Friday, June 14, 2013

Security more than a matter of trust

Barack Obama could end up doing more for the cause of small government than Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and the Tea Party put together.

Last week's revelations about surveillance by the United States government of the phone records of millions of Americans would have been a major story at any time.  But this has a special significance because it follows in the wake of a series of scandals involving the Obama administration's abuse of political power and the abuse of confidential information.

The president's supporters excuse these previous scandals on the basis that government is now so big, politicians can't control what bureaucrats do.

Obama's former campaign adviser David Axelrod said last month there's no way the president could have known the Internal Revenue Service was targeting his political opponents.  Axelrod explained:  ''You know we have a large government'' and ''the government is so vast''.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat House Minority Leader used similar lines.  Of course, in 2010 she famously said of the legislation to put Obamacare into effect:  ''We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.''  (Obamacare has so far generated 20,000 pages of regulations.)

People are entitled to be sceptical when those who want government to get even bigger admit government is already too big for anyone to control it.

The director of the US National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, said a few days ago that when it comes to national security, ''I want the American people to know we're trying to be transparent here, protect civil liberties and privacy while also protecting the country ... Everything depends on trust ...  We operate in a way that ensures we keep the trust of the American people because that trust is a sacred requirement.''

Sometimes trust is breached deliberately and unlawfully.  But what is even more worrying is that sometimes, as Axelrod suggests, those running the government might not know who is listening to what and they are therefore powerless to control it.


Certainly the security agencies of Western democracies need the capacity and capability to keep their citizens safe.  But limits on the vast potential power of those security agencies must be the subject of public debate.  Given the track record of government, it is not enough for intelligence chiefs to say ''trust us''.

In March, the Director of the American National Intelligence, James Clapper, was asked by a senator in a US Senate hearing:  ''Does the [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?''  Clapper replied:  ''No, sir.  Not wittingly.  There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect — but not wittingly.''  We now know that answer is untrue.  Clapper has subsequently said he tried to give ''the most truthful or least untruthful'' answer he could.  There's not much chance of politicians getting control over their government when government officials treat them as Clapper did.

Republican senator Rand Paul has put it neatly:  ''What is objectionable is a system in which government has unlimited and privileged access to the details of our private affairs, and citizens are simply supposed to trust there won't be any abuse of power.  This is an absurd expectation.  Americans should trust the National Security Agency as much as they do the IRS and Justice Department.''

Australians should pay close attention to what's occurring in America.  At least in that country there's a public debate about government surveillance of its citizens.  There's no such similar debate here.

Last year at an Australian parliamentary inquiry when I said the federal government should not force technology companies to monitor the phone and internet records of every single Australian, Labor MP Michael Danby accused me of taking a ''one-eyed view of extreme civil liberties''.

That was a revealing comment from Danby.  It shows the world has changed.  It is now an ''extreme'' view of ''civil liberty'' to argue the government, and people like James Clapper who work for the government, should not automatically have access to your phone or computer.

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