A bipartisan group of Congressmen thinks they may have made a mistake in giving the National Security Agency so much surveillance power–although there is also a discussion about whether they actually authorized all the power that the agency is currently exercising. This may be one of the few areas of agreement that the two political parties–or parts of them, at least–have been able to arrive at in recent memory.
On Wednesday, U.S. Representatives, holding a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, made?clear to administration officials just how concerned they are. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-FL, said of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA):
The government is stockpiling sensitive personal data on a grand scale. Intelligence officers, contractors and personnel only need a rubber-stamp warrant from the FISA court to then learn virtually everything there is to know about an American citizen.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-WI, who was the chief author of the 2001 Patriot Act, clarified that the renewal of Section 215 of the act included an effort to limit the data the government was able to collect without a warrant. Instead, intelligence agencies have expanded their efforts. Sensenbrenner interrupted the testimony that Deputy Attorney General James Cole was giving to the committee in order to point out:
Section 215 expires at the end of 2015 and unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed. There are not the votes in the House to renew Section 215. It’s got to be changed and you have to change how you operate Section 215. Otherwise, in a year or a year and a half, you’re not going to have it anymore.
What’s going on here that both political parties are questioning the wisdom of (secret) national security procedures? Obviously, the concern was raised by whistleblower Edward Snowden, who revealed the vast extent of the surveillance Americans are subjected to through the collection and storage of their phone records–but the potential for harm seems to just be sinking in.
In light of current developments, Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI, raised the spectre of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover at a recent Christian Science Monitor?event, stating his discomfort with the abuse of power that Hoover represented. It’s well known that Hoover maintained secret files on public and political officials, as well as using illegally gained information to harass political activists and others he considered his ‘enemies’. Many members of Congress lived in terror of him and his ill-gained knowledge.
The American public has been largely supportive of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s activities, but has been slow to recognize the dangers inherent in the widespread abuse of power that our intelligence agencies are apparently engaged in. Last month, two writers for the Reuters news organization, Jay Stanley and Ben Wizner, pointed out that:
…any suggestion that Americans have nothing to worry about from this dragnet collection of communications metadata is wrong. Even without intercepting the content of communications, the government can use metadata to learn our most intimate secrets ? anything from whether we have a drinking problem to whether we’re gay or straight.
The ‘who,’ ‘when’ and ‘how frequently’ of communications are often more revealing than what is said or written. Calls between a reporter and a government whistleblower, for example, may reveal a relationship that can be incriminating all on its own. Repeated calls to Alcoholics Anonymous, hotlines for gay teens, abortion clinics or a gambling bookie may tell you all you need to know about a person’s problems.
For example, it was through a pattern of email messages that former CIA director David Petraeus became embroiled in a scandal over his mistress and subsequently lost his position.
In an interview last week, the Director of the Center for Democracy at the ACLU, Jameel Jaffer, gave instances of the inappropriate targets the government has used surveillance powers against–including Occupy Wall Street protesters, a political group with anti-war views, and information gathered by the CIA to discredit an anti-war protester. Jaffer said:
?The program is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call and the length of every conversation.
The interviewer, Rajkamal Kahlon, thinks Snowden recognized that it’s time to reexamine laws that “prevent rather than promote social justice and democracy”. He begins his article with this still-pertinent 1968 quote by historian Howard Zinn:
We seem to have reached a moment in the United States when the suspicion arises that law is congealed injustice, that the existing order hides an everyday violence against body and spirit, that our political structure is fossilized, and that the noise of change, however scary, may be necessary.
If Congress is recognizing the need for change, surely we, the American public, owe it to ourselves to catch up–and to ensure that the change is far-reaching enough to protect our basic civil liberties. After all, Congress got us into this tangle; we have to create the ‘noise of change’ that insists they get us out.
Edited and published by CB