On July 24, 94 House Republicans and 111 House Democrats voted to de-fund the National Security Agency's collection of telephone records - "just metadata" in the administration''s vernacular. Republican and Democratic leadership and the Obama administration narrowly defeated the revolt, but the unquestioned prioritization of national security over individual liberty has ended.
The joining of Republican libertarians with Democratic liberals reflected a rapid and major shift in public attitudes with a Pew Research survey showing that, while a narrow majority still support the general NSA anti-terrorism effort, 56% do not think it is receiving adequte oversight and 70% believe that the information is being used for other purposes than fighting terrorism.
Just a decade ago Democrats were incensed that the Bush administration might abuse library card information. Now we are subjected almost daily to a new disclosure of information being collected by the Obama administration - domestic phone calls; e-mails; Facebook chats; ATM transactions. Next the Obamacare "data hubs" will be collecting extensive information on everybody's health records and finances (to validate insurance subsidies) with little control over who accesses the information.
A big part of the recent change in public attitude involves trust - or rather the legitimate lack of same. Whether President Obama is intimidated by the intelligence establishment or whether he just isn't much interested, the most that he has done is call for a "conversation" - as he did in the" vastly more important" Treyvon Martin case. Unfortunately for the NSA, their exposure comes on the heels of the disclosures of the IRS' illegal targeting of conservatives which clearly exposes the possibility of abuse - by any administration. And Director Clapper's lying to Congress about the existence of phone monitoring doesn't help. One doesn't have to be paranoid or a small government conservative to see our freedoms rapidly eroding.
Key players in this saga come from unexpected places:
- NSA contractor Edward Snowden is the prime mover. Unlike Bradley Manning, he did not expose individual intelligence sources, putting agents at risk and making CIA recruitment more difficult. Undoubtedly, he did provide our enemies with some roadmaps that make us less safe. In both the Bradeley and Snowden cases the intelligence community exhibited horrendous control over access to sensitive information, letting junior operatives have broad access and an ability to walk out the door. The perpetrators were who they were, but senior managers are really at fault.
- Former House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Sensenbrenner (R- Wisconsin), who has not been part of the conversation since he was termed out as committee chair, nearly swung the House vote when he declared that the NSA was operating beyond the limits of the Patriot Act, which he wrote.
- In the Senate, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) seems poised to lead a Democratic challenge to the administration's assertions that all of the programs that the NSA wants are necessary, productive, and under proper controls.
From the past few week's cascade of revelations, the shape of the future reforms takes some shape:
1. A reform of the FISA court procedure is needed. Judges should not be unilaterally appointed by the Supreme Court Chief Justice without Senate approval. An adversary needs to be assigned to make the arguments against the propositions of the intelligence community rather than the current one-sided deliberation which results in virtually no turndowns. Approvals should be tied to specific threats rather than blanket data mining.
2. Greater transparency is required on the "rules of the road". If the boundaries of government monitoring are not known, many of us will assume the worst and abuse becomes much easier. Contrary to the claim of Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in "A Few Good Men", we can handle the truth, and the balance should not be the sole purview of the intelligence community.
3. There must be aqccountability for abuse. The Director of the NSA cannot lie to Congress. The leaders of the IRS cannot be allowed to target political opponents. The Mannings and Snowdens cannot be allowed to decide which oaths to violate and which laws to break. An incompetent administration cannot stand in the way of accountability.
These are hard questions and technoloy has changed the playing field. Without presidential engagement or help from the Attorney General it will be hard to get the controls right, but a bi-partisan Congressional push-back has begun in the "land of the free and the home of the brave."
And a bit of humor from Politizoid.
bill bowen - 8/2/13