's pretty hard to believe that the writers of the Constitution would have been OK with the government seizing and searching through all the available information about U.S. citizens, be it the personal papers of the past or today's phone calls and Internet activity. The NSA says its snooping is constitutional because it stores the phone records in some sort of lockbox and looks at them only when it needs to. Well, that's great, but the Fourth Amendment doesn't say anything about banning unreasonable searches and seizures "except when the government needs to see something." More to the point, just because the current administration isn't using NSA-culled information to attack political enemies — or worse — doesn't mean that some future administration wouldn't do it. In fact, it's reasonable to assume that a future neo-Nixon or -Cheney wouldn't be stopped by something as silly as their predecessors' rules.
Thirdly, what's next? Everyone knows that once governments get accustomed to a new type of power, they tend to try to expand it. Who's to say President Neo-Nixon wouldn't want everyone's emails, or the contents of everyone's hard drive? Or maybe microphones placed in everyone's home, or cameras in everyone's bedrooms? Yes, those sound highly unlikely, but just a few years ago so was the idea that the government would collect all of our phone records.
The NSA says that doing away with its phone-records collection would "endanger national security." That's ludicrous, and for one simple reason: Islamic terrorism, i.e., the reason for the NSA's phone-data collection, is not a mortal threat to the existence of the United States. As I wrote a few weeks ago, terrorism is simply not a good enough reason to justify violating the privacy rights of 300 million Americans. Plus, here's what it boils down to: This is the United States. We are ostensibly a free country. It's the main thing we're known for worldwide; that freedom isn't merely a part of our national identity. To a large degree, it is our national identity. If the U.S. government can't find terrorists without changing the very nature of our nation — as in, "it's a free country" — that's just too damned bad.