Balancing national security and protecting individual rights while maintaining the United States’ democracy is a major problem. According to our Global Issues textbook, the United States is the “best example of a presidential democracy” that should have checks and balances and clear separation between executive, judicial, and legislative branches; nonetheless, the government is riding a thin line with programs such as PRISM and other bulk collections of American citizen correspondents that seem to undermine our constitutional liberalism, which is the commitment all fully developed democracies have to “protect individuals’ rights, freedoms, and dignity from abuse by the government, institutions, society as a whole, and other individuals,” as written by Richard Payne. The National Security Agency and some conservative politicians, such as Rand Paul, argue that the price we must pay to have a secure nation is impeding on our individual rights, but is it unconstitutional and does it chip at our democracy? With fear of terrorism and fear for our national security, we tend to sacrifice our individual rights and, furthermore, our democratic ideals.
Americans take pride for being champions of individual rights. Ever since our humble beginnings, we have been concerned with our personal freedoms such as our freedom of speech, religion, and personal property. Thanks to the Bill of Rights and James Madison, Americans are ensured protection of our individual rights as a part of our democracy. However, the major impediment to maintaining individual rights is the ensuring the greater good of our nation as a whole.
National security can hinder our individual rights and furthermore hinder our democracy.
The most significant threat to America’s national security occurred on September 11, 2001 when members of Al-Qaeda hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. John Green explains, “There was a shared sense of trauma and a desire to show resolve brought the country together.” Americans became overtly fearful of terrorists, which evolved the notion of perceiving all Muslims to be terrorists. President George W. Bush was able to pass the Patriot Act without much opposition. According to the USA Today article “Patriot Act Blurred in Public Mind,” most people supported the general idea of the Patriot Act two years after it was passed. However, “confusion about what the law says and does [complicates] the debate whether the White House and Congress . . . went too far by passing a law that may threaten civil liberties.”
Now, fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, the Patriot Act is less supported because the initial urgency is no longer relevant.
Additionally, the more we unpack what is in the Patriot Act, the more concerned the American people become with its insurgence on our individual rights.
The Patriot Act lost some of its support when Edward Snowden leaked the National Security Agency’s secret collection of data of millions of Americans’ private phone calls and exposed the unprecedented power granted to the government. While American citizens were more open to the impediments on individuals’ privacy and freedoms, we were not fully aware of the NSA programs that deter the function of liberal democracy. On The Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, he explains that Section 215 of the Patriot Act, nicknamed the “Library Records Provision,” allows the government to request any “tangible things for an investigation to protect against international terrorism” from businesses by petitioning the FISA Court (This has also been confirmed by Jeremy Diamond of CNN). Moreover, this allows the NSA to collect metadata, which is all the information surrounding a call including the caller’s and receiver’s numbers, time, location, and duration. The Bush Administration defended the metadata analysis program by saying its effectiveness depended on bulk collection, though the CNN Politics article by Jeremy Diamond shows that the Bush Administration conceded, “the vast majority of [data collected] will not be terrorist-related.” The ability to monitor our private conversations seems to impede on our democracy, so the main question is: do we, as the collective American people, believe domestic phone call surveillance’s national security efforts outweigh the infringements it causes on our individual right to privacy?
There is still opposition on whether or not Section 215 of the Patriot Act is constitutional or beneficial in fighting terrorism. Last year, Congress faced the decision to either let the key section expire or to renew it or attempt to reform it, making the NSA get a warrant from the FISA court to collect data on an individual, as shown on the CNN Politics website. Opposition to reforming the Patriot Act cites the necessity of bulk collection to fight terrorism, especially with the growth of ISIS, and argues that it is a key tool in national security. Reformers refute this saying domestic surveillance is not beneficial when combatting terrorism. The Judiciary Committee website states that on June 2, 2015, President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act thus reforming the Patriot Act: ending bulk collection, preventing government overreach, and allowing challenges of national security letter gag orders. However, there are still some who believe the passing of the Freedom Act was detrimental to national security and that the facts were not fairly presented. Senator Rand Paul cited “even the most vocal defenders of the spying program have failed to identify a single thwarted plot,” but National Review journalist and strong supporter of the NSA metadata program, Fred Fleitz argues that the source Rand Paul cited goes on to say it is “valuable when it is the only means to obtain certain information.” This illustrates that balancing national security and protecting individual rights is still highly controversial and that finding the correct balance is an essential question when characterizing our democracy.
As mentioned before, the question of balancing national security and protecting our civil liberties is complicated and there is no clear-cut answer. NSA spying and the approval or disapproval of the American people is a great example of this dilemma. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Americans were much more willing to give up their individual rights for national security. However, as the threat of terrorism grows less prevalent, we are less inclined to sacrifice our liberal democracy in order to fight terrorism.