Debate over domestic surveillance

Speakers David Cole (far left) and Eric Posner (far right) argue over the role of the National Security Agency on Thursday, Sept. 26.

Speakers David Cole (far left) and Eric Posner (far right) argue over the role of the National Security Agency on Thursday, Sept. 26.

Around the nation, academic institutions celebrated the signing of the Constitution on Constitution Day, Sept. 17. Christopher Newport University celebrated with a debate asking a question relating to current events – Is the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic surveillance constitutional?
According to the controversial Edward Snowden leaks from last May, the NSA has been secretly collecting information about American citizens since 2006. This information, called metadata, is gathered from phone companies and includes details such as whom you call or text, when you call or text, and where you’re using your phone. This allows them to, at any time, pull up your information to track you and identify whom you associate with. This program allows the NSA to cast a wide net to find terrorists and associates of known terrorists to prevent future attacks.
The debate on Thursday, Sept. 26 included speakers Eric Posner and David Cole. Eric Posner is a Kirkland & Ellis Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Aaron Director Research Scholar at the University of Chicago. David Cole teaches constitutional law, national security, and criminal justice at Georgetown University Law Center.
Posner argued that the NSA’s surveillance is benevolent, saying the information they collect is not to “harass you, intimidate or blackmail you.” He claimed that the NSA’s surveillance does not infringe on the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects individual privacies and is the basis for the requirement for search warrants in investigations. According to Posner, Fourth Amendment rights are not violated because the search is not unreasonable. The data is not looked at, only stored, and there is no intrusion. He went on to say the “information is not of importance to you” and is similar to the way Google stores and uses information about you when you search.
Cole disagreed. Not only do they collect our information, he said, but they lied about it. “There is something fundamentally wrong when in a democracy, a government representing us, collects data about us without our knowledge,” he said. He is “against secret laws advanced by secret agencies approved by secret courts in secret that are only revealed when someone…leaks it.” He claimed we do not know the extent to which the NSA can track our geographical location or if there are any possibilities of abuse of the information that is gathered.
Most students were indifferent or in favor of these measures. Junior James Imoehl said that it “doesn’t really bother me very much as long as it’s not being violated.”Sophomore Alexandra Cook stated another stance:“I’m not doing anything illegal so I know there’s no threat,” she said.
Others, such as sophomore Lia Gayle, look at it from an objective cost perspective. “I definitely think the benefits outweighs the cost to privacy,” she said. “[But] if we’re not getting anything out of it and we’re putting so much money and energy into it, there’s no point to it.”
Visiting assistant professor of leadership and American studies Dr. Carl Scott agreed. “If, over time, we see that there are not many plots that are prevented, then maybe the calculation will be that the program is not worth the money. Both political parties may think it’s not worth the political cost they may pay for supporting it.”
Some are more frustrated with the secrecy and tactics of the program. Sophomore Emma Berry pointed out, “Supporters of this program argue that if someone doesn’t have anything to hide, they have nothing to worry about; however, the NSA was hiding this program, was keeping it secret. By their own guidelines then, they were doing something wrong.”
Currently, the Senate Intelligence Committee is debating to “change, but preserve” this program, according to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), including a cap on how long information is stored. Other senators, such as Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO), are pushing for ban of such surveillance completely. As both speakers on Thursday stated, there is a delicate balance in democracy between secrecy and security. This is an issue that, as a nation, we must educate ourselves on and continually be aware of. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”