Privacy, security and sanity

What I keep longing to hear, in the hemorrhaging national debate about Edward Snowden, whistleblowing and the NSA, is some acknowledgment of what the word "security" actually means, and what role -- if any -- the government should play in creating it.

"You can't have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy."

A moment of silence, please, for the dying patriarchy. That, of course, was how President Obama explained it to the American public shortly after the spy scandal hit the fan. When did we become "the children" in our relationship with the government, irrelevant to its day-to-day operations, utterly powerless as we stand in its massive, protecting shadow?

If you want to be safe, boys and girls, we need to collect and store data about all the phone calls you make and all the emails you send, along with the phone calls and emails of nearly everyone else on the planet as well. This is just how it works. Privacy is nice, but the terrorists are out there, plotting stuff even as we speak. And that's really all you need to know -- that we're working round the clock to stop them and keep you safe.

When government officials aren't outright lying about what they're up to, this is the argument they revert to, in the process making an extremely important point: The issue here is sanity. As James Bamford, a security expert who has written four books about the NSA, put it in an interview last month with Politico, tracking all this data doesn't even make sense on its own terms; a data overload of such magnitude simply intensifies the difficulty of spotting a real threat. "It's just," he said, "insane."

Forget privacy. Our major institutions are mission-dysfunctional. "The NSA has this fetish for data, and will get it any way they can, and get as much as they can," security scholar Bruce Schneier told Bob Sullivan of NBC News. He compared it to the obsession of hoarders. And as Politico noted, the NSA has just opened a $2 billion data center outside Salt Lake City, Utah, where it will "store electronic information measured in quantities of 'zettabytes'" -- or sextillions.

Three years ago, the Washington Post ran a lengthy expose of our run-amok security state, which, ingrained since the Cold War, exploded exponentially during the Bush-Cheney years, and has continued to grow under Obama. According to the Post, "Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States." An estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances. And, in and around Washington, D.C., "33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001."

Reflecting on all this at the time, I wrote: "The money we've poured into the intelligence industry in the last decade -- expanding exponentially the worst excesses of the Cold War -- has done more than gum up the wheels of government. It has usurped much of what remained of its legitimacy. The more secrets the government keeps from us, the less it belongs to us. In the Secrecy State, no one extols the value of openness. But a government that isn't open is not a democracy."

Even as it violates the privacy of much of the planet, the government is adamant about keeping its own secrets, and the biggest secret of all is that a dangerous force is on the loose within it.

It's wasting absurd billions on counterproductive pseudo-security that makes us less secure, but that's the whole point. The security, armaments and prison complexes -- the major drains of our national wealth -- are committed to a perpetual battle with The Enemy, with bogeymen and terrorists, who exist in objective independence from our own activities. In other words, only force and stealth will keep us safe. As long as they can sell that illusion, they can hide behind it and keep growing.

But the void in this debate is at the very center: at the nature of security. If we put more energy and resources into creating a fair world -- building society around common sense, the Golden Rule, universal access to decent education, environmental sustainability and nonviolent conflict resolution -- we'd reap immediate and long-lasting benefits.

What I find immensely frustrating is that the national discussion about security never goes this far. The NSA's fiercest critics blast its practices but seem to stop at a call for more oversight and transparency -- which will only last until the scandal fades from the news or until the next Boston Marathon-type tragedy explodes in the headlines.

The issue of security will never be sensibly addressed until we can talk about it in a holistic context and acknowledge that we -- the whole planet -- are caught together in a single, interlaced web of danger. And that danger comes more from our own governments and other powerful institutions -- the provocateurs of so much inequality and conflict -- than it does from loners with grievances or fanatics carrying out orders.

Getting a handle on human security means understanding that no one acts alone.

(Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.)

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