Celebrating independence in a land that spies on its citizens

Celebrating independence in a land that spies on its citizens

Summary: As we come to this Fourth of July, some citizens are up in arms over what some might call another "long train of abuses and usurpations," as it was originally written in the Declaration. I'm speaking, of course, about the NSA/PRISM stink.


John Adams was quite the party animal.

After signing the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, he wrote to Abigail, saying of the day, "It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."

Screeeeeeech. Rewind. Let's get a few things straight, shall we?

First, Adams never said the Fourth of July should be celebrated. He was convinced July 2 was the big day. Why? Well, as it turns out, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of Independence on July 2. Adams, it turns out, wrote his most effective policy statement (you know, the bonfires, bells, guns, games, parties, parades and illuminations one) on July 3, 1776 — not July 4.

That's okay — we now celebrate July 4 because, while everyone voted on July 2, the Founding Fathers signed on July 4. And that's what really matters, right?

Well, not so much.

According to George Mason University, pretty much nobody signed the document on July 4. Some of our founders signed it on July 2, some signed it during a signing ceremony on August 2 (which, arguably, was the closest to the scene we all have in our heads) and some of the rest got around to signing it one day (there are, apparently, no records of which day) in January of 1777.

That's not to say that revisionist history is a modern invention. Yes, the document does say — right at the top, in big bold letters — "In Congress, July 4, 1776." And yes, in later years, both Adams and Jefferson will claim the document was signed on July 4, 1776. Even so, historians have been able to prove that was just the date on the document and it was absolutely not signed on July 4.

The one thing about July 4 that is true? John Adams died on July 4, 1826 and TJ also died on July 4, 1826, just hours apart. (UPDATE: fixed typo here)

For those of you who don't have copies of the Declaration and the Constitution — in case there's a need for quick reference — sequestered in the bathroom magazine stand, or installed as apps on your smartphone, or sitting on your computer desktop as high-res images, the Declaration pretty much says to King George, "You are not the boss of me."

And yes, I do have the above. All three.

The Declaration says that America, as a nation, is no longer subject to the rule of King George. It's the Constitution, ratified eleven years later, that defines how our nation would operate. The details of U.S. citizen rights wouldn't be codified until 1791 in the Bill of Rights.

As we come to this July 4, some citizens are up in arms over what some might call another "long train of abuses and usurpations," as it was originally written in the Declaration. I'm speaking, of course, about the NSA/PRISM stink that's been all over the news for the past month.

We've had deep discussions about the meaning of metadata, we've worried about how to protect ourselves from the NSA and other eavesdroppers, and we've lost some faith in our tech giants.

None of this changes what America's counterterrorism forces do as part of their job protecting the lives of American citizens. After all, as Jason Perlow so eloquently stated, the NSA has been all up in your privacy junk since 1952.

So how do we reconcile all this news with our yearly, officially-sanctioned barbecue and bottle-rocket festival? How can we celebrate our independence when our own government seems to see nothing wrong in tracking and collecting all our digital footprints?

First, understand that not all is as it seems.

In the same way that we celebrate Independence Day on the Fourth of July, even though nothing particularly interesting or memorable actually happened on July 4, 1776, we should understand that the snippets of PowerPoints being reported by the Guardian and Washington Post are just that: snippets.

Americans aren't being told the whole story, not because they can't handle it (after all, the press eats this stuff up), but because disclosing the details of how we track and defend against nation state enemies of America and terrorist actors is not in our strategic best interests. So, while some press reports may make it seem like the NSA is listening in on all your phone calls or reading all your email, the government just isn't that into you.

There has been a positive result from all these stories, though. We're discussing privacy again. We're discussing a future based on digital communications. We're thinking through the implications of digital tracking, and we're even discussing how the mainstream media got the PRISM story so hopelessly wrong.

This sort of intelligent (if somewhat overwrought) discussion is a big part of what America is all about. Independence Day (whenever it really happened) came about because our Founding Fathers were introspective enough to think through the meaning of governance.

They were able separate the frivolous ("Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes") from the intolerable ("a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States").

Our Founding Fathers spent decades thinking about what it meant to be a nation, how individual rights can be balanced with the needs of the nation as a whole. They got some of it right (the Constitution, the Bill of Rights), and even knew that some of it would go off the rails (political parties), and they laid a groundwork for a future that's worked relatively well for almost 250 years.

So this Independence Day, cook up those hot dogs, grill up those burgers, march through your towns, set off your illuminations and have a great time. John Adams insisted you do, and partying like it's 1776 will honor his name.

But as you do, as you take that last ill-advised bite of the third helping of that oh-I-ate-too-much apple pie, think about what privacy means to Americans going into the future. Think about how much privacy we're willing to give up for services from Facebook and Google. Think about how our Constitution and Bill of Rights apply to digital communications.

Finally, spend a moment to hoist a toast to the efforts of the thousands of faceless government servants who've bravely and selflessly fought back the tyranny of terrorists these last years.

Topics: Privacy, Government, Government US, Security


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • What they say and what they do

    The descriptions by the NSA of their own activities outline activities that are just barely legal (I doubt they're constitutional, but the Patriot Act has not yet been to the Supreme Court). It's unlikely that the NSA stops there. It's just too easy to accidentally grab some extra data and "oops, we forgot to delete that". I'm quite sure that they believe it's for our own good, in the same way a man who beats his kids thinks he's doing them a favor.

    The only thing that supposedly protects us is the secret rubberstamp court. This is where we've got to focus. Sure, it makes sense to keep things secret during an active investigation. But it seems that no investigation ever finishes. That's a little too convenient for whatever administration is in power. That's what the Stasi did. Can this not be sunsetted? Can there not be a period of time after which we're informed that our particular conversations were subject to scrutiny? Can there not be a flush of old data, supervised by an appointed panel including real civilians?

    I do understand meta data. It's data about nodes of communication, not (supposedly) the contents. But sufficient investigation of meta data yields real, meaningful and personal data.
    • When you give too much power to Govt

      ... you can be sure as heck Govt will abuse it. What US is doing is trading foreign terrorism for domestic Gestapo-ism. Orwell was right.
      • Love Your Analysis

        Succinct and absolutely correct. I need you working in D.C.
  • Suggestions from an Englishman

    1. Celebrate that you have escaped the arbitrary ties of monarchy.

    2. Castigate your forefathers for having slaughtered and marginalised the indigenous population ... and understand that you would have stood by why the atrocity was committed ... as you did for Vietnam and Iraq and ...

    3. Rid yourselves of your current political duopoly, corrupted by greed and subject to the machinations of ...

    4. Rid yourselves of the greedy, predatory, invasive corporate elite (especially the corporate IT elite).

    5. RECOVER the American Dream of equal opportunity.

    6. RECOVER your humanity ... terrorism would not exist if you ... helped your neighbours, instead of trying to control and exploit them.

    7. Invite someone you don't know around for the celebration and a slice of apple pie.
    • In case it doesn't go without saying ...

      ... older civilisations have made exactly the same mistakes ... and continue to do so :-(

      On July 4th we will be inviting people around to eat strawberries and watch tennis :-)
    • Well said.

      Very well put. Best wishes, G.
    • You're right, except one thing...

      Your comment about terrorism isn't quite right. Terrorism would still exist, as it's not about escaping control and exploitation -- it is more about *gaining* control than anything else.
      Jacob VanWagoner
    • So in otherwords, the same things the English have done for centuries?

      "Castigate your forefathers for having slaughtered and marginalised the indigenous population ... and understand that you would have stood by why the atrocity was committed ... as you did for Vietnam and Iraq and ..."

      And as the English have done to the Irish (taking MY family's land), and other civilizations...wait a minute, weren't the first "Americans" actually English?

      I'll invite you over for the celebrations and for you, a big slice of humble pie. ;)
      William Farrel
      • You Are Right As Rain

        But it does not diminish what he said in his post. We can not claim a higher ground by practicing a carbon copy of British Imperialism. A people were nearly exterminated by the so called Americans and the Brits never got that far.
        • They did a good job of wiping out my family

          I exist only because my ancestors were off on trade negotiations, they "came back" to nothing, (some came back to death) all the family lands taken (and still owned today) by the English.

          Yup, the US did a number on the native Americans (and some tribes did that to each other without outside intervention), but that doesn't diminish what I said in my post.

          His ancestors are no better.
          William Farrel
    • You lost that right

      To offer suggestions to Americans; your version of history is quite ignorant. You have enough to worry about in the UK start suggesting there first.
      • Not ignorant -

    • Bit rich, coming from an Englishman

      I have trouble believing that your ancestors wouldn't have wiped out every single human my country if they hadn't met an extremely well developed culture.

      So instead, colonize it for 400 years, and suck every last drop of wealth, cause some epic bloodshed, and then leave, as if they were doing us all a great favor, thus ending a saga of deceit, lies, treachery, arrogance, white man's burden, all under the guise of being fair and just.

      In case it's not already clear, I'm an Indian.
      • Not at all!

        The English wouldn't have wiped out the natives - they needed a work force. Takes a lot of labor to exploit the resources of such a vast empire, not anywhere near enough convicts in England to do the job.
  • John Adams died in 1826, not 1801

    John Adams died same day as Thomas Jefferson.
    • Fixed

      Not enough coffee typo.
      David Gewirtz
  • Died same day

    "The one thing about July 4 that is true? John Adams died on July 4, 1801 and TJ died on July 4, 1826"

    They died the same day. A quick Bing search got me this: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/thomas-jefferson-and-john-adams-die
    • Same Year as Well

      They also died in the same year and that is what we should be commemorating. How precious is that, two of the founding fathers passing on the exact same day and year.
  • Everyone is dancing around the most important word in the Declaration

    Tony Burzio
  • Oh, for crying out loud.

    The document is dated July 4, signatories stated that it was signed on July 4, but modern historians have decided that it's not really that clear cut because not EVERYONE signed it on July 4, even though that was the official session where it was introduced and voted on as resolved. So, hey, we'll go with the modern historians, because it makes me sound smart and sophisticated to throw over the apple cart and tell everyone else they were wrong.

    I'll then go on to tell everyone that government spying isn't really all that bad, because the government really doesn't care about you in spite of IRS intimidation of average citizens staring me in my face. But that's OK, because THOSE people deserve it; they are enemies.

    Oh, I also don't have a problem with the ACA being run by this same IRS and snooping all through my medical records. Because the government isn't into me.

    As long as I continue to hold the correct viewpoints and say the correct things.

    So, yes, Gewirtz, the government probably isn't that into you. Because you kow-tow properly.