Despite the differences in time and tactics, the NSA’s surveillance program began under similar circumstances. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the government enhanced its ability to find and foil the plots of individual terrorists in a country of over three hundred million. The gathering of metadata is a tool (rightly or wrongly) to maintain security in a time of threats from non-state actors who are a true needle in the haystack problem.
The post World War I time period also had violent threats from individuals within. It was a time of domestic unrest that was marked by labor strikes gone violent and terrorist acts against the government and business leaders that included mail bombs and a coordinated series of explosions in eight cities on June 2, 1919. These events more than hit close to home for Palmer when one of the blasts blew up the front of his house.
Palmer’s actions had support at the onset, but there was a limit to the public’s acceptance of his disregard for the rule of law despite the violence. When the revolution Palmer claimed would occur May 1, 1920 never materialized, support for the government’s increased powers waned. The Senate Judiciary Committee investigated Palmer’s tactics in 1921.
Although the Palmer Raids searched and seized people rather than data, the government’s growth in power (perhaps unconstitutionally) in the midst of violent threats from individuals within is a repeat episode. This is why studying our history comes in handy. By evaluating the government’s actions a century ago we can find guidance as to what is and is not appropriate and necessary for the government to do now.
Whether one decides the NSA’s programs are acceptable in a time of terrorism or not, the fact that the government has engaged in constitution-stretching behavior prior to a vigorous public debate should be concerning to all citizens. Only when debate precedes the government’s assumption of increased powers will the nation indeed know the government is going to do the right thing. And this will ensure that history books look more favorably on the NSA’s actions than they do on Palmer’s.
Is the public backlash against the NSA in light of the revelations made by Edward Snowden the beginning of the end for the surveillance program? Or will the NSA’s national security argument win the day? Leave a comment.