The prism is ugly, dark and deep

Faced with stinging criticism from some lawmakers, significant members of the press and a large number of civil rights activists, Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the hyper-secretive National Security Agency (NSA), on June 18 in open testimony before the House Intelligence Committee claimed that thanks to their clandestine eavesdropping programme, some 50 possible terrorist attacks directed at various US targets had been thwarted. Regardless of one’s sentiments about the propriety of the once covert programme, there is no particular reason for him to have dissembled about the apparent success of his agency in fending off these attacks.
Earlier, both the executive as well as many lawmakers had defended the programme on the ground that it did not involve actual examination of specific messages, that the content of phone calls was not available to NSA analysts and that a special court, convened under the aegis of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, had authorised these activities. This information, however, had failed to quell a growing tide of public furore and anger. Unable to contain the welling frustration of many, the NSA and, presumably, the Obama administration chose another tack to deflect criticism. The rationale that they have now offered is a strictly instrumental one — that the programme has kept the citizenry safe in a troubled world.
Assuming for the moment that there is no reason to doubt the veracity of Gen. Alexander’s testimony, how should those living in a democratic society based upon the rule of law feel about the existence of these programmes? The ramifications of these undercover programmes, especially as the technology for electronic eavesdropping becomes widely available, are not confined to the shores of the United States. In India, governments have been known to monitor electronic mail traffic and have attempted to scour social media that they deem to be inimical to national interest. Furthermore, if the world’s most powerful democracy with robust constitutional and normative safeguards against the violation of civil liberties can pursue this course with impunity, might not other democratic states facing similar terrorist threats feel tempted to do the same?
And indeed, if democratic states feel few compunctions about engaging in this form of electronic spying on their own citizenry, what are the lengths to which authoritarian states descend? Given the easy access to pertinent technology and the lack of any institutional forms of accountability, their behaviour may well become truly Orwellian. Furthermore, democratic states that have blotted their own copybooks would be in no position to cast aspersions on the behaviour of their repressive counterparts.
Apart from setting a terrible precedent that others may well feel tempted to emulate and justify, what are some of the other implications of the growth of this form of surveillance? A recent conversation with a senior colleague, a noted sociologist, underscored the critical danger that this form of surveillance poses for any democratic society. As far as one knows, the NSA’s programmes, which started under former US President George W. Bush and then continued under President Barack Obama, fell within the narrow confines of the law even if they may have violated the spirit thereof. The danger, of course, lies in the future and especially if this form of observation becomes routine. In effect, then, a certain group of individuals, in the name of protecting national security, would have virtually unlimited powers to probe the personal lives of the citizenry. Even if messages are not opened and calls not actually listened to regularly, they can nevertheless be compiled and collated. At an appropriate moment, these could well be subject to further scrutiny, thereby making personal privacy a matter of the past.
Most disturbingly, those entrusted with the power to peer into electronic communications would be technocrats. These individuals would not have to fear any form of public accountability. Indeed, taking a slightly cynical view, one can well imagine members of this branch of government adopting one or two possible tactics to fend off all possible scrutiny. They could easily collect information on the lawmakers themselves, on members of the judiciary and those in the press. Any attempt to discipline the intelligence-gathering organisation could lead to a quiet reminder of their extraordinary capabilities to probe the private lives of all and sundry.
Simultaneously, in the US and increasingly in India and elsewhere, it is becoming harder and harder to challenge decisions made on the grounds of protecting national security. Which lawmaker is likely to stare down a powerful national security bureaucrat who suggests that a particular programme, howsoever intrusive, is critical for the purposes of protecting the country from the threat of terror?
Global terror is real and both the US and India, along with many others, have been its victims. However, should the world’s most powerful and the world’s most populous democracies entrust the fate of their citizenry into the hands of what may well become a fourth (or third in the case of India) branch of government? In the name of securing the nation, both states may eventually erode some of their most cherished and fundamental values, thereby corroding the quality of their democracies.
It is not too early to sound the tocsin and provoke a sustained debate before a behemoth entity becomes an incubus of sorts in both countries.

The writer is the director of the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington

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