NEW YORK – Here’s a question I asked myself yesterday: Would I rather have my phone records collected and readied for possible inspection by the National Security Agency, or have my genitalia scrutinized by the Transportation Security Administration?
One answer, of course, is, why choose? In today’s America you can have both.
But my preference is the latter, and not only because the TSA Genitalia-Inspection Service has been doing its business on me (and you, too!) for years now and I’ve grown used to it in the way that Americans too-readily accept indignities foisted on them by large institutions, including, but not limited to, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Homeland Security and Facebook.
Here’s my reasoning: It is better, I think, to suffer the stick-‘em-up humiliation of the TSA’s naked body scan machines, because while they can see through our clothes, at least they can’t see inside our heads. Not yet, anyway.
By the way, careful readers may recall that I was one of the original Opt-Outers, those bold travelers who swore never to subject themselves to full-body scans, and would choose instead the manual TSA pat-down. I found the artisanal grope session more emotionally satisfying (if more physically creepy) because I knew that it flummoxed the TSA. But the TSA quickly caught on to the Opt-Outers, and now makes the pat-down so inconvenient (delaying it, on occasion, for five or 10 precious minutes) that when I’m running late for a plane, I submit to the porn-scan. It’s beginning to seem normal to me, unfortunately.
This is the E-ZPass Theory of government intrusion: Most people, when faced with a choice between privacy and convenience, will go with convenience. E-ZPass, of course, provides government agencies with an efficient way of tracking your movements up and down the New Jersey Turnpike, but who cares? The line at the tollbooth is so much shorter.
The corollary to the E-ZPass Theory is the TSA Theory of Gradual Habituation: Organizations like the TSA have worked to soften us up, to make us accustomed to the gradual theft of our right to privacy. I wouldn’t be surprised if clever government bureaucrats looked at the public’s bovine-like acceptance of its collective loss of dignity at the nation’s airports and realized that massive, invasive data collection wouldn’t spark a revolution.
I don’t think that these latest revelations about the NSA — that it is constructing a huge database of Americans’ phone-call data, and that it seems to be trying to build the capability to watch everything done on Google and Facebook — will turn the majority of Americans into rabid Rand Paulites. A New York Times/CBS poll taken shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings found that only 20 percent of respondents said the government had restricted civil liberties too drastically in the struggle against terrorism; 26 percent said the government hadn’t gone far enough.
One reason I doubt these latest disclosures will move many people into the libertarian column is that the source, a former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden, has washed up in Hong Kong, where he has been railing against the “omniscient” power of the U.S. government. Most Americans understand intuitively that a person who believes that a city-state under the ultimate authority of the Chinese Communist Party is superior to the U.S. in its protection of freedom isn’t fit to comment intelligently on the state of privacy in the post-Sept. 11 world. As Evan Osnos wrote on the New Yorker website, “going to Hong Kong out of devotion to free speech is a bit like going to Tibet out of a devotion to Buddhism.”
A larger reason is that many Americans understand that our country actually does face a threat from Islamist violence (see, for instance, the Boston bombings, and dozens of plots, both successful and unconsummated, before them), and that the collection and analysis of data by our intelligence agencies seems somewhat benign when compared to, say, the mass deployment of assassination drones.
Which brings me to a main concern: the general competence of said intelligence agencies. The NSA — which obviously does an excellent job collecting data that may save lives — apparently didn’t understand, or care, that a disaffected, self-aggrandizing 29-year-old libertarian had seemingly untrammeled access to some of its most highly classified programs. How can the White House assure us that they’re protecting the country from terrorism if the NSA can’t protect its own secrets?
And if it can’t protect its own secrets, what makes it competent to protect ours? Let’s assume that the NSA one day will be, as a matter of course, sweeping up medical records, or records of all purchases made on Amazon.com, in its hunt for patterns of I-don’t-know-what. Would you trust the NSA to keep those records private? Of course not. How could you?
At this point, I’d sooner trust the penknife-seizing, sweater-vest-wearing warriors of the TSA to protect us from terrorism.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.