Last Wednesday, reporter Glenn Greenwald revealed in the UK Guardian that the FBI and National Security Agency were implementing a top-secret, court-ordered program requiring Verizon Business Network Services to turn over daily “telephony metadata” logs on hundreds of millions of calls it processes for its subscribers.
This “transactional data” excludes the content of the calls, but includes the numbers from which they originate and to which they are made, as well as subscriber IDs, calling card numbers, and the time and length of the calls.
The order authorizing the program was issued by District Court and former U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Justice Roger Vinson, who also happens to be the first federal judge to have ruled that Obamacare’s insurance mandate is unconstitutional. (Clearly Vinson knows a thing or two about what’s constitutional and what’s not.) Vinson agreed with the administration’s argument that the NSA’s phone surveillance is justified under the Business Records section of the Patriot Act.
On Thursday, The Guardian revealed that the NSA’s surveillance activities also included tapping into the servers of Internet and social networking companies such as Google, Microsoft, AOL, Apple, Facebook, and YouTube. Project PRISM, as it is known, allows the government to access users’ search histories, file transfers, e-mail, chats, login information, and social network profiles.
As it happens, in 2006 reporters revealed that the Bush administration had also been accessing metadata on millions of phone records from major telephone carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth. Democrats including Senator Barack Obama railed against the Bush administration’s “spying” on Americans, but until Greenwald’s report, it was not known that President Obama had continued and expanded Bush’s efforts.
Ironically, most on the left, including The New York Times, the American Civil Liberties Union, and numerous Democratic congressmen, have decried Obama’s program—no doubt because they fear the surveillance program might be effective in helping catch Islamic terrorists. (Recall how they similarly opposed Obama’s continuation of 95% of his predecessor’s successful counterterrorism policies. Liberals adore Obama, but even they can’t tolerate his taking actions that are in the country’s national security interest.)
The Obama administration has defended the NSA surveillance program, arguing that it helped thwart a major terrorist attack in New York in 2009. Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein maintains that the court order is merely a three-month renewal of a program that has been running since 2006. Defenders of the program remind the public that NSA officials must still go to court to get approval to access content they flag as suspicious based on metadata.
The problem with the NSA program isn’t its surveillance activities, for which a reasonable case can be made. Radical anti-interventionist libertarian Rand Paul exemplifies the superficial stance against the program when he argues that it involves collecting “hundreds of millions”—gasp!—of records from a country with, um, hundreds of millions of residents.
The problem with the NSA program isn’t its ability to function after former NSA employee Edward Snowden leaked its existence to journalists, an act some have called treasonous. The Bush administration was able to continue its program in altered form even after The New York Times reported on a leak about it in 2006.
The problem with the Obama administration’s NSA program is the Obama administration, which poisons everything it touches, from gun control (see Fast and Furious) to implementation of its own stimulus act (see Obama’s firing of numerous Inspectors General).
The problem with Obama’s NSA program is that Obama cannot be trusted with sensitive information. Consider:
When evidence suggested that al-Qaeda affiliates were behind a murderous attack on our Benghazi consulate, the administration altered its official report to remove such references, sent out its Ambassador to the United Nations to lie about the cause of the attack until the Presidential election was over, and threw an innocent filmmaker in jail for a year on trumped-up probation-violation charges.
High-level administration officials were likely aware of and probably approved a comprehensive IRS effort to delay for years the tax-exempt status of hundreds of conservative and Tea Party organizations, and to target major Republican donors for harassment, schemes whose sordid details journalists are still uncovering.
The administration’s Justice Department was caught subpoenaing AP reporters’ phone and e-mail records, and spuriously identifying Fox News reporter James Rosen as a co-conspirator in a national security leak, scandals we learned about only because of the efforts of intrepid reporters.
Under a responsible administration, the NSA’s surveillance program would provoke debate, but perhaps not grave concern. Under this administration, the agency’s intelligence-gathering capabilities—like most other executive powers Obama has been granted, and many he has not—should send chills down our spines.
Previously published in modified form at Red Alert Politics
- Washington attempts to contain fallout from NSA surveillance leaks, Clapper apparently lied under oath (dprogram.net)
- Conservative activist files lawsuit over NSA surveillance (computerworld.co.nz)
- Authoritarian Vs Non-authoritarian On NSA Leaks (notthesingularity.com)
- Secret surveillance: The NSA is collecting Americans’ phone records (tv.msnbc.com)
- Congrats, Everyone: You Voted For NSA Overreach Under Obama And Bush; Now Can We All Finally End It? (mediaite.com)