A real debate on surveillance
The New York Times said the following in an editorial:
For years, as the federal surveillance state grew into every corner of American society, the highest officials worked hard to pretend that it didn’t exist. Now that Americans are learning what really takes place behind locked doors, many officials claim they are eager to talk about it. “That’s a conversation that I welcome having,” President Barack Obama said Saturday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that she was open to holding a public hearing on the subject now, a hearing next month, a hearing every month. This newfound interest in openness is a little hard to take seriously, not only because of the hypocrisy involved but because neither official seems to want to do more than talk about being open.
If the president wants to have a meaningful discussion, he can order his intelligence directors to explain to the public precisely how the National Security Agency’s widespread collection of domestic telephone data works. Since there’s not much point in camouflaging the program anymore, it’s time for the public to get answers to some basic questions.
Are the calls and texts of ordinary Americans mined for patterns that might put innocent people under suspicion? Why is data from every phone call collected, and not just those made by people whom the government suspects of terrorist activity? How long is the data kept, and can it be used for routine police investigations? Why was a private contractor like Edward Snowden allowed to have access to it? So far, no one at the White House seems interested in a substantive public debate.
Feinstein said on ABC News’ “This Week” program on Sunday that a secret court order on the phone-data program (leaked by Snowden) didn’t tell the full story. Another court document explained the strictures on the program, but that wasn’t leaked, she said, sounding almost regretful that it remains under seal. Feinstein doesn’t have the power to release it herself, but she could at least demand that the administration make it public.
And while they’re at it, some of the legal opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that made these data-collection programs possible could be released. Feinstein was rebuffed when she asked the court for redacted summaries of its opinions; as chairwoman, she should use her power to demand that the administration find ways to make the court even slightly more transparent.
For years, members of Congress ignored evidence that domestic intelligence-gathering had grown beyond their control, and, even now, few seem disturbed to learn that every detail about the public’s calling and texting habits now reside in an NSA database.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. last week, saying that, as the author of the Patriot Act, he didn’t believe that the collection of phone records was consistent with his interpretation of the law. But, over the years, Sensenbrenner has been repeatedly warned by critics that the law was so broad that it was subject to precisely this kind of abuse.
Feinstein has held several closed-door briefings for lawmakers. If she wants to hold hearings that are useful to the public, she should focus on the laws that fostered the growth of domestic spying, and the testimony should not consist of blithe assurances that the government can be trusted. The public needs explanations of how an overreaching intelligence community pushed that trust to the brink.