If Mayor Mitch Landrieu and New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas asserted the right to collect your telephone records without your knowledge or consent — all in the name of reducing street crime — would you agree? If you're not a criminal, you should have nothing to hide, right? That's the argument being advanced by President Barack Obama and many members of Congress after a whistleblower in the National Security Agency (NSA) revealed the extent to which NSA keeps track of domestic and overseas communications. Street crime has killed many more New Orleanians than has terrorism in the last 10 years, and yet few here would dream of giving city officials unfettered access to their daily communications.
Many Americans, though, seem to be just fine with it. A Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll last week reported 56 percent of Americans thought the practice "acceptable," while 45 percent thought the government should be allowed to go even further, monitoring Americans' online activity at will — all in the name of "stopping terrorism." Those statistics are as alarming as the monitoring itself.
The name for that monitoring is PRISM, and it consists of two broad programs. The first exclusively involves telephone records in the United States. The second, and more intrusive, involves collecting data on overseas users of many popular web services and Internet providers. This metadata, we're told, allows government officials to look for communication patterns and to request a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant when they suspect danger. (Security experts admit that Americans' data gets mixed up in there, too.)
Does this mean the government analyzes citizens' every phone call, every keystroke, every Google search? No. But the federal government has assembled an apparatus that would allow this or any future administration to do these things should it so choose. The U.S. government hasn't implemented a surveillance society, but it has erected the framework for one, and that should be a bipartisan concern.
Last week, James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, pushed back by saying, "PRISM is not an undisclosed collection or data mining program." Clapper is, at best, splitting hairs. At a Senate hearing in March, The Washington Post reported, Clapper answered "No, sir" to the question, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" That was a lie, and watching Obama and his partisans attempt to parse the facts on this was grim stuff.
Not that the GOP has the high moral ground here, either. Under President George W. Bush, the Patriot Act expanded government's ability to conduct surveillance on its own citizens, and the Orwellian-titled act was supported and reauthorized overwhelmingly by members of Congress from both parties.
Those who defend federal data collection say that crunching the material is done by computer, the same way companies like Facebook, Amazon or Google track users. The comparison doesn't hold. First, having your movements tracked by a private company is an opt-in process; no one forces you to use Facebook, and the privacy issues are spelled out for anyone who cares to read them. Second, under PRISM, the feds can and do go directly into private companies' servers and harvest data without getting a FISA warrant.
The final argument is that governmental requests for specific data must be run through the Foreign Intelligence Service Court (FISC), which can approve or deny specific surveillance warrants. But The Wall Street Journal reported last week that FISC has denied only 11 of more than 33,000 requests made since FISC was established in the 1970s. That's not judicial (or judicious) oversight; that's a rubber stamp and a prescription for abuse.
Political reaction has been contradictory at times. Obama and some members of Congress have suggested the program was really no secret at all. On the other hand, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said that Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, one of the journalists who reported on PRISM, should face legal consequences, as should any "reporter disclosing something that would so severely compromise national security."
Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism expert who served under the last three presidents, wrote in the New York Daily News, "I am troubled by the precedent of stretching a law on domestic surveillance almost to the breaking point. On issues so fundamental to our civil liberties, elected leaders should not be so needlessly secretive."
We agree. Now that the word is out — officially — America needs a serious discussion about what liberties it is willing to give up in the "war against terror." In the end, terrorists aren't the only threat to our freedoms.