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A National Debate about Government Spying?

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No attempt has been made by U.S. officials to publicly engage the issues raised by Snowden's revelations. President Obama has followed his by now usual path of using positive words (I welcome a debate on secrecy) and then pursuing policies that blatantly contradict them (making Snowden's life miserable and threatening reprisals against any country that helps him).   

It is the U.S. government that is telling other countries to "follow the rule of law" (that is, U.S. law) and help capture Snowden. He illegally divulged classified information and that is all there is to it. End of discussion. The fact that the NSA and other U.S. "intelligence" agencies may be acting beyond the law, both domestic and international, is apparently not open for discussion. The fact that it was President Obama who refused to prosecute blatant criminal behavior during the Bush Jr. administration seems all but forgotten. His decisions to go after Snowden, to show no mercy to Bradley Manning, and to use U.S. influence to isolate Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London say that this president is perfectly willing to use double standards. There will apparently be no debate on this fact either.   

In the face of actions of men like Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has sought to crack down on potential "leakers" throughout the government. As part of an effort titled the Insider Threat Program the majority of federal agencies, not just ones dealing with classified material, have been instructed to watch out for potential "leakers." Classes are being conducted to instruct many federal workers in the telltale signs allegedly given by people who might divulge information. This has the potential to set off a witch hunt, and so we can ask, how many careers will be ruined through the misuse of this program?    

Part IV -- Conclusion  

As Edward Snowden had hoped, his revelations have raised public awareness of the massive gathering of information by the government. However, it is unclear whether this heightened awareness translates into significant public disapproval of this activity. There have been various polls taken and they are not consistent. For instance, a recent poll (10 July 2013) conducted by Quinnipiac University reports that by a margin of 45% to 40% Americans believe "the government's antiterrorism efforts go too far, restricting civil liberties." It also reports that 55% characterize Snowden as a "whistleblower" and not as a "traitor." On the other hand, a June 2013 Washington Post -- Pew Research Center poll says 56% of Americans consider the NSA accessing of telephone records of millions of Americans through secret court orders "acceptable" while 41% call the practice "unacceptable."  

Such divisions of opinion are unlikely to inspire Congress or the Obama administration to change the situation. The numbers suggest that Americans, including progressives and liberals, do not really feel threatened by the massive spying, even if some of them find it problematic. Many suppose it is only the "subversive types" who have something to fear. They do not understand how easy it is for the bureaucrats to expand categories of "suspect" behaviors.   

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It also should be noted that, as described by the New York Times, the prospective national debate is far too limited in scope. As it is evolving, it concentrates solely on the intelligence-gathering activities of the government in its efforts to forestall terrorism. No one is discussing whether there are other strategies available in the "war on terror" that might make massive spying unnecessary. There are such alternatives.   

As I have suggested in other recent analyses, terrorism is largely stimulated by U.S. foreign policies in regions such as the Middle East. Those policies, in turn, are largely the products of the inordinate influence of economic and ideological lobbies. Change foreign policy and you can substantially reduce the risk of terrorist attack. In doing so you eliminate the alleged need for massive government spying. So, are you concerned about the erosion of civil liberties by a government that feels compelled to spy on you so as to make you safe? If so, why not have a national debate about the nature of our foreign policies and the influences behind them?

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Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign
Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest
; America's
Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli
; and Islamic Fundamentalism. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.

His blog To The Point Analyses now has its own Facebook page. Along with the analyses, the Facebook page will also have reviews, pictures, and other analogous material.

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