You’re missing the point. The press and politicians have whipped themselves into a self-righteous frenzy regarding the recent disclosure of the National Security Administration’s (NSA) gathering of metadata on domestic communications traffic (wired and wireless).
President Barack Obama has decided to demonstrate his intention to protect national security by indicting Joseph Snowden – the newest leaker of classified security information. Unfortunately, the result has been that Hong Kong, China, Russia, Cuba and Ecuador have shown their disdain for Mr. Obama and their lack of concern over his resolve to do anything other than talk big by pointedly declining to extradite Mr. Snowden. The truth be known, countries are standing in line for an opportunity to tell Mr. Obama to “shove it” for one reason or another given the continuing decline in America’s stature under his leadership.
Members of Congress have taken varied tacks. There is a group of Congressional members who have declared their moral outrage at the fact that the government has become so large and so intractable that it can eavesdrop on the conversations of its own citizens with impunity. (They may be closer to the truth than others but for the wrong reason.) Other members (particularly those in leadership positions on both sides of the aisle) defend the NSA programs as “necessary” for national security – what else are they going to say given the fact that they have been aware of the programs for years and have remained studiously silent. And there are still others who have demonstrated their “patriotism” by expressing their dismay that Mr. Snowden justified his actions by claiming that the government was trampling on civil liberties and then sought assistance and/or asylum in countries with abysmal civil liberties records – China, Russia, Cuba, Ecuador, etc. For those “barely able” congressional members, you might want to recognize that Mr. Snowden isn’t looking for someplace with a sterling civil liberties record but rather a place that won’t extradite him – duh.
Let’s put this in perspective. The collection of metadata regarding communications has been going on for years. Articles have been written so frequently about the “stunning capabilities” of the supercomputers that are at the heart of these programs that the technology and its existence have proliferated movies (the Bourne series, RED, etc.) and been the genesis of television series (24, Person of Interest, Burn Notice, etc.) The programs were discussed at length during the presidency of George W. Bush with little concern because the target of the communications was international traffic – you might want to remember that “international” also included traffic originating, terminating or transiting the United States, thus including the communications of those living in the United States.
And it wasn’t just the pattern of numbers called – the supposed subject matter of the NSA revelation – but rather the conversations themselves. The supercomputers scanned the traffic for key words and then locked in on particular conversations for more intensive review. I have no idea whether the NSA’s domestic spying included actual conversations but I am relatively certain that the capability exists given the fact that the NSA has applied it to international traffic. The same can be said of the latest revelation about PRISM – the scanning of domestic internet traffic. Whether the NSA confined its snooping to site registries or actually captured the substance of the communications, the ability to do so exists.
In summary the government has the technical capability to track the communications of its citizens – both voice and digital (internet). It can track the origin and destination of such traffic as well as its content and the location of the persons sending and receiving the traffic. That is a pretty intimidating fact of life. Unless citizens are prepared to retreat from their prolific use of the internet and personal communications devices the access to such communications information is pretty much a given for now and the future.
Let’s remember that the data collected and scanned is benign in and of itself. It is the purpose to which the data is put that is rife with danger. And therein lies the rub. The whole of the process of collecting, storing and analyzing such information is in the hands of the Obama administration which has proven itself not only capable of, but anxious to, use the organs of government to attack and punish its enemies – to obtain and retain power. The revelations relating to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) singling out conservative organizations for punitive treatment was just the tip of the iceberg. Not only is the targeting of organizations based on their political beliefs illegal but the subsequent dissemination of such information to friendly news outlets to harass and embarrass such organizations is equally illegal. But those criminal laws did not stop the Obama Administration which was able to pursue these activities in relative obscurity. Similarly the use of IRS audits to punish political contributors is equally as illegal as well as chilling of First Amendment rights. Add to that the use of the “audits” by the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services to harass those opposing Mr. Obama. And the broadcast falsehoods from the State Department regarding the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and the subsequent threats and retaliation against those who might contradict the official Obama administration line. (The constant stream of these abuses should resurrect the issue of whether automobile dealers opposing Mr. Obama were targeted for cancellation of franchises by General Motors and Chrysler when the Obama administration assumed control of both during the bailout.)
The Obama Administration rivals – probably exceeds – the corrupt administration of President Richard Nixon for its abuse of power. The growth of government coupled with the intrusion of government into more aspects of our personal lives has given Mr. Obama greater access and opened the door for great abuse. He has eagerly embraced that. It is of no consequence as to whether Mr. Obama himself ordered these acts or, more likely, simply employed the type of people and set the tone for recriminations that are common to all of the scandals now embracing his administration.
The point here is that it is not the technology that needs to be restrained; it is those who deploy the technology for corrupt purposes – especially if that corrupt purpose is the acquisition and retention of power – who must be restrained. One might remember that this country was founded on the resistance to an overreaching government and that its constitution is a document of limitations on the power of government so as to avoid a repeat.
There are significant national security benefits to the mining of metadata. The transition between analyzing metadata and the subsequent exploration of the content of those communications appears to be tolerably in hand through the requirement of using a separate search warrant to obtain such access. The revelation that over ninety-five percent of over 10,000 applications for such search warrants have been approved by the so-called FISA courts (Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court) might suggest that additional oversight by the United States Supreme Court is necessary. However, the real problem comes after the data has been acquired. All of the power over such content is concentrated in the Office of the President albeit that it is primarily exercised by those acting on his behalf or at his pleasure. The access to such information, especially by those already predisposed to “bend the rules” proves to be irresistible unless restrained by the fear of public disclosure.
President Ronald Reagan once said of the former Soviet Union “Trust but verify.” In this instance the solution appears to be the same. We should trust our president to do the right thing, but given recent and historical examples, verification is the prudent way to proceed. Such verification simply requires an independent oversight free from the influences or pressure of the Obama Administration, the Nixon Administration or any other administration that finds corruption irresistible. It could take the form of a five member independent committee appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court from a list of three names for each position proffered respectively by the Speaker of the House, the House Minority Leader, the Senate Majority Leader and the Senate Minority Leader – the fifth member to again be appointed by the Chief Justice from a list of three agreed upon by the other four members. The President, being the person from whom the citizens would be protected, would have no part in the selection process. The duty of the committee would be to formulate and adopt rules restricting access to the information and the use of such information. Logs of access would be required and periodic audits of use would be necessary. Breaches of access and usage would constitute felonies and require public disclosure.
If Mr. Nixon and Mr. Obama cannot resist the corruptive effects of power, then shining a bright and independent light upon their activities will best serve the safekeeping of our citizens.