Tag: domestic surveillance

Second Circuit Declares NSA’s Telephone Dragnet Unlawful

In a ruling certain to profoundly shape the ongoing debate over surveillance reform in Congress, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today held that the National Security Agency’s indiscriminate collection of Americans’ telephone calling records exceeds the legal authority granted by the Patriot Act’s controversial section 215, which is set to expire at the end of this month.  Legislation to reform and constrain that authority, the USA Freedom Act, has drawn broad bipartisan support, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stubbornly pressed ahead with a bill to reauthorize §215 without any changes.  But the Second Circuit ruling gives even defenders of the NSA program powerful reasons to support reform.

McConnell and other reform opponents have consistently insisted, in defiance of overwhelming evidence, that the NSA program is an essential tool in the fight against terrorism, and that any reform would hinder efforts to keep Americans safe—a claim rejected even by the leaders of the intelligence community. (Talk about being more Catholic than the Pope!)  Now, however, a federal appellate court has clearly said that no amount of contortion can stretch the language of §215 into a justification for NSA’s massive database—which means it’s no longer clear that a simple reauthorization would preserve the program. Ironically, if McConnell is determined to salvage some version of this ineffective program, his best hope may now be… the USA Freedom Act!

The Freedom Act would, in line with the Second Circuit opinion, bar the use of §215 and related authorities to indiscriminately collect records in bulk, requiring that a “specific selection term,” like a phone number, be used to identify the records sought by the government.  It also, however, creates a separate streamlined process that would allow call records databases already retained by telephone companies to be rapidly searched and cross-referenced, allowing NSA to more quickly obtain the specific information it seeks about terror suspects and their associates without placing everyone’s phone records in the government’s hands.  If the Second Circuit’s ruling is upheld, NSA will likely have to cease bulk collection even if Congress does reauthorize §215.  That makes passage of the Freedom Act the best way to guarantee preservation of the rapid search capability McConnell seems to think is so important—though, of course, the government will retain the ability to obtain specific phone records (albeit less quickly) under either scenario.  With this ruling, in short, the arguments against reform have gone from feeble to completely unsustainable.

Mass Surveillance: From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror

At first glance, the USA Today headline seemed like many others in the nearly two years since Edward Snowden’s explosive revelations: U.S. secretly tracked billions of calls for decades. And while the program essentials were the same—the secret collection of the telephone metadata of every American– there were two key differences between this story and the hundreds before it on this topic. The offending government entity was the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the warrantless surveillance program was launched during the first Bush administration.

Justice Department officials told Reuters that, “All of the information has been deleted.”  “The agency is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers.” However, DoJ provided no actual proof of the alleged data destruction, and the DoJ Inspector General only recently began an inquiry into the program. While it now seems fairly clear that the DEA’s “USTO” metadata collection program served as a model for the NSA telephony metadata program conducted under Sec. 215 of the PATRIOT Act, what is also clear is that Americans are now confronting a government surveillance apparatus that is truly vast. As Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept noted, this particular DEA mass surveillance program is just one of several undertaken by the agency over the past three decades.

How many other such programs exist at other federal agencies, whether inside or outside of the U.S. intelligence community? And how far back do such programs go? How many members of Congress knew, and for how long? Was this DEA program concealed from the agency’s inspector general for two decades, or did the IG simply fail to investigate the program year after year out of apathy or indifference?

If the past is any guide at all—and the surveillance scandals of the 1960s and 1970s are a very good guide—we are once again confronting a level of government over-reach that calls for a comprehensive, public accounting.

In is new book, Democracy in the Dark, former Church Committee chief counsel Fritz Schwartz notes that “…too much is kept secret not to protect America but to keep illegal or embarrassing conduct from Americans…the Church Committee also found that every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon had secretly abused their powers.” For the paperback edition of his book, Schwartz is going to have to add more American chief executives to his list.

NSA Snooping: a Majority of Americans Believe What?

Yesterday, the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center released a joint poll that purportedly showed that “a large majority of Americans” believe the federal government should focus on “investigating possible terrorist threats even if personal privacy is compromised.”

But a careful look at the poll shows citizens are far less sanguine about surrendering their privacy rights, as the facts continue to be revealed.

Pollsters faced a difficult challenge—to accurately capture public opinion during a complex and evolving story. Recall, on Wednesday of last week, the story was about the NSA tracking Verizon phone records. So the pollsters drew up a perfectly reasonable and balanced question:

As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of MILLIONS of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?

Fifty-six percent found this “acceptable.” Thus, the “majority of Americans” lead in the Washington Post.

However, on Thursday, the Washington Post revealed explosive details about the massive data-collection program PRISM—and the public was alerted that the NSA was not just collecting phone records, but email, Facebook, and other online records. So the pollsters quickly drew up a new question, asked starting Friday, from June 7-9:

Do you think the U.S. government should be able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks?

Fifty-two percent—a majority—said “no.” So Americans feel differently about the story based on the facts on Wednesday, when the story was about tracking “telephone calls,” and facts on Thursday, when the story was about monitoring all “email and other online activity.”

The Washington Post could have fairly gone with a story that a majority of Americans do not agree that the federal government should monitor everyone’s email and online communication, even if it might prevent future terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story that the Washington Post went with. Subsequent media coverage of the Post-Pew poll has neglected this nuance and cemented this misinterpretation of what “majority of Americans” believe.

A more reasonable interpretation of the Post-Pew poll is that citizens’ views seem to be changing as more details are revealed about the massive extent of the NSA snooping program. Indeed, most citizens have not been following this story as closely with only 48 percent report following thing “very closely” or “fairly closely.”

I’ll be watching eagerly to see what the next polls find out about that ever elusive “majority of Americans.”

There’s No Such Thing as ‘Good Government’

National Journal’s Ron Fournier:

I like government. I don’t like what the fallout from these past few weeks might do to the public’s faith in it…

The core argument of President Obama’s rise to power, and a uniting belief of his coalition of young, minority and well-educated voters, is that government can do good things–and do them well.

Damn. Look at what cliches the past few weeks wrought.

Fournier then runs through how the various Obama scandals show:

Government is intrusive … Orwellian … incompetent … corrupt … complicated … heartless … secretive … [and] can’t be trusted.

And that’s when the good guys are running the show!

Maybe Fournier needs to brush up on his Common Sense:

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil… Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence… For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least.

Translation: there’s no such thing as “good government.”