Political Musings June 12, 2013: National Security Agency’s dragnet classified data collection: National security necessity or Orwellian proportion privacy invasion?

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National Security Agency’s dragnet classified data collection: National security necessity or Orwellian proportion privacy invasion?

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program.

The Obama Administration can add a fourth burgeoning scandal to their second term woes. Last Wednesday June 5, 2013, the Washington Post and the London, UK paper the Guardian revealed the National Security Agency (NSA) along with FBI had been the monitoring all phone and internet records in the United States. The story took an added twist on Sunday, June 9 when Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor responsible for leaking documents from the surveillance program to the press came forward. Now the focus is on two fronts, the violations of rights to privacy in exchange for national security, and the legal fate of the whistleblower.

When the story broke, news headlines first focused on Verizon releasing information relating to all their customers landline and mobile phone calls because of a special and secretive court order.  The data collection focuses on the metadata; telephone numbers, call lengths, locations, and call frequency for all calls within the country and calls abroad dialed within the United States. There have been repeated assurances that the phone calls themselves were not recorded. However, the public was soon informed that the government’s collection was far broader and included internet and social media sites including Yahoo, Google and Facebook.

The administration has justified the data surveillance by stating it is important to national security and has thwarted terrorist attacks in the past. A White House official speaking to ABC News stated the program was “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States,” but complies “with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties.”

The government position is that this revelation to the general public would hinder their ability to protect the public from terrorism.  Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper released a statement which an excerpt read “The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.”

President Barack Obama speaking in California on Friday, June 7 attempted to reassure the public that their phone calls were not being recorded, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content.  But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism,” Obama said.

The phone and internet surveillance program known as PRISM has popular support in Congress and there seems there might not be grand scale opposition in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Chair of the Intelligence Committee Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-CA stated that the records collection was a part of the 2001 Patriot Act and said “It’s called protecting America…. I understand privacy…. we want to protect people’s private rights and that is why this is carefully done.”

President Obamas also made it clear on Friday that although the program was a secret to the public, but there was bipartisan support and knowledge of the data collection program from Congress. “The programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified, but they’re not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program,” Obama stated.  The President continued “The relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs.  These are programs that have been authorized by broad, bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006.”

Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican agreed with Obama in an interview on Tuesday morning, June 11with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. “He’s a traitor,” Boehner declared about Snowden’s press leak. Boehner continued; “The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk.  It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are.  And it’s a giant violation of the law.”

Americans and human rights activists are left pondering can the widespread invasion of privacy sacrificed by the government be justified even for national security, even to prevent a widespread and catastrophic terror attack? The answer was no to Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked the documents on the PRISM program on the widespread data collection and privacy intrusion.

Snowden first contacted the media in January getting the wheels in motions for the big reveal. Living and working in Hawaii, Snowden took sick leave from his job and then left for Hong Kong, where he was staying at the time the leaks about the NSA was made public last week up until the disclosure Sunday, June 9 that he was the whistleblower.

In his interview with the Guardian Snowden claimed; “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”

As the US government looks into charging Snowden, he has been fired from his contracting job at Booz Allen, and the conversation has veered to countries that would give him asylum. Snowden supporters have created a petition on the White House’s We the People web site stating that “Edward Snowden is a national hero”  and are asking that there be a “full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed.” As of late Tuesday night, June 11 there are 58,299 signatures, with 41,701 needed for the 100,000 required for a review.

Human rights groups are standing firmly against the data collection, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called the data collection program Orwellian. On Tuesday the ACLU filed a suit in federal court against the Obama Administration challenging the constitutionality of the data collection program.

If there is partisan support for the program there is also bipartisan opposition, former Vice President Al Gore a Democrat, wrote on Twitter “In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?” While a Republican and Libertarian in Congress such as Senator Rand Paul said it “represents an outrageous abuse of power.”  “It is an extraordinary invasion of privacy…. I also believe that trolling through millions of phone records hampers the legitimate protection of our security,” Paul said on Fox News.

Despite the so-called broad bipartisan support, two bills have been introduced to curb data collection since details of the NSA programs appeared in the media. On Friday June 7, Senator Paul introduced a bill; the Fourth Amendment Restoration Act, which would make it necessary to obtain a warrant prior to a data search. On Tuesday June 11, eight senators in a bipartisan effort introduced a bill to end and declassify secretive data collection laws. The heavily democratic supported bill has among its ranks Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Republicans Mike Lee, Utah and Dean Heller, Nev.

At this time the public opinions seems more unclear, two conflicting polls released on Monday, June 10 from the Washington Post-Pew Research Center and Tuesday, June 11 from CBS News.

The Washington Post-Pew Research Center seems to find Americans looking favorably on the data collection. According to the poll 56 percent find it “acceptable,” and 41 percent find it “unacceptable” for the government to monitor phone data. When it came to expanding government monitoring internet activity the results differed; 52 percent did not believe it should be expanded versus 45 percent who support collection expansion.

According the CBS News poll 6 in 10 disapproved of the phone data collection program, however Americans strongly approve by three-quarters that terrorist suspects should be monitored and the internet data of foreigners. Still 53 to 40 percent believe this program helps discover terrorists.

Whatever the political fallout will be for the Obama administration and the legal outcome for Snowden there is no doubt that Snowden will be put down among the ranks of the major whistleblowers in American history.

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