Every so often, an event cuts directly through the partisan political posturing endlessly practiced in congress….or at least it appears to cut through it on the surface. Just such an event recently occurred with the revealing of the years-long mega-data-mining of most of the telephone and internet records of ordinary Americans by the US National Security Agency (NSA).
This program is the evolution of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant-less secret government surveillance program which started after 9-11 by the Bush Administration along with the Patriot Act and other lesser known laws. The outing was an act perpetrated by a former employee of a secret NSA contractor. Edward Snowden, a high school dropout who never completed his full enlistment in the US Army, nor did he complete his computer courses at a community college, was nonetheless enough of a computer wiz to work his way up from being a security guard at the CIA into a US$200,000 job with a secret intelligence contractor. As such, he had access to computers, files, programs and other secret information about covert US intelligence activities. He also signed a non-disclosure clause and he would have taken an oath to never reveal any classified information.
Still, despite these conditions of his employment, he freely told an American reporter for the British newspaper “The Guardian” about the current data-gathering programs at the NSA, including the name of the phone company providing the data, and the extent of the email mining, which was more about who is emailing whom than the exact wording and content of every email.
Realistically neither the NSA nor any other organization could possibly read every email, nor listen to every telephone conversation in this country. It would be akin to trying to listen to every conversation occurring at every sports stadium everywhere, all at the same time.
Even though that level of eavesdropping is impossible, all surveillance programs carry issues and risks. For instance, assume that you called a doctor, and then a lab, and then a hospital and then your lawyer, and then a cab company. Even though no one had listened in on your conversation, just having the phone numbers of each place you called could tell a story about you being sick. That constitutes an invasion of privacy for most Americans.
Also bearing consideration is the fact that power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and we have already experienced episodes of government officials going beyond the law “in the interest of expediency and national security”. Nowhere was this more clear than when the Bush administration routinely bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court again and again to listen in on phone conversations during the Iraqi war, claiming they “didn’t have time” to get the secret warrant from the FISA court as required by law.
There is no evidence that the Obama administration either has in the past or would in the future condone such a violation. But Obama leaves office in January 2017. What if the next administration is more in line with “Tricky Dick” Cheney’s view of world control than the kinder, gentler, more intelligent Obama?
There was some some good being done by this surveillance, though that’s now gone. Until the outing of this information, no one, including the terrorists who would destroy us, knew the extent to which we were capable of monitoring their communications activities. Obviously, now that they know, they’ll find ways around that, just as Osama Bin Laden operated off-grid for so many years.
And there is also an argument to be made that people have a right to know that their privacy is secure and protected in compliance with the fourth amendment to the US Constitution (protection against unreasonable search and seizure). thus, congress must devise comprehensive legislation based upon workable systems that guarantee privacy protection under penalty of law. And here is where the issue is at its most amusing:
Since Edward Snowden blew his cookies, the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows was never more obvious or fun to watch.
Some democrats and republicans see nothing wrong with the NSA surveillance program and have called Snowden a traitor. Liberals like Diane Feinstein have joined with conservatives like John Boehner in this regard (a la sleeping with the enemy). Other very conservative republicans like Rand Paul have joined liberal democrats to praise Snowden as a hero (a la dancing with the stars). What’s not so evident is that as a group, the conservatives LOVE this issue because they hope it will stick to President Obama like flypaper. meanwhile, many democrats secretly LOVE that the conservative base of the GOP wants lots of government surveillance programs to protect against terrorists while HATING big government and background checks, proving that GOP’ers are hypocritical morons that can’t think straight.
In the end, it’s still business as usual at the funny farm… isn’t it?