As the news surrounding a former National Security Agency contractor plays out like a “Where’s Waldo” book, area politicos are concerned that perhaps the government has gone too far with some of its surveillance programs.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden hopped from Hong Kong to Moscow more than a week ago as the U.S. government sought his extradition. He faces espionage and theft charges related to the release of government documents.
The case is the latest in a series of leaks that have led to concerns over how much individual privacy, government secrecy and freedom have changed since the war on terror began.
For Mike Bissett, head of the McHenry County Democratic Party, said the case has raised questions over the scope and methods being used to gather intelligence. He understands the need for secrecy but said there is still a need to keep the public informed.
The question is how much of the surveillance is necessary and how much has been overreach, he said.
He’s not questioning the work intelligence officials do, so much as how they do it and whether there is a way to do it that perhaps may require more work but would not infringe on people’s privacy.
Despite being on the other side of the political aisle, state Rep. Mike Tryon, a Republican from Crystal Lake, doesn’t necessarily disagree.
The Patriot Act and other laws that gave the government “superpowers” to use against citizens who aren’t suspects “went too far,” he said.
But top officials and some congressional leaders, including the head of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander, defended the data mining and surveillance programs by saying they have prevented “dozens” of terrorist attacks.
Perhaps it would help if the public knew more about these successes and had avenues to determine whether data were being misused, said Tryon, who also serves as the head of the McHenry County Republican Party.
The Obama administration is following the law, though, said Gregory Fried, the chairman of the philosophy department at Suffolk University. That is a “significant difference” from the Bush administration when this same type of data was collected but the law didn’t allow for it.
Fried compared the collection of “metadata” – information on when, to whom and from whom online and telecommunications are being sent – to knowing that a suspect in a murder case is wearing a green trench coat, so the police go out looking for someone who matches that description.
Fried co-wrote a book that looks at torture, privacy and presidential power under the war on terror with his father, Charles Fried, a law professor at Harvard University, in which they argue that privacy isn’t an absolute right.
If privacy were an absolute right, it would be virtually impossible to investigate anyone until after a crime had occurred and perhaps only in a limited way then, he said. It’s a matter of balancing the two concerns.
“If it were up to me, I would be willing to accept a bit more risk for the sake of privacy, but I’m not a government official responsible for the safety of the American people,” Fried said.
It’s not just larger-than-life national issues that have some local leaders thinking about whether civil liberties are being eroded.
Tryon pointed to land-use restrictions, which he said can go too far in limiting what property owners can do with their land.
Tryon would like to see a way for property owners to question the constitutionality of local zoning codes and regulations without having to take it through the court process.
“I’ve always been amazed that you can pass laws at the local level without worrying about constitutionality,” he said.
On the other side of the partisan divide, Bissett raised concerns over laws being passed in other states that dictate what doctors must say to patients considering abortions.
“The government is starting to tell people what to think, certainly telling us what we’re allowed to say, and that’s a problem,” he said.