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Why We Get the Police State We Deserve—and What We Can Do to Fix That

Why We Get the Police State We Deserve—and What We Can Do to Fix That

In the first flush of stories about how the National Security Agency is surveilling American citizens, one stomach-turning revelation hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves: we get the surveillance state we deserve because rank political partisanship trumps bedrock principle every goddamn time on just about every goddamn issue.

The journalist Glenn Greenwald, who jump-started this overdue conversation on civil liberties and the war on terrorism, has promised that the revelations are just getting started. But nothing that comes out can be more dispiriting than the simple truth that Democrats and Republicans are both happy to love Big Brother as long as he’s got the right party affiliation.

In late 2005, The New York Times and others exposed broad-based, constitutionally dubious NSA surveillance programs of American citizens. If memory serves, there was a Republican in the White House, and the GOP held both houses of Congress too.

In January 2006, Pew Research asked whether it was OK to collect info on “people suspected of involvement with terrorism by secretly listening in on telephone calls and reading emails between some people in the United States and other countries, without first getting court approval to do so.” A slim majority of all respondents—51 percent—said yes while 47 percent said no.

The partisan breakdown, however, was vastly different, with 75 percent of Republicans finding it acceptable and just 23 percent dissenting. When it came the Democrats, only 37 percent of Democrats signed off on NSA snooping, with a whopping 61 percent saying screw off.

Fast-forward to June 2013, when a Democrat occupies the Oval Office after an easy reelection and his party controls the Senate. Pew asked respondents whether it’s OK that the NSA “has been getting secret court orders to track telephone calls of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” This time around, it’s Democrats who overwhelmingly support collecting collecting yottabytes and exabytes of metadata on us all, with 64 percent saying they are totally fine with NSA surveillance programs and a measly 34 percent disagreeing. Among Republicans, enthusiasm for eye-in-the-sky surveillance has taken a major hit, with only 52 percent agreeing and 47 percent saying no.

(Don’t let the constitutional fig leaf about “secret court orders” in the newer version of Pew’s question fool you. To the extent that anyone knows anything about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, they know it’s a freaky hybrid of a kangaroo and a rubber stamp that even Dr. Moreau couldn’t have conceived at his most demented. In roughly 34,000 requests spanning 33 years, FISA courts have turned down applicants for surveillance orders a total of 11 times.)

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