Grassroots Commentary

On NSA Spying: A Golden Opportunity for Conservatives

By Ben Lewis · Nov. 19, 2013

President Obama has a mess on his hands.

Recent developments have belied Obama’s reputation first as a peace and civil liberties candidate and later a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. The news that Obama’s National Security Agency is spying on US citizens without due process was a shock to many who bought into the President’s facade.

Liberals who had for the better part of a decade condemned George W. Bush’s civil rights record have suddenly found themselves in the uncomfortable position of either criticizing their guy or giving up on their stated principles.

But as much as this issue is a quandary for liberals, it is no less so for the conservatives who are now criticizing Obama and the NSA. That’s because for most of the 21st century, the right has argued in favor of big-government policies that were theoretically designed to protect Americans from danger.

In fact, as far back as 2005, the Bush administration was charged with eavesdropping on US citizens without obtaining warrants. Despite the rationalizations provided by members of the administration, notably John Yoo, there were rumblings at that time that the NSA spying of the early aughts was as much about politics as it was security. Fast forward eight years and those are the exact charges being leveled at Obama.

Conservatives, who typically argue that politicians can’t be trusted with large amounts of power, repeatedly defended Bush and actually advocated for warrantless wiretapping, the indefinite detention of US citizens, and unprecedented violations of Americans' basic rights everywhere from the airport terminal to the banker’s office.

With recent revelations about the extent of the NSA’s spying programs, conservatives have a golden opportunity to hit the reset button and reassess the wisdom of their support for these programs.

It’s easy enough to write this issue off as the cost of being safe in a dangerous world. One might even be excused for thinking that it’s good that Washington can keep a close eye on the bad guys.

But what NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed was that the NSA isn’t just spying on the bad guys. They’re spying on everyone. That includes you and me. It also includes allied diplomats and politicians, with some reports indicating that even the Pope isn’t above the NSA’s snooping.

What’s worse, the people responsible for spying on us also have the ability to arbitrarily decide who the bad guys are. Remember, it was Janet Napolitano, Obama’s former chief of Homeland Security, who once released official documents labeling conservatives and military veterans as potential terrorists. And it was Obama’s IRS that was outed for willfully targeting Tea Party groups for purely partisan reasons.

If politicians and bureaucrats are left with the power to spy on anyone they deem – without oversight – to be a “bad guy,” does the Fourth Amendment have any meaning left at all? As Lord Acton famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The liberals have proved this recently, but history shows that no ideology is above the temptation of power.

Conservatives once subscribed to what economist Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision,” the belief that people in power are likely to abuse that power – and that therefore rulers must be constrained by law.

Conservatives largely abandoned this fundamental belief during George W. Bush’s presidency. The external threats to our safety and freedom were so dangerous, we were told, that we needed to turn a blind eye to the fact that Washington was constructing a security apparatus that could easily be turned against us.

Today, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we continue down the path of unquestioned support of the expansion of government power, or do we return to our intellectual bedrock of limiting government and the people who run it? Given our knowledge of history and recent liberal abuses, the choice is clear to those brave enough to face it.

There are many steps that principled conservatives can take to protect our liberty against intrusive NSA spying.

Perhaps most promising are state-level efforts to create roadblocks to NSA spying that will be difficult for the Obama administration to overcome.

Life doesn’t always give us a second chance to do what is right. Conservatives should capture this opportunity to take the stand against government spying that we should have taken a decade ago.

Ben Lewis is a policy analyst for the Tenth Amendment Center and manages educational programs for the Center’s chapter in Ohio.