Liberals are apopleptic about mass surveillance, particularly on the part of the US government, but few are all that interested in tracing the reasons why the policy came to be adopted.
Mass surveillance was a conscious choice made that allowed the US to conserve itself as it had been constituted by the New Deal administration, and then altered further by the Johnson administration. Johnson introduced mass immigration. FDR instituted the alphabet agencies which currently govern the country with some electoral public relations decoration. Finally, mass surveillance acts to conserve the American foreign policy tack towards the Middle East set by the Carter administration.
Carter summed up the government’s position in the 1980 State of the Union address thusly:
Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
After the 9/11/2001 attacks — mostly conducted by Saudi nationals, motivated by clerics who follow the characteristic Saudi strain of Sunni Islam — the government did everything that it could to avoid making any fundamental changes to itself or altering its strategic direction.
In large part, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were fought to protect America’s ‘Persian Gulf interests’ — which are really at least partly independent of the US — at the expense of the interests of Americans. This is a hard pill to swallow, especially for American conservatives, but it becomes easier to understand in the context of the iron law of bureaucracy.
Instead of changing diplomatic relations with Persian Gulf state sponsors of international terrorism — like America’s biggest allies in the region — America deepened its ties with those same state sponsors of international terrorism, while kicking off some strange new jobs programs to try to turn the Middle East democratic, in the same mold as the postwar occupation of Europe, complete with allusions to the Marshall Plan.
Mass surveillance was part of this approach. The theory was that by intercepting the entire planet’s communications for analysis, it could be possible to maintain the jetsetting open borders global society while also providing security against terrorist attacks. Polling showed that Americans were willing to sacrifice their liberties if they thought that it would result in being secure from terror attacks. No one wanted to change anything all that fundamental about strategic alignments, trade policy, or immigration.
Instituting these surveillance programs without resorting to the democratic process allowed the government to give the people what they wanted and asked for, while maintaining the pretense of American liberalism. And that pretense was mostly all that people really wanted. What bothers people more about mass surveillance is less the fact of it, and more that it makes it more challenging to maintain the pretense to liberalism.
The few remaining liberal commentators tend to be far more upset about this than the others, because it disrupts the coherence of the idea of liberalism itself. If America is the last truly liberal country, then what does it say for the ideology if it, also, has dropped into an embarrassing tyranny, in which the most basic parts of the Constitution tend to be flouted even by local branches of the government, to say nothing of the highest offices?
Instead of liberalism being the source of the problem, instead the liberal remnants invent scapegoats — like the Bush administration, the leadership of the NSA, or others — rather than the logic of a system itself that leads to careless governance.