Spying on The Home Front

Published 01 Dec 2016

To talk of overbroad and sweeping driftnets to intercept alleged messages of National concern, without means to assure the American citizens of a narrowly tailored measure to zero in on specific terrorist activity, in the name of a supervening State duty to fight imminent threats against the country, is to consent to unrestrained exercises of Police Power that are absolutely repugnant to the Constitution and its tenets.

The protection of a private individual’s Civil liberties is not subject to compromise. His rights to be left alone, to be free from State intervention and to be guaranteed a shield against State security entanglements are highlights of a democratic sovereign. The moment that the State trumps these rights under the justification that the present situation calls for drastic and unusual means to combat the enemy, the Constitution, which has been the shrine of liberty and freedom since its foundation, the very bastion of the people sovereign, is at once violated.

Time and again, the courts have ruled against any form of intrusion into people’s private lives. Federal laws, such as the FISA law, seek to discourage fishing expeditions, indiscriminate guesswork and blanket approaches to collect information among the populace (Spying on the Home Front, 2007). In fact, illegally obtained evidence sparked by warrant-less searches and investigation are deemed inadmissible in courts. This is because the law prevents the State to profit from its misdeeds. Indeed, a violation of such rights of a single person is already one too many. Therefore, to the issue whether or not it is in any legally and morally justified for the executive to set aside restrictions to its power made by the congress and the Constitution in the name of the “war of terror”, the answer must be on the negative.

On this point, the PBS special “Spying on the Home Front” reveals just how much the administration has brushed aside the legally recognized processes of investigation and surveillance to permit unprecedented access to personal communication among innocent American civilians. The National Security Agency (NSA) has been specifically designed to intercept dangerous communication with the hope of catching the criminals even before they take overt acts to carry out their plans (Spying on the Home Front, 2007). Accordingly, the agency at first followed the principle that investigations must exclude domestic correspondences—in other words it adopted a hands-off doctrine when it comes to civilians. However, in the last few decades and more so in light of the 9/11 terror attacks, the NSA, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used its expertise and tools to spy on the American people (Spying on the Home Front, 2007). A former NSA agent, confides that the agency has figured into several random acts of espionage of civilians without due authorization from the courts. The Watergate Scandal, for the first time, raises the issues on illegal intrusion activities done by the State. It is later discovered during the committee hearings that these agencies have been working together to look into documents, issuances, utterance and communications of a private nature, otherwise known as the Shamrock Operation (Spying on the Home Front, 2007). Consequently, this led to the drafting of a bill which sought to enjoin law enforcement and its specialized departments from tapping into phone lines and mail among others (Spying on the Home Front, 2007).

Former NSA analysts Weaver and Connelly adumbrate the myriad ways that the NSA can sift through a mass of information across the Globe and collect them in databases for future retrieval. The exact metaphor used to describe NSA’s capabilities is “sucking up voluminous information in the internet, phone and mail in one sweep in a process called full-scale data mining” (Spying on the Home Front, 2007). In this same process, NSA does not discriminate between illegal data and data produced by the average person. What it does is to grab at everything it can lay its hands on, and because the NSA has full access to co-terminal points of the web, this means that the amount of information that they can gather is almost just as every byte and nibble that is being produced in the entire network. Every person who is linked via the World Wide Web is no longer safe from the “Big Brother” tendencies of the State. Orwell’s novel “1984” is a better metaphor to describe how the mandate of President George Bush to counter terrorism through intelligence efforts has spread in scope and extent far beyond what is originally intended.

Speaking in behalf of and for the President, John Yoo argues that war changes everything; that by its nature, war “expands the power of the presidency and expands the power of the national government as a whole” (Interview with John Yoo, 2007). He invites us to rethink our traditional policies and take a shift in paradigm because the enemies that the state is against calls for an entirely different set of tactics. John Yoo, the mind behind the Patriot Act, is convinced that the power of the President can be expanded to cover new forms of state threats. He says that it is high time that Legislative and Judicial departments “pull down self-imposed restraints […] that had hamstrung our government from being able to track down and defeat Al Qaeda terrorist cells in our country” (Interview with John Yoo, 2007). In effect, what John Yoo is saying is that desperate times call for desperate measures. But where do you draw the line from desperation viz. restraint on certain liberties to abject disregard for a person’s constitutionally protected rights?

Another crucial problem in that sort of justification is that the agencies, whom the President granted full discretionary power in order that another terror attack can be prevented, have taken their obligation to protect the country far a-field the legal and moral provinces recognized by the Constitution, and turned it into a license to step on the private domains of the commerce of innocent civilians. As such, they comb the vast oceans of thought, information and conduct of every individual in one huge dragnet just to catch a number of criminals. A method deemed unconscionable to the average person and by the law. If there were anything that the terrorists have been more successful at other than the 9/11 attacks, is that they effectively set the United States into a flurry of acts that disregard the rule of law and the individuals. Indeed, terror of this kind on the home front surpasses any other, and the administration and state itself just happen to be the one perpetuating it.


  • Smith, H. & Young, R. (2007). Spying on the home front. 15 May 2007. PBS Special: Frontline. John Wilkes Studio. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/homefront/.
  • Interview with John Yoo. (2007). 15 May 2007. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/homefront/interviews/yoo.html.
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