The Snowden Caper

In recent weeks the media and members of Congress have erupted with shock, surprise, and outrage about the “new” ways in which our government has been violating the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. There was the “scandal” involving tracking the phone calls to and from the Associated Press. There was the flap over the way federal agents followed the activities of James Rosen, a Fox News reporter. And then there was the news that the feds had been keeping records of virtually all of the phone calls made by virtually all Americans, and how they were following up on suspected contacts by collecting emails and internet records on a somewhat smaller, but unspecified, group.

The media has been providing their usual repetitive coverage, also, as usual, lacking in details even on those channels that “do” the news all day. However, my initial response to all this recent coverage and commentator angst was, “Where have you all been? Why are you surprised?” Let’s review the history.

In his 1961 farewell address President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican and former four-star general, warned us about the dangers of letting the monetary power and lobbying influence of the military industry gain control over our federal governmental processes:

   “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of
    unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial
    complex. . . .
    The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
    We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties
    or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert
    and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge
    industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods
    and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

We have largely ignored his warning, and the result is that we now waste billions of tax dollars every year on weapons systems that our military leadership does not want, and we waste even more on weapons systems that the military does want, but that do nothing to enhance our national security.

But there is another important arena in which our Congress has joined with a large and highly profitable government-industrial complex to misuse the concept of national security. It is known by the broadly generalized and misleading term “intelligence”. Although there are multiple federal “intelligence” agencies these days, including the FBI and CIA and one for each branch of the military services, the industry is epitomized by the agency which operates under the vague title of National Security Agency; the NSA.

In 1975, following up after the Watergate scandal, a Senate committee under chair Frank Church began looking into activities in which the CIA, FBI, and NSA were conspiring with telecom companies to intercept and read messages from and to ordinary American citizens. We should review the record of these hearings because there is a disturbing similarity to our current intelligence situation. The espionage programs the committee uncovered began as an effort to read communications between U.S. citizens and specific foreign targets. Over three decades it grew until it included a wide variety of solely domestic targets as well, after 1967 including persons involved in protests against the Vietnam War. At the time of the Church committee hearings, the NSA was reading more than 150,000 messages each month.

The recommendations of the Church committee led to restrictions on intelligence activities. A firewall was formed between the FBI and the CIA, both agencies were given more specific and separate roles and duties, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provided a system of courts with security clearances so that any intrusive projects could be reviewed and legal warrants provided, which, in theory at least, would apply some controls to the activities of intelligence agencies.

In practice the 1970’s controls were not as effective as intended, and the FISA courts have always been largely a rubber stamp operation, although their presence did, at least, require that the NSA had to provide some information to justify wiretaps and data mining before they started (well, actually, within 72 hours after they had started). But the few controls that were imposed back then were almost entirely thrown out after 9/11/2001 when Congress rushed into action to pass the PATRIOT Act in less than 43 days. Among the PATRIOT provisions, besides allowing federal agents to bypass habeas corpus protections, there were rules allowing agents to search a home or business without the owner’s knowledge and to rummage through telephone, email, and financial records without a court order. These rules applied to domestic as well as foreign terror suspects.

Therefore, we should have known that eventually the NSA and its brethren would overreach. It’s all perfectly legal, too. And they are currently completing the new data center in Utah, which has enough computer storage, in the words of one analyst, “to store the entirety of humanity’s electronic communications for the next 100 years”. Why do they need that much? Who knows? All we know is that they had enough funding to purchase the capability, and we should have expected they would. The NSA has a virtually unlimited mandate and a virtually secret budget. Inevitably, that kind of generous organizational unrestraint will lead to mission creep, if not mission leaps and bounds. That is especially true in the case of intelligence agencies. After all, there are ample numbers of influential people, with access to the media and Congress, who will support whatever the NSA does, based on the argument that those agencies are our only defense against terrorists. We have seen that play out, repeatedly, this past week. In addition, these days a significant portion of the intelligence work is contracted out to private contractors who have armies of lobbyists and are much more concerned about the bottom line than about constitutional privacy issues.

We must remember that the NSA’s plans could be more dangerous to us, personally, than any band of terrorists, given the U.S. government’s significantly greater powers for disruption of human lives and livelihoods. These days, all it would take is for some functionary to decide, on the basis of a few emails or google searches or charitable contributions, that you are a terrorist sympathizer; habeas corpus immediately suspended. It has happened already. And privacy? Edward Snowden noted that he could spy on anyone at anytime, for any reason.

So excuse me if I regard Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, as a hero of sorts. He is a conscientious objector who has risked his own livelihood and life to draw the nation’s attention to this serious and present and growing danger. With any luck, we can use the information he provided to reprise the Church committee’s efforts. At the very least, the PATRIOT Act should be repealed. That won’t happen, but there is now talk of significant modifications.

What we know is that left alone, intelligence agencies will endlessly expand their intrusions into our lives. That propensity must be controlled. While we wait for that to happen, we might reflect on a couple of the other warning sentences that Eisenhower left us in his farewell statement:

   “We . . . must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for
    our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. . . .
    We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to
    become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”

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2 Responses to The Snowden Caper

  1. Kris Lindholdt says:

    Glad to see your Santa Cruz roots are still there!! And you’re right – the issues haven’t changed much over 40 years, though the numbers are greater now.

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