“The policy of American government is to leave its citizens free, neither restraining them nor aiding them in their pursuits.”
— Thomas Jefferson
“Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be the first.”
— John Jay
The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution reads:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The two words “domestic Tranquility” are important, as the framers wanted to prevent a repetition of the social upheaval during the last years under the Articles of Confederation. The new Constitution would ensure that the federal government had the authority to squelch disorder, thus keeping the nation secure. Yet, tension between the desire for “domestic Tranquility” and safeguarding the civil liberties of the people began shortly after the Constitution was ratified.
Due to the voluminous criticism regarding America’s undeclared war with France in 1798, the Adams administration compelled the U.S. Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts. The legislation declared that anyone making or publishing “false, scandalous and malicious” declarations about the government would be fined or imprisoned. (These acts were either repealed or allowed to expire after Jefferson’s victory over John Adams in 1800.)
During the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in order to allow the union army to detain civilians who threatened military operations and shut down opposition newspapers.
World War I saw the passage of the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918. The latter act empowered the federal government to punish any expression of opinion considered “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive.” In WWII, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans. Both Congress and the Supreme Court would acquiesce in this presidential order. Because of war hysteria, this action was supported by a majority of Americans.
The common theme in those examples is warfare. To ensure domestic tranquility and keep citizens safe during conflict, the government seemingly infringed on various civil liberties. Governmental leaders proclaim that citizens must be secure; therefore, legislation is adopted with that goal in mind.
Following the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States faced off in the Cold War, and new concerns about national security emerged. In this uncertain environment, the National Security Act of 1947 was passed, which established the National Security Council, as you have learned, as well as the CIA. This was a momentous law “in that it created the skeleton, at least, of what was to become an overpowering national security apparatus” (Weisberger, 1985).
The emergence of new forms of technology during the Cold War helped the government in its effort to “secure” Americans from possible communist threats, both foreign and domestic. During the Cold War, the United States witnessed a significant expansion of government surveillance, both overseas and at home, based on emerging technology. As the academic John MacWillie (2008) has written
surveillance is an ancient practice—one that has always entailed human beings “watching over” others, primarily focused on narrowly defined targets and territories. However, since the 1940s, the scope of this practice, increasingly abetted by sensors, computers, software applications, networks, and other technologies, has progressively shifted from individual targets to an undifferentiated persistent stare over entire populations across vast dimensions of space and time.
One example of this new understanding of surveillance is the response of the government following 9/11.
After the Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002. This legislation formed the Department of Homeland Security (Congress, 2002). The Department of Homeland Security’s mission is
to secure the nation from the many threats we face. This requires the dedication of more than 240,000 employees in jobs that range from aviation and border security to emergency response, from cybersecurity analyst to chemical facility inspector. Our duties are wide-ranging, and our goal is clear – keeping America safe. (DHS, 2019)
At the same time Congress formed the Department of Homeland Security, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act (Congress, 2001). According to the Director of National Intelligence (n.d.), the purpose of the PATRIOT Act is to
deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world. Section 314 helps law enforcement identify, disrupt, and prevent terrorist acts and money laundering activities by encouraging further cooperation among law enforcement, regulators, and financial institutions to share information.
Yet, according to Rigoglioso (2014), the PATRIOT Act was
designed to make it easier for the government to collect data that would help combat terrorism. At the same time, the incredible evolution in technology over the past two decades has revolutionized both the tools available to the government for surveillance and those used by individuals to live their lives.
Today, government’s use of technology to fight terrorism, both abroad and at home, reignites the evolving debate between the balance between civil liberties and national security.