Civil Liberties

Who Cares if NSA Snooping Is Legal? It's Still Disgusting.

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Dianne Feinstein
U.S. Government

Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, assures us that National Security Agency snooping on phone records (and, presumably, on Internet traffic) is "legal." Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee (pictured at right), also promises that the program is legal and insists it's "simply a court reauthorization of a program." Asked about the snooping, Attorney General Eric Holder says "[m]embers of Congress have been fully briefed as these issues — these matters have been underway," implying that all is well since lawmakers have been in the know, even if some of those legislators have clearly been horrified and tried to alert the public within the limits of the muzzling rules to which they were subject. Maybe the NSA spying is legal. So what? It's still creepy, disturbing and completely unacceptable in a society that calls itself "free."

Perhaps the most oversused word in the English language, at least when it comes to government officials justifying their actions, is "legal." The word merely means that government officials jumped through the nominally appropriate rituals required to authorize themselves to do something. It doesn't mean the something they authorized themselves to do is respectful of the rights of others, morally upstanding, or wise. Pass a constitutional amendment (or just repeal a few laws in many countries) and you could even make rape and murder "legal." But they'd still be offenses against human rights and simple decency.

At the end of the day, when it comes to government snooping on the phone records and Internet activity of millions of Americans, it doesn't matter in the least if it's legal or if procedures were followed. What matters is that the privacy of millions of people has been violated without probable cause or suspicion of wrongdoing, simply so the government could scoop up data on the off chance of finding something interesting. Rogers and Feinstein assure us that broad snooping, without cause, "thwarted" a domestic terror plot. OK. And kicking in the doors of every American citizen would, no doubt, uncover criminal activity. That's not good enough.

Free people don't tolerate government officials who think "legal" trumps "right." We can do a hell of a lot better than the likes of Feinstein, Rogers and Holder assuring us that they did good because they gave themselves permission to do evil.