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NSA Leaks: Balancing Freedom and Security

by Brandon Fallon, published

A balance usually means that both sides have equal weight or standing. It could mean anything as mundane as putting the right amount of oregano and garlic on a slice of pizza. In a legal sense, there is a balance where the punishment should meet the crime. In politics there are checks and balances to ensure no one branch of government or political party receives too much power. These are relatively easy ideas to learn starting in a high school class on civics and government or by trial and error.

What is much harder to understanding is striking the correct balance between abstract concepts such as freedom and security. The line between the two is getting thinner as one’s freedom is slowly being relieved in order to be be protected from unknown threats. Removing the NSA leaks earlier in the summer, the threats are still unknown but constantly present, meaning surveillance must remain. Just because people didn't know about it did not mean they were being watched.

Balancing freedom with security is at the center of the NSA surveillance argument and what the review panel has to find a way to achieve. The recently named panelists include intelligence-insiders such as former acting-CIA director, Michael Morell, and Peter Swire, a former Obama aide and President Clinton’s chief counselor for privacy. These individuals form an independent group meant to see how far the intelligence community can go while making sure people who have nothing to do with terrorist plots keep their information private.

A recipe for universal disaster is when freedom or security has to be limited for the other to be strong. The intelligence community’s purpose is to protect the country from threats both foreign and domestic. Their method is to gather data and investigating leads. The tactics must be hidden in order to prevent the targets from feel like they are being watched. As the stakes rise, privacy is becoming more of a myth, a faux freedom.

Civil liberties such as privacy are inherent in society. Just because the U.S. is the only country in the world with a Bill of Rights granting citizens such powers as the freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and due process, that does not stop those ideals from spreading across borders. These rights should be protected in light of unseen national threats. Perhaps the founding fathers would have agreed to secrecy at some level if lives were at stake. In other words, transparency is a good thing to have at some level, but secrets can protect lives.

The NSA has not had an easy time with the public. Last month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 57 percent of Americans favor the current types of investigations as opposed to 39 percent who respect privacy more. Current events have a large impact on these polls. The original NSA leaks and the more recent ones have maintained this news story near the front pages and in the public mind. They hurt the NSA’s public image and poll numbers will likely continue to express that. However, it should not be surprising that in June 2002 the percentage of people favoring investigations over privacy was at its height 79 percent, less than a year after 9/11. Current events play a factor, but public outrage or approval does not always stop what is going on in clandestine meetings.

It is not exactly as if the public could directly tell NSA chief General Keith Alexander or James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, what to do. That job is left to the politicians on Capitol Hill and there is a vast discrepancy of knowledge between what they know and their constituencies believe. Top-secret information, files, and missions can blur the line between freedom and security. What you don’t know, may protect you more than it hurts your sense of privacy.

Freedom can refer to many things, i.e. freedom of speech, religion, or freedom to marry who you wish. Security means something is safe, untouchable. The two often go together. You want your freedoms to be protected. There are safeguards in place to ensure this. The U.S. Constitution is the greatest defense. Balancing requires finding equilibrium where one side is even with the other. In a perfect world, freedom will always outweigh security because people will be safe regardless. This is not a perfect world so some freedom may be forfeited to keep you and your neighbors safe. Trade-offs are necessary to maintain safety.

The NSA leaks are not only an American issue. It has already turned into a global dilemma with a slippery slope if nothing is fixed soon. England does not have as many safeguards to protect their journalists so it is easier for the state to gather information on a reporter’s sources. Journalists and the media have to be wary of what they publish and say and their sources, once a constitutionally protected group in the U.S., have begun to be attacked; labeled as leaks and not whistle-blowers. The U.S. Constitution provides the basic ingredients for freedom, but not without limitations.

It seems like a paradox, but can freedom and security ever be balanced?

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