One of the core principles of good governance in society is the idea that the authority of law ought to prevail over the brute power of people — i.e., that society should operate under the rule of law, not the rule of men. Aristotle wrote that “[t]he law ought to be supreme over all …” and argued that … where the laws are not supreme, there demagogues spring up.” The principle has many important ramifications for society, but the most important is the view that government agents and agencies must be bound by the same law as their subjects.
This principle is of great relevance in the present NSA scandals, especially in light of recent NSA admissions of “compliance problems” with the legal constraints that are supposed to operate on the agency. For ordinary citizens, “compliance problems” with the law are better known as “crimes” (or possibly civil wrongs) and these lead to judgment debts, fines, and possibly even jail time, depending on the severity of the lack-of-compliance. But for government officials such notions are irrelevant — legal compliance problems are just something you file a report about, and send to another bureaucrat higher up in the government chain, so that he can bury it on his desk.
Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. The notion of the rule of law is the wellspring of an endless stream of hypocrisy in the modern social-democratic welfare-warfare state. It is difficult to find anyone who does not speak highly of the principle when it is presented in abstract form, yet it is simultaneously rare to find people who really take the idea seriously when applied to concrete situations involving government wrongdoing. In the case of the NSA, the principle of rule of law has been jettisoned entirely, and the agency operates without any effective legal constraints.