Originally published in The Baltimore Sun.
Marylanders in Odenton, Annapolis, Frederick and our hometown of Columbia had their suspicions answered last week when The Washington Post published a three-part series about our unchecked, out-of-control expansion of the defense and intelligence operations that have grown since 2001. The expansion of this influential sector has been evident to us, as it has to Americans all around the country living near other defense and intelligence contractors and federal intelligence agencies.
How has the vast amount of information gathered by intelligence agencies shaped our foreign policy? How does the presence of almost a million individuals with top-secret clearances shape our society? How will our culture be changed when the possibility of government surveillance of citizens seems commonplace?
While many important questions were raised by the Post series, there are larger questions that must be considered by all of us. In addition to the impression of an unchecked, overpriced and bloated bureaucracy, the series hints at issues that affect decision-making at every level of our society.
One cannot help but wonder, for example, how perceived anti-war candidate-turned- President Barack Obama has pushed us further into wars and expanded the American footprint into areas beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. Has this vast intelligence machinery, with help from our military, pushed such an enormous expanse of threat information into the White House that the only possible response is to wage more war? Have these forces cornered our young President?
The more the intelligence system expands and uncovers, the more threats will be revealed. The perception of a threat is not the same as confirmation of a threat — but once it has been acted upon, it is too late. We must understand that the very notions of liberty and justice that built this country are endangered when we act without regard to a process of justice or a regard for the liberty of others.
Living in an area populated by the workforce for these agencies and contractors, the presence of many people with various levels of security clearances also affects how neighbors and friends relate to one another. Talk about work life is virtually eliminated. Neighbors are interviewed about any possible suspicious activities of the intelligence employee on a regular basis. We watch some of the children of the neighborhood, once animated and engaging, grow up into silent adults as they gain coveted employment with these agencies and contractors. They are afraid of interacting with foreign-born neighbors from “target” countries, and are wary of friends whose interests may pose a threat to their next clearance check. In a world with ever-growing and hidden threats, this may all be a necessary reality. Or it may be shaping us into a paranoid society ready to jump much further into reactions than necessary.
The millions of Americans with varying levels of security clearances may shy away from a more participatory citizenship because of the need to protect their jobs. How does this affect our democracy? Will the ever-expanding breadth of this intelligence behemoth eventually create a silent citizenry?
This great expansion of intelligence surveillance has also increased citizens’ expectations that many of their actions are being noted and plugged into an unseen database (even if those notions are unfounded). Tossed-off comments about some unknown entity reading e-mails, listening to phone conversations and otherwise spying on quite innocent Americans have become fodder for dinner-party conversations.
Americans, wary of the unknown terrorist in their midst, have generally accepted the feeling of intrusion as worth the minor discomfort of airport scans and people in unmarked vans. But as these embodiments of the intelligence community pop up in our neighborhoods as gated buildings, sit with us as neighbors at PTA meetings, or impact greater questions about our moral authority in a difficult world, we should assess whether our actions are truly making us more secure.
We are thankful for those who have the expertise that allows us to live our lives in freedom, but that freedom is in question when such expertise leads to actions that threaten the liberty that this enterprise is trying to protect. The proper balance between security and liberty for our citizens is a hallmark of a seasoned democracy. The unhealthy increase in intelligence personnel with ill-defined and overlapping functions should be of concern to all.