We have concrete examples of what happens when the federal government doesn’t make anti-terrorism a priority. The United States isn’t a stranger to civil liberties violations, but overwhelmingly, they’ve targeted the more marginal members of our society: Political dissidents, and racial and religious minorities. For the large majority of Americans, the surveillance state is an abstraction, and insofar that it would lead to abuses, they don’t perceive themselves as a target. And, in general, it’s hard to get people motivated when there isn’t a threat. Which is why it’s not a surprise to find that most Americans support the National Security Agency’s program of mass data collection. …
For civil libertarians to make surveillance into a political issue that will move votes, they’ll have to turn the abstract issue into something more concrete, cut through partisanship, and grab the attention of ordinary voters. It’s a tough challenge, which is why—in the short-term at least—I don’t expect much in the way of substantive change.
But what if they cannot? What if it is precisely the sheer scale of anonymous data that makes the surveillance less individually invasive than previous methods?
My hunch is that the biggest headache for the administration will be allies – whose foreign nationals do not have the protections that Americans have, but who are caught up in the same mass data. The Germans are getting very edgy, as are the Brits. Mataconis, meanwhile, analyzes a new poll on the NSA snooping that shows less support than the Pew one, with a 58 percent majority disapproving metadata collection when it is used on ordinary Americans:
When you break the issue down the way the CBS poll does, you find that people are opposed to the idea of the Federal Government monitoring the activity of “ordinary Americans,” but not similarly opposed to using those tactics against “suspected terrorists.” Quite honestly that makes more sense than the Post/Pew poll does, and it shows us how much more insightful a poll can be when the questions are less general and more specific.
[I]nformed Americans who vehemently dissent haven’t had an opportunity to mount legal challenges on the merits — rather, they’ve been thwarted from having their day in court by arguably illegitimate invocations of the state-secrets privilege. Relatedly, a lawsuit challenging the FISA Amendments Act was thrown out by the Supreme Court because, according to the reasoning in the ruling, none of the plaintiffs could prove they had standing. At the very least, this would suggest the troubling possibility that the national-security state’s behavior could be both unconstitutional and impervious to judicial challenge. To me, that seems like the sort of circumstance in which civil disobedience is defensible, especially if the act of civil disobedience obviates the state secret or standing obstacle.