The government’s massive and indiscriminate collection of electronic information is a genie that is not going back in the bottle.
On Wednesday came the revelation that the National Security Agency, described by The Washington Post as “the largest and most technologically sophisticated spying organization in the nation and possibly the world,” was gathering Americans’ phone records, who they called, how long they talked and any special “identifiers.”
To actually listen to the conversations, though, the NSA needed a warrant from a special and secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, which hardly inspired great confidence since the court had apparently been routinely rubber-stamping three-month extensions of the warrant for seven years.
Congressional oversight did not seem especially harsh, either, because at a hearing on the program, several lawmakers seemed intent on determining that whomever else NSA was listening to, members of Congress were not among them.
The obvious question in the public mind: What else don’t we know?
The answer was not long in coming — the next day, in fact.
The NSA and the FBI, under a program called PRISM, were tapping directly into the servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, vacuuming up audio and video chats, emails, photos, documents and connection logs.
The companies were Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube, PalTalk, AOL, Skype and Apple. If the disclaimers by some of their corporate spokesmen are accurate, a number of these companies might not even have known they were under the wholesale surveillance of government spooks, although that is hard to believe.
The point of the program is to identify and intercept terrorist networks and their plots. The program began under President George W. Bush. But as even President Barack Obama’s friends have pointed out, the program has been “embraced and expanded,” as one account put it, under the erstwhile civil libertarian.
The law, intelligence officials were at pains to explain, does not allow the targeting of any citizen or other person living within the U.S. — unless there’s a warrant.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said that “intelligence collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence we collect and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”
We hope he is right and that this is not snooping for the sake of snooping, because the threats are clearly out there.
The disclosures are likely to prompt congressional scrutiny but not reform or even strict oversight. The only real resistance is from two senators who are such ideological opposites that it is almost comical: the ultraliberal Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who would reopen the Patriot Act to restrict these activities; and the conservative libertarian Rand Paul, R-Ky., who called it “an astounding assault on the Constitution.”
But on the question of security versus privacy, the American people have long since made their choice. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., insists: “There’s nothing new about this program.”
Actually, there is. The American people now know about it.
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.