Because, therefore, we are defending a way of life, we must be respectful of that way of life as we proceed to the solution of our problem. We must not violate its principles and its precepts, and we must not destroy from within what we are trying to defend from without.
– Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
In the panicky aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the Unite and Strengthen America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. Though the name “PATRIOT ACT” is undeniably red, white, and blue, it might not be the most accurate. One of these “Tools” – the capturing of phone record meta-data, a rough log of every call made by every American – has not quite proven itself to be “Required.” According to a White House review panel, it has in fact “failed to thwart any terrorist attacks.”
And some of these “Appropriate Tools” were, of course, classified, their appropriateness to be determined by a shadowy federal body known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It’s unsurprising to learn that a secret federal court has no problem with secret violations of American privacy.
In contrast to the secret court’s opinion, U.S. District Judge and George W. Bush appointee Richard Leon doesn’t believe these “Tools” are “Appropriate.” In December 2013, Judge Leon had these pointed words to say about the unconstitutionality of generalized phone record collection: “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without judicial approval.”
It was a watershed moment: in their first appearance in an open court, the NSA’s methods have been called an “almost Orwellian” violation of privacy rights. Of course an unregulated court making regulatory decisions for government surveillance of citizens is a recipe for a civil liberties disaster. It is important to talk about that.
On the other hand, talking about it has made no practical difference. On Friday, January 3rd, 2014, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved another 90-day continuation of the universal collection of American phone records.
But although the domestic consequences of this intense violation of human rights are the most discussed, even more important are the consequences of the NSA’s choice to spy on America’s allies, and not only because they are less talked-about. That other nations’ responses to our actions will have an economic impact here at home is something every American citizen should keep in mind.
Without further ado, the two most recent unintended consequences of NSA spying:
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff last-minute-dropped Boeing’s $4 billion contract to build fighter jets and share technology with the Brazilian Air Force. In what her aides called a “a deliberate snub to the United States,” Rousseff – a former guerrilla fighter against U.S.-backed dictators – gave the $4 billion contract to Saab, headquartered in benign Sweden. She also canceled a previously scheduled one-on-one meeting with President Obama at the G-20 conference.
The United Arab Emirates put the purchase of two high-tech French military satellites, worth a cumulative $930 million, on hold because of suspect parts: specifically, American components that give the NSA backdoor access to the data collected by the satellites. The leader of the UAE Army has already reached out to China and Russia as alternatives to the now-compromised American parts.
Not only did the NSA damage all of America’s relations with Brazil, in one swift move it deprived thousands of middle-class Americans of “one of the world’s most sought-after defense deals and one that would help define [Brazil’s] strategic alliances for decades to come.” And after the UAE’s refusal to buy expensive tech because it contains American parts, followed by a deliberate turn to our biggest international competitors, who will be the next to do the same? And who could blame them?
The worst part? These hits to our country’s reputation have nothing to do with a failure of American business or quality. Instead, they are direct responses to the immoral and illegal actions of one poorly-supervised branch of government.
Our recovering businesses and workers don’t deserve a hit of this magnitude. To put it bluntly, we can’t afford it, either. Lack of trust, damaged reputations, and the quantifiable losses we suffer as other nations vote against our actions with their government contracts and investment funds, are harmful to every single American. The old argument “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” simply isn’t true: even those of us with nothing to hide have something to lose.