Does surveillance shade our liberties? |

Does surveillance shade our liberties?


Jack Van Ens

The war on terror doesn’t take a vacation. Uncle Sam asks citizens for a trade-off. Increase both security and electronic surveillance, which includes monitoring personal telephone calls and email messages.

After 9/11, legislators overwhelmingly adopted the Patriot Act. It granted government secret resources to track terrorists overseas and at home, improve the National Security Agency’s intelligence gathering, and monitor suspicious behavior of extremists. The Patriot Act didn’t restrict the Fourth Amendment, which guards citizens from unreasonable search and seizure.

During the last decade, the sophistication and intent of electronic security have dramatically increased. Government collects mega-data to intercept threats to our nation’s security.

Without trust that our government is working for citizens against terrorists, our republic falters. Without citizens questioning government’s security overreach, we become gullible as our Bill of Rights erode.

Now some who supported the Patriot Act express second thoughts. Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, blasts President Barack Obama for overreaching, infringing on citizens’ privacy.

“It is a great irony and history will marvel at it,” Noonan writes, “that the president most committed to expanding the centrality, power, prerogatives and controls of the federal government is also the president who, through lack of care, arrogance, and an absence of any sense of prudential political boundaries, has done the most in our time to damage trust in government” (The Wall Street Journal, June 15-16, 2013, p. A15).

Does Noonan rightly assert that through electronic snooping on terrorists, government robs citizens of private rights, reducing personal liberties?

Her skewed, misinformed argument reminds us of Patrick Henry, a strong critic of the Constitution. This evangelical colonial firebrand argued that God-given liberties to citizens would disappear if Virginia ratified the Constitution. At Virginia’s ratification convention in December 1787, Henry used rhetorical fireworks, rehearsing the biblical theme of “proclaiming (individual) liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25: 10). He failed to stop the Constitution’s ratification.

Once a popular Virginia governor, Henry argued like Peggy Noonan, accusing Uncle Sam of being too grasping, too intrusive and too meddling in citizens’ private lives — all because the Constitution delegated too much power to the federal government.

Henry and Noonan cleverly use the “all or nothing” argument. They leave little room for balance between government initiative and citizens’ rights. Henry’s principle of the federal government executing minimal power allowed for no compromise.

Compromise, however, is the bedrock principle upon which our republic flourishes.

“The men who wrote it (Constitution),” declares historian Harlow Giles Unger, “came from every part of the country and represented conflicting interests — farmers vs. merchant bankers, big states vs. little states, northern vs. southern states, Westerners vs. Easterners, slave holders vs. abolitionists. … Someone invariably wanted some power that deprived someone else of power” (“The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness,” 2009, p. 78). Compromise prevailed at our nation’s constitutional founding.

‘On Independence Day, we remember the founders’ sacrifices to ensure liberty. Study and support balanced strategies against terrorists, trusting in government and demanding accuracy when Uncle Sam shows vigilance. ‘

Don’t we need strong, vigorous government to protect liberties that terrorists aim to destroy?

It’s a false alternative to pit Uncle Sam against personal liberties, as do Patrick Henry and Peggy Noonan. Rather, we depend on effective government surveillance with safeguards.

The National Security Agency isn’t given a blank check to fill in as it wishes. Sen. Mark Udall on Monday, June 24, wrote a letter demanding that the NSA use broad authority to root out terrorists without denying American citizens constitutional rights of privacy.

The National Security Agency collects data on all telephone calls placed in the United States. It also requests from Google, Apple and other major Internet companies emails, videos and information that citizens generate.

What Noonan overlooks is that the NSA is forbidden to monitor phone calls without a court order. It can retrieve the time, date and destination of calls placed — handy information when calls are placed to terrorists overseas.

On Independence Day, we remember the founders’ sacrifices to ensure liberty. Study and support balanced strategies against terrorists, trusting in government and demanding accuracy when Uncle Sam shows vigilance. May our nation continue to guarantee freedoms, using surveillance to intercept terrorists, while respecting the safeguards upon citizens’ rights.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth ( which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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