Privacy Rights Take Hit, While Administration Defends Intelligence Apparatus

June 6, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

The Obama administration, obsessed with leaks of secret government actions, is likely seething over reporting by The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Spencer Ackerman on the secretive order granting the federal government sweeping power to collect “telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon,” regardless of any suspected connection to terrorist groups or activities.

The report reveals an order from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court -- created by the Foreign Intellegince Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) -- granting power to the even more secretive National Security Agency to collect phone data over a three-month period. As The Guardian reporters and others note we have no idea if the FISA Court order is one in a series of orders granting the NSA ability to collect the information.

Salon’s Alex Pareene notes that the nation’s intelligence agencies have continued to amass power for decades. Both parties and presidents have done nothing to rein in the NSA. “While the fact the NSA has the power to do this has been public for some time, we’ve never seen, until the Guardian obtained one, an actual Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant. They are very top secret. Someone will probably be prosecuted for leaking this one. That, in fact, is one of the primary issues civil libertarians, like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been raising: If the way the administration interprets the law is secret, the law itself is effectively secret. Now we know more. But the recent history of the U.S. and domestic surveillance suggests knowing more won’t lead to doing anything about it.”

The ACLU and other civil liberty groups and a few Senate Democrats have tried to raise concern over the unwieldy and largely unaccountable intelligence apparatus. In a June 5 press statement, the ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said, “From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents. It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of the unaccountable intelligence agencies.”

In a piece for Cato at Liberty, Jim Harper looks at the indifference Americans have toward the FISA Court and the power of the nation’s intelligence apparatus. He notes that last summer and then in late December Congress reauthorized, expanded FISA powers for another five years, “continuing the government’s authority to collect data like this under secret court orders.” One of the staunchest supporters of expanding FISA powers was Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Not surprisingly the Obama administration is defending the NSA’s actions, claiming Americans need not fear the government’s sweeping collection of phone data. An unnamed senior administration official told The New York Times that the FISA Court order “does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls,” and only “relates exclusively to metadata, such as telephone number or the length of the call.” It’s pabulum like that combined with lofty rhetoric from President Obama that the country must vigilantly protect civil liberties as it conducts the war on terror that has helped shield the intelligence agencies from serious congressional oversight.

Instead of demanding the federal government take privacy rights more seriously and rein in the massive and powerful intelligence apparatus, it’s likely that many Americans will shrug their shoulders, while the Obama administration launches a leak investigation of the FISA Court order. NBC’s Pete Williams said, “It seems highly likely this will trigger a leak investigation,” The Huffington Post reports.