In the first half of the nineteenth century, July 4 was typically celebrated with an oration -- above all in New England, the cradle and battlefield of the American Revolution. The great orators of the North, including Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and John Quincy Adams, each delivered many such addresses. The speaker was expected to read the Declaration of Independence as a reminder to his audience of the sacred principles upon which the Republic had been founded, to recall in shamelessly purple language the heroism and sacrifice of an earlier generation, and then, if so inclined, to descant upon the great issue of the day -- slavery, or federalism, or relations with the European powers. I will spare you the first two elements and proceed directly to the last:
The American people have learned in recent weeks that their government has been engaged in a vast surveillance effort of which they knew nothing. The revelations of spying by the National Security Agency have provoked outrage, and bitter mockery, not from the enemies of President Barack Obama, in whom disingenuous shock has become an ingrained reflex, but from his allies -- from Democratic legislators, liberal activists, and European leaders and intellectuals.
The president has sought to assure the American people that the programs are not directed against them, and that intelligence agencies will not be able to listen to their phone calls or read their emails. He and other officials have also observed that both the U.S. Congress and a special federal court known as the FISA court oversee the programs, and prevent abuses. No abuses, in fact, have been reported. But for passionate defenders of liberty -- one of the "unalienable rights" which, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed to the world, governments are established to safeguard -- the sweeping collection of "metadata" in the United States and of actual communications abroad is incompatible with democracy. The abuse is the act itself.
But we do not live in Jefferson's world. Virtually all developed democracies have intelligence agencies; all spy on one another. We accept inroads on our liberty in the name of many goods -- security, convenience, and above all the pursuit of happiness. Our innocence in such matters has been fatally compromised. It is hyperbolic, and even hysterical, to say, as Glenn Greenwald has, that the United States has a secret plan "to destroy privacy and anonymity not just in the United States but around the world." It is equally excessive to lionize Edward Snowden, the former NSA contract employee who exposed the programs, as a heroic defender of democracy in the face of authoritarian menace. Surveillance, even on a giant scale, is not conspiracy, or murder.
What Snowden revealed must be fixed, rather than abolished. And it can be. Among other things, Obama can, as Jeffrey Rosen recently suggested, publish the secret memos that justify the programs, fix legal doctrines that offer the state too much scope for information-gathering, and stop targeting so many leakers for criminal prosecution. He must also bring more transparency to the decisions of the FISA courts. Democracies must be able not only to have secrets, but even to collect secrets. But they must do so with, to use another phrase from Jefferson, the consent of the governed.