How much longer can America afford to be so pathologically paranoid?

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on December 31, 2013

From The News Desk

Historically, our nation has boasted three branches of government: the legislative, judicial, and executive. As you likely recall from school, the legislative branch makes the laws, the judiciary interprets them, and the executive branch (i.e. the President and the justice department) enforces them.

Over the past decade, however, another branch of government has emerged, and it dwarfs the other three. It's powerful, skirts our laws, and composed of three core entities: the military; the Department of Homeland Security, which encompasses airport security, and 15 intelligence services (National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, etc.). All exist to protect America and its citizens from enemies -- both real and imagined. We might call it the paranoid branch.

Our post-9/11 paranoia doesn't come cheaply, though. We Americans spend nearly a quarter of every dollar we generate as a nation on the military ($682 billion), Homeland Security (about $60 billion), and 15 intelligence agencies (combined perhaps $75 billion). While our government raced through some $3.67 trillion in 2013 it took in only $2.77 trillion in revenue, which means it has to borrow about $900 billion just to stay afloat.

Of the money the United States raises from its citizens, more than $1.7 trillion is spent on salving our collective paranoia or borrowed from banks and nations. That's 40+ percent of the total.

This teeming conglomeration of paranoid government agencies is out of control. We spend more on defense than the next 10 nations (including China, Russia, the UK, Japan) combined. The NSA's budget is -- you guessed it! -- classified, but in the past made up about 14 percent of total intelligence agency outlays. With all this money, the NSA has almost unlimited capability to log our every computer keystroke, eavesdrop on our laptops from miles away, maintain access to our iPhones, and eavesdrop on our phone calls.

The rationale given by our elected officials and their appointees who populate this paranoid branch of government is that it is all done for our own good. They'd tell us more but secrecy must be maintained. Trust us, they say. Unfortunately, too often our government has lied to its citizens.

Of course, whenever someone cites Hitler or Nazis in a political discussion, they've lost the debate. Still, I can't help but think the government's handling of its burgeoning security state is reminiscent of another dark period in American history: the McCarthy era.

Joseph McCarthy pointed to the amorphous and constant threat of godless communism to ruin lives. He had his list of communist sympathizers, which he kept secret, and we have our 'no fly' list, barring people from flying or attracting extra attention from security at airports. McCarthy enlisted the assistance of the FBI go after alleged "communist sympathizers" and we have the powerful NSA snooping on foreign leaders and Americans alike.

"Today," McCarthy said in his famous "Enemies from Within" speech, "we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity."

Substitute "terrorism" for "communistic atheism" and "America" for "Christianity" you end up with the current approach of the US government.

Much of the fuzziness around privacy comes from the inherent difficulty in defining it and distinguishing it from "anonymity." If privacy is, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis proposed eight decades ago, "the right to be left alone -- the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men," which he included as part of a set of conditions "favorable to the pursuit of happiness" laid down by the founding fathers in the Constitution -- how would he view the NSA?

If privacy is "the state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion" -- that's the American Heritage Dictionary definition -- what about our government keeping tabs on you in the off chance case you hobnob with terrorists. If "privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world," a view tendered in the essay "A Cypherpunk's Manifesto," then an intelligence agency that can crack our encryption, access our iPhones and laptops through built-in backdoors, and eavesdrop on our conversations, would appear to violate that.

I realize when I leave my home I have little expectation of anonymity. Walking down the street, I expect someone might recognize me. As technology has quietly insinuated itself into all manner of personal, commercial, and governmental transactions, the amount of data on all of us has exploded. Over the course of a day the typical American is captured on camera 200 times -- at traffic lights and paying highway tolls, withdrawing money from ATMs, shopping in convenience stores, and a tiny fraction caught committing crimes. Within a 20-block radius of New York University, where I teach, there are more than 500 surveillance cameras. Credit rating agencies like TransUnion, Equifax and Experian sell access to our financial histories. Credit cards chart our purchases and our web searches offer a glimpse of what we are thinking.

In the past all of this information was secreted in far-flung places. Now the NSA and other intelligence services are able to, as Army Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, put it, "connect the dots." Not surprisingly he credits the NSA for America's safety. Over five months, terrorists killed thousands in, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen, he said, "yet not one major terrorist incident in the United States since 9/11. That's not by accident."

Even as President Barack Obama has raised questions about how far this security state extends, which he says has "raised difficult questions about the balance we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy," every new day brings a new revelation about the actions of our intelligence services.

Unfortunately, dismantling this paranoid branch of our government requires a political solution that must be set in motion by a dysfunctional Congress hobbled by ideological differences.

Nevertheless, we have little choice. Our paranoid world view as a nation is not only robbing us of our privacy (no matter how you define it) it's bankrupting us.

Image via wikipedia