Sometimes when I hear public officials speaking out in defense of NSA spying, I can’t help thinking, even if just for a moment, “what if the NSA has something on that person and that’s why he or she is saying this?”
Of course it’s natural, when people disagree with you, to at least briefly think, “they couldn’t possibly really believe that, there must be some outside power forcing them to take that position.” Mostly I do not believe that anything like that is now going on.
But I cannot be 100% sure, and therein lies the problem. The breadth of the NSA’s newly revealed capabilities makes the emergence of such suspicions in our society inevitable. Especially given that we are far, far away from having the kinds of oversight mechanisms in place that would provide ironclad assurance that these vast powers won’t be abused. And that highlights the highly corrosive nature of allowing the NSA such powers. Everyone has dark suspicions about their political opponents from time to time, and Americans are highly distrustful of government in general. When there is any opening at all for members of the public to suspect that officials from the legislative and judicial branches could be vulnerable to leverage from secretive agencies within the executive branch—and when those officials can even suspect they might be subject to leverage—that is a serious problem for our democracy.