In light of Edward Snowden's recent National Security Agency tell-all, pundits and politicians have been debating one question: Which should carry more weight: Individual privacy or collective security?
Unfortunately, that hypothetical question can't be definitively answered. There is a question, however, that hasn't been asked enough, and it's the one that matters most:
Who gave the senior leaders of the United States the authority, with neither the knowledge nor concurrence of the American people, to secretly intrude deep into the private lives of our citizens?
We've seen everyone from "unnamed senior officials" to directors of various three-lettered organizations to the most senior elected and appointed leaders from the White House and Capitol Hill deride citizens' concerns regarding government overreach. President Obama himself noted that if Americans don't trust the administration, Congress, or the judiciary, "then we're going to have some problems here."
Then we have problems, as recent polls indicate that the public's confidence in these institutions is low.
Congress' approval ratings are at a historic low: An anemic 10 percent approve of the job the body is doing (only 5 percent cite a great deal of confidence). Gallup, which conducted the poll, noted the rating was not merely the lowest ever recorded for Congress, but "the worst Gallup has ever found for any institution it has measured since 1973." The same poll found that only 28 percent of Americans had confidence in the criminal-justice system, and only 36 percent had confidence in the presidency - all at or near all-time lows.
Why so little trust in the institutions that are the core of our government?
Trust is earned, not taken. Americans build trust in people or institutions over time as they observe the level of consistency between words and deeds. What sort of track record have our country's senior leaders amassed over the last decade in terms of words and deeds?
We have seen our most senior leaders vehemently deny that the government was guilty of torture and rendition, only to later discover that we, in fact, did both. Americans have seen the New York Times publish a story claiming the existence of a previously unknown U.S. government "kill list" and a dramatic expansion of "drone wars." Add the most recent evidence suggesting that the NSA spies on American citizens, and the cumulative damage done to public trust among the governed is serious.
It didn't have to be this way, even in the aftermath of 9/11. Legitimate, honorable, and trust-enhancing alternatives existed.
In the months after the terror strike, the Bush administration could have conferred with members of Congress and approached the American public with a plan to make us safer. The president could have said that, to protect our country, some level of intrusion into civilian phone, Internet, and e-mail records was going to be necessary. He could have explained that the White House and Congress had a plan - with externally verifiable checks and balances through the judiciary - to ensure that the rights of citizens were protected. He could have made this case to the American people before taking action.
Being up front with Americans would not have compromised national security, as no operational methods would have been disclosed. But each member of the House and Senate could have taken the pulse of his or her constituents. Pundits and opinion leaders could have filled the airwaves with the pros and cons of giving up some level of personal privacy. In the end, the people, through their elected representatives, would have had their say, and whatever decision was ultimately reached would have had the knowledge, if not the full concurrence, of the population.
Instead, it was all done in secret. As numerous whistle-blowers stepped forward to tell the truth, government leaders and spokesmen lied about it until the volume of evidence became too great to hide. The result is that trust in our government continues to plummet.
It is time for those in power to recognize that integrity and candor do not jeopardize our safety. What does harm our republic is having a small number of elected and appointed officials secretly deciding what degree of intrusion into our private lives we should allow - and then lying about it when faced with the truth.