Why I’m ‘uncomfortable’ with the NSA Surveillance Program
On August 21, U.S. intelligence officials released a heavily redacted 2011 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinion from its then-Chief Judge John Bates. This document, and one footnote specifically, outlined not only how the National Security Agency had been illegally misrepresenting its domestic spying programs in order to avoid oversight from the courts created to oversee them, but also that the NSA had made a habit of doing so, egregiously spurning law at least three times since 2009.
At some point, even if President Barack Obama assures us that he’s “comfortable” with the level of oversight these programs receive, we need to take a stand and let our government know that enough is enough: American citizens will no longer allow our government to secretly and illegally record our conversations and break both domestic and international law in the process.
When the partner of a United Kingdom journalist who broke the PRISM scandal was arbitrarily held in customs for nine hours and had his belongings taken from him, when the NSA illegally recorded more than 56,000 correspondences between Americans citizens every year for multiple years, when the NSA flagrantly broke international law both by spying on our allies in Europe and illegally tapping internal conversations at the United Nations, when the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, gave sworn testimony to Congress that he later admitted was “clearly erroneous,” when multiple NSA analysts admitted to using the tools at their disposal to illegally spy on their significant others, when taxpayer dollars are used to compensate major United States firms like Google and Microsoft for their compliance with NSA spying programs, the president cannot simply reassure that American people that everything the NSA and the U.S. intelligence community is doing is completely kosher and expect the conversation to end there.
Real and transparent reforms are needed to ensure that the NSA and other U.S. intelligence organizations do not continue to systematically break both domestic and international law and in so doing violate the rights of millions of American citizens. It is no longer possible for the public to act in good faith and trust that the federal government is carefully overseeing the intelligence community’s actions to ensure that the no laws are being broken.
Part of the solution may have to be structural; oversight can only do so much. As Ruth Marcus discussed in a Washington Post editorial last week, the American intelligence community’s instincts are to hide as much information as possible from the public both in order to protect their institutions and to do their job better. However, such an environment makes effective oversight and regulation nearly impossible; if secrecy and dissembling of information are an organization’s modus operandi, then any form of oversight, even completely legitimate and law-conforming oversight, would inevitably appear to them as a hindrance to what they believe is the necessity of protecting American national security interests.
Such a line of reasoning, however, is inherently flawed. No organization or individual is above the law. No government organization has the legal right to lie to Congress or the American people about how it conducts itself. No organization has the right to brazenly ignore international law and in doing so jeopardize our relationships with numerous other nations. No organization has the right to blatantly ignore the Fourth Amendment and Americans’ constitutionally protected right to privacy. Enough is enough.