NSA’s Surveillance Programs, ‘Stunning,’ Should Stir Concern, Constitutional Law Expert Says

July 1, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Since disclosure of classified documents revealing the scope of United States’ surveillance programs there has been a collective shrug of the shoulders among mainstream or elite media. As noted here, the verdict from many in the mainstream media is that the surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden are a fair or necessary trade-off – we must give up a bit of privacy to ensure that the nation is safe from terrorists.

Indeed, much of the focus of broadcasters, such as NBC’s David Gregory, has centered on where Snowden is and whether The Guardian journalist-columnist Glenn Greenwald should be viewed as aiding and abetting Snowden. Recently during a “Meet the Press” segment, Gregory asked Greenwald why he shouldn’t be “charged with a crime.” Greenwald, who along with other Guardian staffers, has reported on the material disclosed by Snowden, was hardly rattled by the broadcaster’s preening. Greenwald later tweeted, “Who needs the government to try to criminalize journalism when you have David Gregory to do it?” (For an entertaining takedown of Gregory, see Frank Rich’s response to a question from New York magazine about Greenwald’s role in reporting on the two massive surveillance programs that collect and store telephone communications and Internet communications of Americans. For example, Rich asked, “Is David Gregory a journalist? As a thought experiment, name one piece of news he has broken, one beat he’s covered with distinction, and any memorable interviews he’s conducted that were not with John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, or Chuck Schumer.”)

But outside the elite U.S. media, many others are not ready to let this one go, and not just because more information about the nation’s spying apparatus keeps coming. The Guardian recently published NSA documents that show widespread spying of the “European Union mission in New York and its embassy in Washington.” In fact the NSA documents reveal that 38 embassies and missions are being spied on by America’s ever-growing and unwieldy intelligence community. The disclosure is not going over well with some the country’s allies. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, said, “We are no longer in the cold war. If it is confirmed that diplomatic representatives of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable.”

Capturing and storing massive amounts of information on Americans’ communications should also be unacceptable or least spark sharper, ongoing debate, regardless of how we learned about the massive surveillance schemes. Without those disclosures we’d likely still be in the dark about those programs. In March, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper during a hearing whether the NSA was collecting “any data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” As Salon’s David Sirota notes, Clapper responded, “no, sir.”  

Recently, I sat down with Georgetown Law Professor David D. Cole, a constitutional law and national security expert. (See his wrap-up of the Supreme Court’s latest term for The Washington Post.) I asked him to respond to pundits who argue that the surveillance programs are not terribly troubling and whether he thought the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is a strong enough check on the intelligence community’s voracious appetite for more information about Americans.

Cole (pictured) said he found the disclosures of the surveillance programs, “stunning and I think raise really serious questions both about our governance and about our privacy. They’re stunning; because I don’t think before The Guardian broke the story that anybody thought that the Patriot Act authorized the government to pick up phone data every time any American picks up the phone to call anywhere.”

Some pundits express shock that civil rights groups or civil liberties advocates should be stunned by the NSA programs and many argue that they are harmless infringements on privacy that are outweighed by the government’s interest in protecting national security.

Cole provides a counter.

“I think there is a great deal to be concerned about,” he said. “We’ve seen in the past that these kinds of tools while adopted in the name of fighting national security inevitably get used more broadly, and abused to target people who the administration finds to be inconvenient or a dissenter or an enemy as President Nixon labeled them. So Cointelpro [Counterintelligence Program], the FBI’s program was initially an anti-Communist program and ultimately involved spying on people in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movements, and the environmental movements. We don’t want our government to be engaged in that kind of practice and the best way to ensure that it isn’t is to ensure that it has strict limits on its surveillance powers.”

Regarding the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which hears NSA surveillance requests in secret, Cole said it was a check, but that we should know more about it.

“I think the fact the court exists [FISA Court] is a check in-and-of-itself, even if it ultimately, in almost all instances says yes,” Cole said. “However, I think it’s far too secret. Certainty, ongoing operations; there’s a need for secrecy. But the interpretations that the Court has given to the statutes that we think are constraining the government – we ought to know what those interpretations are.”

While mainstream media outlets concentrate on the whereabouts of Snowden, bloggers, the ACLU and some members of Congress, such as Wyden, are calling for the government to provide more information about the NSA and its spying programs. At some point a few in the mainstream media might also catch on to what is important in this matter.

See Cole’s entire talk below or by visiting this link.