By Gadeir Abbas
There was a time not long ago when the vast size of our world and the sheer number of people inhabiting it provided a degree of privacy protection against an intrusive government. No government could monitor everything that happened everywhere. So instead, governments had to pick and choose who to follow, what to listen to, and which information to collect. God might be omniscient, but we hoped our government never would be.
Unfortunately, we now know that there are places in the world in which the United States is omniscient. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this week that the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to "collect, sort, and make available every Iraqi email, text message, and phone-location signal in real time."
Last month we learned from the Washington Post that, through an NSA program called MYSTIC, the agency is making a recording of all phone calls that occur in an entire undisclosed country. And the NSA has not been reluctant to extend its reach. Last year's intelligence budget provided the NSA the opportunity to extend its gaze to an additional five nations.
The NSA can now reduce to zeroes and ones the life of whole nations. The government no longer needs to pick and choose what information to collect. They can know it all. The privacy protections afforded by being just one person among many no longer apply.
And while the United States developed this monitoring capacity in secret, citizens must now decide for themselves whether their government should have it. One would hope that this question -- whether omniscience is an appropriate policy objective -- answers itself.
Just consider for a moment the recordings and intercepts the United States has now collected from half a dozen countries in the world -- calls to the doctor to discuss a complicated pregnancy, messages from a mother informing her children of their father's death, conversations between youngsters in love, pleas for help from those in dire financial straits -- the NSA would have a record of all these otherwise fleeting interactions stored away for as long as it likes.
It does not make one a terrorist sympathizer to find this objectionable. The NSA should not spy on foreign populations in ways that make our stomachs churn and tyrants green with envy. Foreigners are people like us and desire privacy as much as we do. This must count for something.
Though foreigners are subject to the NSA's omniscience today, Americans inside our borders will be tomorrow. If we cannot muster the empathy to respect the privacy of innocent foreigners, let's just be selfish. Government omniscience anywhere is the first step toward government omniscience everywhere.
The amount of information in the world there is to monitor no longer exceeds the United States' capacity to monitor it. And with this development, a pillar that once supported our right to privacy has crumbled.
Because we now have to answer the question of whether we want the United States to be omniscient, let us make clear that such attributes should be reserved for God alone.
Gadeir Abbas is a staff attorney at CAIR's national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
By Robert McCaw
How would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have reacted to recent revelations that the U.S. government is collecting and storing nearly every citizen's phone records and gathering their electronic data?
From 1958 until his 1968 assassination, the FBI conducted extensive surveillance on Dr. King, amassing over 17,000 pages of material on his day-to-day activities.
Today King's legacy as a civil rights leader is celebrated; there is even a federal holiday named after him. But during his lifetime, the government tracked his movements, tapped his phones, bugged his offices and hotel rooms, and planted informants to spy on him. In addition, the FBI anonymously sent him a letter threatening to destroy his credibility and suggesting that he commit suicide to avoid this.
King was also separately targeted by an NSA domestic spying program called "Minaret." With others, including Muhammad Ali, Dr. King wasÂ labeledÂ and watch-listed as a possible "domestic terrorist and foreign radical" suspect.
We know that Dr. King was aware of his constant surveillance and the threat that it posed to him, yet he continued to teach and promote the ideals of peaceful organizing and resistance, equality, fraternity, and freedom until his life was taken.
So how would he react to the recent disclosures that the NSA and FBI, along with the CIA, DEA, and even local law enforcement agencies like the NYPD are spying on U.S. citizens by collecting communication metadata and infiltrating public demonstrations, activist circles, and houses of worship?
Today Dr. King would be confronted with the Orwellian truth that we are all under surveillance, although some groups -- like American Muslims -- are under more scrutiny than others. However, whether you are white or black, Hispanic or Asian, Muslim or Christian, the government is spying on all groups as potential "domestic terrorist and foreign radicals."
Just as it was 50 years ago, the NSA and FBI have once again been caught abusing their surveillance powers, infringing on the liberties they are sworn to protect -- all in the name of national security.
These government spying programs constitute a clear violation the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, and chills First Amendment freedom of speech.
Dr. King supported the Constitution as a framework for all citizens to achieve equal rights, and I believe he would have vocally opposed such government intrusions and spying. While he may have remained publicly silent on the government's unlawful invasion of his personal life, it's hard to believe that he would have sat idly by and let every American experience similar attacks on personal liberties as he faced while leading the battle for civil rights and the nation's soul.
To honor Dr. King's legacy and the values on which our nation was founded, Americans should work together to challenge these expansive domestic spying programs that are robbing us of our civil liberties.
Some members of Congress and the Obama administration make the claim that these spying programs are lawful under the USA PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Dr. King would know better -- the Constitution is clear and these programs are illegal and need to be ended.
Robert McCaw is the government affairs manager at CAIR's national office in Washington, D.C.