So, doughty warrior of the glibertarians Glenn Greenwald has a MAJOR SCOOP: the National Security Agency obtained a warrant from the FISA court to have Verizon Business hand over millions of phone records. SHOCK! ALARM! OBAMA IS SPYING ON YOU!
Now, I don’t mean to be glib myself. The expanded powers given to intelligence agencies in the wake of 9/11 are a valid subject of debate. Barack Obama’s NDU speech in which he wants to work to curtail the Presidency’s expanded powers is an indication on where he stand on this issue.
But comparing the NSA’s latest data mining to what was occurring under the Bush administration is an exercise in the purest sophistry, and a way for Mr. Greenwald to drive clicks to his Guardian website. (And, really, Guardian, why do you employ a writer who BEGS FOR DONATIONS on your website? )
What the Bush administration did from 2001-2007 was to buttonhole telecom companies to provide call records without a warrant. When the warrantless wiretapping regime was uncovered, the administration was forced to defer all data collection to the FISA court, much to its chagrin. And that’s where all decisions on data collection have resided since 2007.
Again, we can have a vigorous debate as to whether the government should have this kind of far-reaching power. But here’s the secret many of the outraged seem to miss: living in the 21st century means that, basically, you have no privacy. Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google all collect personal information, and sell it to their advertisers. All those ads targeted to you on Facebook and Google Mail are a result of data mining personal information on a far grander scale than this latest NSA record warrant. And all of it is done with nary a peep from the people now most incensed by Greenwald’s exposé.
Now, some GOP Congresspeople are shocked, SHOCKED, that the NSA is conducting the sort of intelligence gathering specifically authorized by the PATRIOT Act, its various reauthorizations, and the FISA acts passed by the very same Congress. If Mitt Romney had won the presidency in 2012, these same legislators would be mute. But, much like Greenwald and his acolytes, everything coming from the Obama administration, even if they voted for it, is immediately suspect as the actions of an out of control autocrat. If he didn’t use the powers vested in him by law to protect against or investigate terrorist actions, he would be pilloried as a weak defender of the homeland. Consistency goes out the window where Obama is involved.
If the folks agitated by Mr. Greenwald want intelligence agencies’ powers curtailed, then perhaps a better use of their time would be to work to elect candidates who promise to do just that. These expanded powers were voted by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress. These powers are the law; a change in powers requires a change in the law. But of course, that requires actual work, which is long and slow; powers, once granted, are hard to retract. It is much easier for Mr. Greenwald to write scathing diatribes from his perch in Rio than enter the lists of politics, where outcomes are much messier.
The headlines scream “OBAMA SPYING ON YOU”; as this article in The Week explains, the truth is that the NSA, by law, has telecoms dump all their phone records into its database, in case they might be needed for a future investigation, as telecoms hold onto records for only 90 days. (Which means that the NSA has to go to the FISA court every 90 days to obtain a new order for collecting phone records.) But, it can dip into this database only if there is a specific suspicion. It can’t simply go trawling for possible criminality. And all is done within a framework of judicial oversight. Once more, one can argue whether such a thing as a “secret” court should exist, and whether the NSA should be able to have this database. But this court exists only to authorize surveillance; any evidence gathered which leads to prosecution still has to be tried in an open, civilian court. Lobby Congress to rescind the FISA laws, or work to elect a new Congress which will; tweeting Mr. Greenwald’s article will achieve very little.
This is going to be a long summer, as war by leaks take up oxygen for the coming months. In the meantime, the Supreme Court authorizes taking DNA without a warrant, and Republicans in Congress continues to shirk any pretense of sharing in the governance of the country. But those scandals aren’t sexy enough, and don’t lend to screaming headlines. And so it shall be, until we say “enough” and deal with the real problems facing this country.
But the silly season always passes, and Mr. Greenwald will always have to beg for donations. There is that.