New York Times

President Obama's dragnet - a New York Times Editorial

Within hours of the disclosure that federal authorities routinely collect data on phone calls Americans make, regardless of whether they have any bearing on a counterterrorism investigation, the Obama administration issued the same platitude it has offered every time President Obama has been caught overreaching in the use of his powers: Terrorists are a real menace and you should just trust us to deal with them because we have internal mechanisms (that we are not going to tell you about) to make sure we do not violate your rights.

Those reassurances have never been persuasive — whether on secret warrants to scoop up a news agency’s phone records or secret orders to kill an American suspected of terrorism — especially coming from a president who once promised transparency and accountability.

The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it. That is one reason we have long argued that the Patriot Act, enacted in the heat of fear after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by members of Congress who mostly had not even read it, was reckless in its assignment of unnecessary and overbroad surveillance powers.

Based on an article in The Guardian published Wednesday night, we now know that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency used the Patriot Act to obtain a secret warrant to compel Verizon’s business services division to turn over data on every single call that went through its system. We know that this particular order was a routine extension of surveillance that has been going on for years, and it seems very likely that it extends beyond Verizon’s business division. There is every reason to believe the federal government has been collecting every bit of information about every American’s phone calls except the words actually exchanged in those calls.

Articles in The Washington Post and The Guardian described a process by which the N.S.A. is also able to capture Internet communications directly from the servers of nine leading American companies. The articles raised questions about whether the N.S.A. separated foreign communications from domestic ones.

A senior administration official quoted in The Times online Thursday afternoon about the Verizon order offered the lame observation that the information does not include the name of any caller, as though there would be the slightest difficulty in matching numbers to names. He said the information “has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats,” because it allows the government “to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.”

That is a vital goal, but how is it served by collecting everyone’s call data? The government can easily collect phone records (including the actual content of those calls) on “known or suspected terrorists” without logging every call made. In fact, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was expanded in 2008 for that very purpose.

Essentially, the administration is saying that without any individual suspicion of wrongdoing, the government is allowed to know whom Americans are calling every time they make a phone call, for how long they talk and from where.

This sort of tracking can reveal a lot of personal and intimate information about an individual. To casually permit this surveillance — with the American public having no idea that the executive branch is now exercising this power — fundamentally shifts power between the individual and the state, and it repudiates constitutional principles governing search, seizure and privacy.

The defense of this practice offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is supposed to be preventing this sort of overreaching, was absurd. She said on Thursday that the authorities need this information in case someone might become a terrorist in the future. Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the vice chairman of the committee, said the surveillance has “proved meritorious, because we have gathered significant information on bad guys and only on bad guys over the years.”

But what assurance do we have of that, especially since Ms. Feinstein went on to say that she actually did not know how the data being collected was used?

(1) comment

John Flanagan

Why is the New York Times so indignant about the NSA eavesdropping on American citizens and maintaining a data base on orders of Obama? We are engaged in a terrorist jihad directed against our citizens by vicious individuals who do, in fact, need to be monitored closely, less our parades, sporting events, shopping malls become incendiary places of blood and misery so that the killers living among us may make a statement. Where was the NY Times when FDR ordered Japanese American citizens interned, German Americans spyed upon, and communications monitored with available resources? By itself, government monitoring of communication and social media for the purpose of ant-terrorist defense should be no problem for any of us, since we must not allow the terrorists who live here to have an advantage in planning their acts of violence. Sabotage and mass murder are the tools of motivated terrorists and I am sure no person discussing this issue would like to have a loved one become a victim in some future incident.
The vast majority of law abiding citizens will have normal communications, nothing surprising, but the terrorist or potential terrorist will have something to fear; exposure and detection. Where this issue gets tricky is because this administration is untrustworthy, targeting political opponents, conservatives, labeling right wing groups as political enemies, and the potential use of this data base is deleterious to personal freedom. Those who oppose the policies of this administration can rightfully feel that private communications may be utilized to prosecute citizens merely exercising their free speech rights.
Remember the IRS was caught using their immense power to target and audit conservative groups. Power corrupts. Obama himself made the troubling statement paraphrased but emphasing the strategy of rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies. Within some agencies, Obama's supporters may be so partisan that they feel inclined to use their power against those legitimately opposed to the Obama administration's goals.
The erosion of trust in this administration requires the light of day. Whether Republican or Democrat, the people are entitled to a government that is trustworthy. In this regard, the Obama administration falls short.

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