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Be wary of the NSA programs.

I wouldn’t say I’ve done a 180-degree turn upon learning that the NSA is capturing yottabytes (or 10 to the 24th power of bytes) of metadata from its citizens, but I’ve definitely done a 90. At some point you either believe in limited government, or you don’t.

Last month former Clinton-era adviser David Axelrod spoke a Tea Party axiom — “The bigger the federal government grows, the less the President is responsible for it.” Ironically, in an attempt to defend the president he was actually championing the cause of limited government. Even so, without so much as a blush many conservatives are inadvertently protecting the cause of statism by defending limitless power of the NSA, because we’re told, it’s in the name of safety. (And do not all bureaucracies inevitably invoke the same pretext?) Axelrod was hardly saying anything controversial (at least not to conservatives) and so the rules that apply to the IRS, EPA, FDA, DOE or any other ever-expanding federal bureaucracy also apply to the NSA, no?

It doesn’t take a technical expert to find inherent dangers in combining NSA technology with IRS philosophy — half the citizenry becomes potential victim for intimidation or extortion by whichever party happens to rule. (And might other potential targets include their elected representatives?)

Those who believe these notions paranoid need only watch our Congress, who appear to be either unable, or worse, unwilling, to investigate and punish bureaucratic abuses (that we know of) from the IRS to the EPA to the Justice Department. Countless unelected bureaucrats, sometimes under oath, obfuscate and ridicule even reasonable questioning of their power. (See Lois Lerner. As did Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to Congress in March. Your Congress is your closest entity to being your representative — Mr. Clapper and Ms. Lerner lied to you.)

In 1787 the anti-federalist pseudonym Brutus wrote, “They will use the power, when they have acquired it, to the purposes of gratifying their own interest and ambition, and it is scarcely possible, in a very large republic, to call them to account for their misconduct, or to prevent their abuse of power.” While the founders likely could not have imagined our technological advances these words remain a self-evident truth today and underscore the need for skepticism.

Here’s some other things to consider, each reason in itself to want heavy oversight or limitation of the NSA’s surveillance of American citizens.

1. Proponents debate that these programs only capture record details, not content. But with enough record detail you wouldn’t necessarily need content anyway. If I know where you are, where you’re going, who you called, where they are, where they’re going, how long you called, and how many times you called, I may never need to know exactly what was discussed. It might lead to knowing you’ve got medical problems based on the number of calls to your doctor, or an MRI office, or determine your political leanings based on incoming or outgoing calls to PACs, etc. Someone might determine that your congressman called Alcoholics Anonymous and help flip their next vote. The IRS might next decide to audit you based on your support (via phone data) to certain NGOs. There’s no end to what this data could provide. It’s Pandora’s box and now trial attorneys want their piece of the pie. “Lawyers eye NSA data as treasure trove for evidence in murder, divorce cases.

Here’s Jonah Goldberg:

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes it can work the other way around. Invention — i.e., new technologies and techniques — creates obligations and opportunities that never existed before. Fifty years ago, nobody needed to charge their cell phones — because they didn’t have cell phones. Before the smallpox vaccine was invented, it would never have occurred to someone in government to require that all children be inoculated for smallpox. I’m not against mandatory inoculations; my point is to illustrate that invention often creates new necessities.

The arrival of “big data” — the ability to crunch massive amounts of information to find patterns and, ultimately, to manipulate human behavior — creates opportunities for government (and corporations) that were literally unimaginable not long ago. Behavioral economists, neuroscientists, and liberal policy wonks have already fallen in love with the idea of using these new technologies and insights to “nudge” Americans into making “better” decisions. No doubt some of these decisions really are better, but the scare quotes are necessary because the final arbiters of what constitutes the right choice are the would-be social engineers.

2. The FISA court isn’t a court at all. Sure, it’s got judges and expertise, and layers of supposed checks and balances built in. But what doesn’t it have that every court proceeding in American does have? A defendant. There is no defendant, nobody to make the counterpoint, to protest innocence. So what you have is a group of educated bureaucrats who don’t want to be the person that didn’t “connect the dots.” The result is telling. In 33 years the FISA court has only denied 11 requests (or .03% of all requests) and approved almost 34,000 requests. That is a rubber stamp.

3. There’s every reason to believe that the NSA program has not in itself stopped a single terror attack. Reason’s Nick Gillespie found government officials exaggerating the role the NSA played in a cited plot against NY subways. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have said the same. No one is arguing that the NSA programs aren’t a factor, rather that they are not the fail-safe portrayed, or that its targeted use — rather than blanket use — could be just as effective. And despite FISA approving 34,000 requests it didn’t stop 9-11, or the 1993 WTC bombing, or the OKC bombing, or the USS Cole, or the murder of our ambassador in Libya.

4. This is a program born out of political correctness. For the same reasons your government asks every citizen to take off their shoes and limit their shampoo to 3 ounces in carry-on luggage, your NSA decides to blanket accrue all metadata rather than using common sense to target Mohammed Atta. The hypocrisy is still there of course: The IRS will selectively target tea partiers, and your FBI will (justifiably) target white males 18-to-45 when hunting serial killers.

5. Your government is incompetent: How did they ever let an Edward Snowden in the door in the first place? It should terrify most Americans to know how many persons have security clearance (albeit of varying degrees) — 4 million and counting. The NSA has already admitted “mistakenly” intercepting the e-mails and telephone records of innocent Americans. What happens when they make a mistake using a program they designed to predict the future? Minority Report, anyone? (And that’s just the NSA. We’ve got existing scandals based in both malfeasance and incompetence in the IRS, EPA and State Department Benghazi and prostitution messes). If your credit card number suffers enough hacks they will hemorrhage customers, and rightfully so. But what do you do when your “company” is the US government and when they don’t consider you a customer? How do you withdrawal from their program? You can’t.

Here’s Mark Steyn retorting a fellow writer with some further criticism:

Over 4 million people hold US security clearances: That’s the equivalent of giving security clearances to the entire population of New Zealand. According to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, a total of 642,831 people were approved for Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret clearances in FY 2010 alone (scroll down to page five).

You know the way the bureaucracy works, John: How seriously do you think those two-thirds-of-a-million people were looked at? The report seems to suggest a turnover of about 600,000 in a typical year, which means that the actual number of Americans with some kind of security clearance from the last half-decade alone could be closer to seven million.

Even more amazing are the words immediately preceding that:

The number of clearances approved could not be obtained for FY 2009 . . .

So the same government that presumes the right to know my phone calls, my emails and my MasterCard purchases doesn’t know how many security clearances it issued in a given year.

The rationale given by defenders of this system over the last few days — oh, relax; there are over 300 million of us; the government doesn’t have time to comb through all the stuff it’s got on you — would seem to apply here: When 4 million people have security clearances, and another 1,800 people are getting new security clearances every day, the government doesn’t even have time to comb through them before it lets them comb through you.

6. Finally, here’s Rep. Rand Paul, with I think the best argument of all, and one that persons who claim to believe in our founding principles need to remember:

What is objectionable is a system in which government has unlimited and privileged access to the details of our private affairs, and citizens are simply supposed to trust that there won’t be any abuse of power. This is an absurd expectation. Americans should trust the National Security Agency as much as they do the IRS and Justice Department.

Monitoring the records of as many as a billion phone calls, as some news reports have suggested, is no modest invasion of privacy. It is an extraordinary invasion of privacy. We fought a revolution over issues like generalized warrants, where soldiers would go from house to house, searching anything they liked. Our lives are now so digitized that the government going from computer to computer or phone to phone is the modern equivalent of the same type of tyranny that our Founders rebelled against.

I also believe that trolling through millions of phone records hampers the legitimate protection of our security. The government sifts through mountains of data yet still didn’t notice, or did not notice enough, that one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects was traveling to Chechnya. Perhaps instead of treating every American as a potential terror suspect the government should concentrate on more targeted analysis.