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Blog: NSA Surveillance, the Boston Bombing, and Political Incentives

 

by Walton Milam, Associate Staff

 

The National Security Agency’s surveillance of domestic electronic communication has garnered much attention in recent months.  The NSA apparently has access to immense databases that the government claims will protect Americans from international and domestic terrorist threats.  While the extent of the NSA’s surveillance remains a mystery, the government clearly has the capability to collect data regarding personal communications.  Many opposed to the surveillance fear a slippery slope through which the NSA will eventually monitor individual electronic activity without end.  Some including the ACLU suggest monitoring phone calls, text messages, and email violates first amendment rights.  Supporters of the surveillance claim the data collection will be directed only at identifying and monitoring potential threats to United States.  These supporters include President Obama who claims the surveillance is “circumscribed, narrow system, directed at us being able to protect our people, and all of it is done under the oversight of the courts.”[1]

 

Regardless of the merits of those arguing for or against surveillance, it is likely that NSA surveillance is here to stay as public opinion and as a result politicians will favor homeland security above all else.  Homeland security, for better or worse, has emerged as a dogma in American politics that few politicians seeking reelection dare speak against.  In the wake of the Boston Bombing, where surveillance technology proved particularly helpful in catching the culprits, American sentiment is likely particularly favorable to increased surveillance.  Any politician who opposed NSA surveillance will almost assuredly be met with fear-mongering from opponents who will claim opposition to surveillance equals opposition to homeland security, a cardinal political sin.  At this point, all American voters will have lived through 9/11, the Boston Bombings, the Virginia Tech massacre, and the Sandy Hook school shooting. The vast majority is old enough to remember the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.  Thus, National Security remains at the forefront in voters’ minds. 

 

To wage successful campaigns, politicians must meet the demands of their constituents.  With national security such a prominent issue that politicians can ill-afford to oppose, it is unlikely that any substantial group of politicians will gain enough clout to create legislation ending the NSA’s surveillance.  Opponents of NSA surveillance thus likely stand the best chance of ending or limiting the surveillance in the courtroom.  A number of cases have already been filed.[2]  Major telecommunications companies have a dog in the hunt as their consumers may be upset with having data about their communications parlayed to the government.  These companies will likely be primary sponsors of lawsuits against the government seeking an injunction against the NSA’s continued surveillance.

 

While those opposing NSA surveillance have shout loudly and frequently make headlines on NPR, Fox, CNN, and NBC, it is likely these shouts will not be heard in the Capitol where politicians face major incentives to act like they care more about national security than individual rights that may or may not be infringed by NSA surveillance.




[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/19/barack-obama-nsa-people-emails

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/17/nsa-court-challenges-tech-firms

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