Before this summer, you probably never wondered if that weekly phone call to your out-of-state sister was snagged by a government sweep of domestic communications. That email you sent to your college buddy yesterday did it catch the attention of some curious fingers at a National Security Agency keyboard somewhere?
There have always been people eager to believe the worst about their government, but they have long lived on the tin foil fringes of the national conversation. Now, a troubling drip of revelations about NSA eavesdropping has made the implausible just a bit more plausible. It threatens not only the privacy that the Constitution guarantees Americans, but the foundation of trust we have in our government.
The disclosures began in June with reports that the NSA has for years captured data about domestic emails and phone calls to and from foreign locations. Earlier this month, another jarring revelation: On 2,776 occasions over a 12-month span, NSA facilities near Washington engaged in unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications, the Washington Post reported.
It gets worse. Last week, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the NSA has built a surveillance network capable of reaching roughly 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic, greater than it has previously disclosed. In some cases, according to the report, the NSA retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic phone calls made with Internet technology.
Finally, there was the declassification last week of a 2011 opinion by John Bates, who was then the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Bates ruled that the government had been illegally collecting tens of thousands of domestic communications, and he castigated the government for substantially misrepresenting three times in three years the scope of a major collection program.
Put simply, the government collected information it shouldnt have, and it didnt tell the truth about what it was doing.
Some caveats: The 2,776 violations were caught by an internal audit, which at least shows some NSA effort to toe a constitutional line. Likewise, Bates was responding to the governments own disclosures, and officials subsequently moved to correct the problems.
Also encouraging is President Obamas promise this month of greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints on the mass collection of domestic communications. But he has offered few specifics, and the data collection continues in ways we now know and perhaps in ways we dont.
For many, thats just fine. Most Americans understand that intelligence agencies have a critical job, and officials say that NSA programs have contributed to preventing terrorist attacks. For sure, Americans also have become conditioned to the public nature of private communications. We know our bosses can peek at our work emails, and we know that once we tweet or post, it can be out there forever to see. So whats the harm if the government wants to gather info on some of our harmless communications?
It shouldnt. The Constitution demands probable cause before the government can invade our privacy with surveillance. Violating that protection also erodes an important trust, and it gives credibility to the anti-government paranoia that poisons political discourse these days.
Congress is contemplating bills that would restrict the bulk collection of communications data to those under suspicion of terrorism. Lawmakers also should demand that the NSA be more forthcoming with information to oversight committees and the public, and they should mandate that all FISC proceedings include an independent privacy advocate.
At the least, Congress needs to candidly explore the scope of the NSAs programs and determine whats gained by these mass collections of data. We already know whats being lost.
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