EDITORIAL: Reining in the NSA's snooping, at least at home. [St. Louis Post-Dispatch :: ]
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 01--[W]e cannot discount the risk, in light of the lessons of our own history, that at some point in the future, high-level government officials will decide that this massive database of extraordinarily sensitive private information is there for the plucking. Americans must never make the mistake of wholly "trusting" our public officials.
Last week President Barack Obama said he would ask Congress to end the National Security Agency's "bulk collection" of America's phone records. Many of the reforms the president already instituted by executive order. Now he is seeking the permanence -- and political cover -- offered by legislative imprimatur.
There is some risk in this tactic. Given the hostility many congressional Republicans feel toward the president, Mr. Obama's proposal could suffer death by gridlock.
The NSA program should be repugnant all along the political spectrum, from civil libertarians on the left to leave-me-the-hell-alone libertarians on the right. Nobody likes the prospect, quoted at the top of this essay, by the bipartisan White House Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, that some politician in the future will decide that all that sensitive data is too juicy to leave alone.
As the journalist and espionage expert James Bamford has pointed out, the NSA has created the means for a "turnkey totalitarian state."
And yet. . . .
The NSA, and its confederates at the Central Intelligence Agency, have the ultimate cudgel, what might be called the Col. Nathan Jessup Defense, after Jack Nicholson's character in the film "A Few Good Men": "You have no idea how to defend a nation. All you did was weaken a country today. . . .That's all you did. You put people's lives in danger."
No politician, from president to back-bencher, wants that on his résumé.
The NSA has argued that its search for terrorism requires that it have the ability to broadly scoop up three "hops" of telephone metadata (who called whom and when and from where, but not the actual conversation) and store it for five years.
Hop No. 1 is calls made by one person, say someone who is suspected of sympathy toward terrorist causes. A second hop allows the NSA to check the conversations of everyone the first person talked to. A third hop takes the NSA to all the calls of the people in the second hop. If the first hop makes 50 calls, the NSA eventually winds up with metadata from more than 1.3 million people. And if there's a Pizza Hut or a Chinese takeout place in there anywhere, all bets are off. Geometric progression, it's a beautiful thing.
Mr. Obama's proposal would leave the storage of metadata with phone companies, and then for only 18 months. During that period, the NSA could only see specific records for named individuals, and then only if it first gets a warrant from one of the 11 judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Exceptions can be made in "emergency" situations.
The administration is stingy with details. What constitutes probable cause for obtaining a warrant? How long can data from the targeted individual be monitored? What constitutes an emergency?
Other problems with Mr. Obama's proposal: It says nothing about the NSA's practice of tapping into Internet routing centers and siphoning off email and web histories, including credit card and financial data. If this were 1980, it would mean the NSA had permission to paw through your mailbox, not opening your phone bill without a warrant, but reading your mail and your bank statements.
That's not good enough.
Whatever Mr. Obama sends to Congress will have to contend with other proposals dealing with the NSA's overreach. The most comprehensive of them is the so-called USA Freedom Act sponsored in the House (H. 3361) by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and in the Senate (S. 1599) by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Mr. Sensenbrenner wrote the infamous Patriot Act of 2001, which badly tipped the liberty/security balance toward security. But even he's appalled by the NSA's broad reading of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, under which it has operated its data-mining operation.
His new legislation, like the president's, would end the bulk collection of data, but also would create a special advocate for privacy issues who could appeal decisions of the FISA court. It would create more oversight of the court and intelligence activities.
Tellingly, neither the president nor Congress have taken serious steps to rein in the NSA's surveillance of foreign targets, including friendly governments. There seems to be consensus that whatever the diplomatic embarrassment, say, of being caught listening to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone calls, that kind of thing is part of the great game. The United States, having spent untold billions on electronic surveillance, is simply better at it than other nations.
In part, this explains why the NSA has gotten away with so much brazen intrusiveness. The U.S. advantage in signals intelligence gives it a strategic edge that couldn't be matched even by doubling the size of the U.S. military.
The trick now is to make sure that no one ever uses that advantage against honest American citizens. And at some point, the nation must be willing to acknowledge the debt that it owes to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contract analyst who disclosed the details of the electronic overreach.
The nation is now fixing problems that it wouldn't have known existed without Mr. Snowden, now living in exile in Russia. It may be time to send him a plane ticket home.
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