The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

June 8, 2013

The good, the bad and the ugly are looking the same

The Back Porch

By Nerissa Young

— The Obama administration needs to start handing out cowboy hats.

The good guys get the white ones, and the bad guys get the black ones. That’s supposed to be the easy way to tell them apart. However, some of the white hats are getting pretty dirty.

This government of the people, by the people and for the people seems to have turned into a mass governmental front to GET the people.

First, the Internal Revenue Service is outed for overly scrutinizing groups with tea party ties when evaluating nonprofit applications, proving that Uncle Sam is not above using its collective power on people with whom it disagrees politically.

Second is the revelation that the government was wiretapping Associated Press reporters’ phones.

Next, the National Security Agency is busted by The Guardian newspaper in London for listening to Americans’ cellular telephone calls. And now, The Washington Post reports the NSA is tapping directly into the central servers of many Internet providers.

And how did all this spying, listening, data mining and general nose-sticking-in prevent the Boston Marathon bombings? Oh, that’s right, it didn’t.

First, God bless the whistleblowers who are leaking this information. Without them and their willingness to risk their jobs, reputations and maybe even their lives, Americans would not know what their government is up to.

Second, secrecy is not an Obama affliction. George W. Bush and his daddy proved themselves quite adept at issuing executive orders to block the public’s business from the public view.

Third, the major piece of legislation that birthed what the government now perceives as its natural right to stomp through the Bill of Rights — the Patriot Act — passed Congress with plenty of votes from both major political parties.

Fourth, this constant clamoring about how ripping through Americans’ privacy is essential to wage the War or Terror does not compute, no matter how many NSA operatives plug that bit of information into their personal devices and hit “enter.”

Media reports say Tamerlan Tsarnaev had long been a person of interest to U.S. intelligence — if, indeed, that term is not an oxymoron. Yet, this washed up fighter cum revolutionary apparently lived his sad life uninterrupted by his adopted Uncle Sam.

Here’s the rub. Despite all the secrecy and unconstitutional spying, there seems to be no rhyme or reason for who slips between the cracks and who gets caught in them. Meanwhile, the government gets to listen in on pizza takeout orders.

It’s impossible to know whether all this invasion of privacy is protecting anyone because the NSA gets to do what it wants to whomever it wants without impunity and without explanation. The Washington Post reports its budget is a secret along with the number of people employed at the agency.

The Patriot Act needs to be repealed. It doesn’t offer anything that wasn’t covered by American laws before 9/11. One of the supposed benefits was the requirement that police agencies communicate with one another to ferret out suspected terrorists. They should have been doing that anyway, and that requirement didn’t stop the Tsarnaev brothers.

Some people say journalists and civil libertarians ought to shut up. The government shouldn’t have to tell Americans what it does all the time. Americans don’t need or want to know.

So here’s the question for the American people and Congress: Knowing what you know now — after the school shootings, theater shootings, congressional rally shootings, underwear and shoe bombs, pressure cooker bombs, etc. — do you feel any safer today than you did Sept. 10, 2001? That includes this important corollary question: Do you trust the government to protect you from the government?

The one piece of good news is The Post reported Friday that the Federal Communications Commission is considering adding rules that would require wireless carriers to protect data stored on consumers’ mobile devices.

Early critics of the proposed rules, The Post said, are the companies providing the services. Yes, some of which are no doubt the same companies allowing the NSA to troll through their central servers.

Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© Nerissa Young 2013