WASHINGTON — Welcome to the new normal, the U.S. national security state that has grown like mad since the 9/11 terrorist attacks nearly a dozen years ago.
Personal privacy has shrunk. Government secrecy has grown. Law enforcement intrusions, both overt and covert, are routine.
And while airport security lines hint at how life changed following Sept. 11, 2001, the full scope and apparent irrevocability of the changes nearly defy description. Street cameras track your movements. Strangers can read your emails. Police can spy on your political gatherings.
And it’s all become so commonplace that most of the time, like the proverbial frog in a pot of warming water, we take it for granted.
“Some of the impacts have been obscured,” Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said Friday. “One could say that personal privacy has been compromised for years, but we are only now becoming aware of it.”
But even in this new normal, a shock or two can awaken the complacent. That’s what happened this week, in a one-two punch.
On Wednesday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper revealed that the National Security Agency is collecting telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers. On Friday, the Guardian and The Washington Post reported the NSA is tapping directly into the central servers of nine companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook.
The ensuing uproar provoked President Barack Obama to offer a defense.
“I think it’s important for everybody to understand … that there are some tradeoffs involved,” Obama said Friday in San Jose, Calif. “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
In his first remarks on the pair of surveillance program disclosures, Obama said he welcomes a debate but insisted that the nation must strike an appropriate balance between security and civil liberties.
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said she hopes this week’s revelations serve as a wakeup call for Americans. But, she said, while she welcomes Obama’s desire for a debate, she noted that it’s difficult when the programs have already started.
It’s also a difficult debate when federal officials don’t show all their cards.
In 2011, the federal government spent $11.3 billion on security classification matters, according to the annual Information Security Oversight Office report. This was about three times the $3.7 billion spent on security classification matters in 1999.
In 2000, before 9/11, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved 1,003 applications for secret wiretaps and physical searches, according to the court’s sparse annual report. Last year, the secretive court approved 1,789 applications for electronic surveillance and an additional 212 applications for secret access to business records — a 99.5 percent increase.