The president of the United States, most of Congress, the intelligence community, and virtually every institution in Washington wants to extend a Faustian bargain on domestic spying. "Trust us," they say. We can't. We won't. Even when there's no other choice.
No matter where you stand on the debate over renewing the USA Patriot Act, understand that the greatest threat to democracy is not the rise of ISIS, Iran, and "lone wolf" attacks. While those are real and present dangers, the greater threat is this: Americans no longer trusting the people and institutions protecting them.
A 50-year slide in the public's faith in government, which began with the dishonesty of the Vietnam War, continues with the duplicity of the post-9/11 "war on terrorism." One example: The National Security Agency began secretly collecting phone records of millions of Americans after the September 11, 2001, attacks and gained reauthorization, again in secret, by a special court under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. That provision expired Sunday.
A federal appeals court ruled in May that seizing data about Americans' telephone calls goes beyond what Congress intended when it wrote Section 215. The three-judge panel based its ruling on the simple fact that Congress could not have approved "a program of which many members of Congress—and all members of the public—were not aware."
Americans and most of Congress would still be in the dark without whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor now called a traitor by the people who ran the secret program.
Oh, and they lied about it.
Well before Snowden's revelations, intelligence chief James Clapper was asked in a Senate hearing whether the NSA collects "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." He said no, knowing that the statement was false. "Not wittingly," he said. "There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly."
Clapper's boss, Barack Obama, promised as a candidate in 2008 to trim Bush-era terrorism tactics and strike a better balance between security and liberty. Instead, he secretly expanded the national security state. Polls show he paid a price, both with voters (primarily young and liberal) who don't trust the intelligence community and with less-ideological Americans who've simply lost their trust in him.
Now the president wants people to believe that a reauthorization bill, with its own Orwellian title, the USA Freedom Act, will include "more transparency" and "help build confidence among the American people that your privacy and civil liberties are being protected."
We want to believe him. We need to believe him. He's the commander in chief, and there is a legitimate need to adapt the civil liberties regime to the 21st century.
But we can't trust him, not after he broke his word and allowed Clapper to lie.
A Republican who hopes to replace Obama, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, says, "There's not a shred of evidence that the metadata program has violated anybody's civil rights."
Bush can't be trusted, either. After all, there's not a shred of evidence that the program has stopped a terrorist threat. And you might recall the invasion bias, the cherry-picked evidence and the false statements that helped sell the Iraq War started by his brother, with prodding from hawks who now work for Jeb Bush.
The likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, seems allergic to transparency and accountability, tarnishing her tenure as secretary of State with email and family charity decisions that raise all sorts of questions about her integrity. The amazing part about it: Clinton's team dismisses polls showing a majority of Americans don't trust her because, in the words of a longtime friend and adviser, "Trust doesn't matter."
I beg to differ.
This isn't a mere political problem, something that can be glossed over with talking points or surmounted in a campaign against a weaker opponent. It's a crisis. When the American people can't trust their leaders, they can't be led.