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Even the founding fathers, the supposed exemplars to which Americans set their gaze in times of trouble, failed on this issue. President John Adams signed into law the Sedition Act of 1798 in the face of the “Quasi-War” against France. Under this provision, the U.S. government set aside the First Amendment it had so recently penned and restricted the ability of its citizens to publish documents or give speeches seen as antigovernment.
The truth is that we — and Snowden — do not live in an anomalous time. History is replete with instance after instance of the U.S. government violating the rights of its people in the name of national security.
This isn’t at all to say that the NSA or the Obama administration should get a free pass on allowing these surveillance programs to grow and flourish. Nor is it meant to make light of the fact that the government now has the ability to copy and store the billions upon billions of pieces of information it intercepts, something previous administrations could only dream of. Not nearly enough debate has gone on over just what freedoms we are willing to exchange in the name of security.
But in conducting that debate, we would do well not to falsely remember a time when America was innocent of breaking the trust of its people in the name of protecting them. That time never existed.
Hayes Brown is the national-security reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress, a blog run by the Center for American Progress. He wrote this article for Foreign Policy.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.