Sen. Lindsey Graham: So you believe we’re at war with radical Islam?
Mike Morrell, former CIA deputy Director: I do.
Testimony at Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on the recommendations of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.
I listened to about 90 minutes of the Senate Judiciary hearing of January 14, as part of my first assignment with the KPFA News Department after a three and a half year hiatus from the station. While I waited for the hearing to start on my computer, I thought of the time decades ago when I would occasionally take a day off from my college classes to attend such hearings in Washington. My political hero, Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN), was a member of Judiciary and I liked to see him in action.
Nowadays, the Judiciary Committee is not an educational day trip, nor do I harbor any longer the belief that government, at least as it is practiced currently, can solve the great problems that emerge from the imbalances of power between nations, corporations and individuals. Government should be able to solve those problems. That’s its job, really. But in the last 35 years, I have seen matters grow worse, partially because of government impotence or incompetence, partially because of government malfeasance, and partially because some people in government started the problem, or at least exacerbated it, while others “swallowed the Kool Aid” as it were. Some of these thirsty people are currently senators on the Judiciary Committee, or members of the witness panel testifying before them.
On this particular Tuesday, the Senators wanted to know a few things about the forty-six recommendations that the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies were making to President Obama about reform of the National Security Agency’s Bulk Telephony Surveillance Program, part of Sec. 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The Fourth Amendment, already weakened by the “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard judges use to see if it applies –that standard generally means whatever the particular judge wants it to mean—has been absolutely shredded by the notion of national security, especially in time of war. The result is that our communications are routinely swept up by covert agencies, as NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden has revealed.
People are angry, and rightly so. We are tired of a prolonged war on a tactic (terrorism) that is costing us thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and all of the freedoms for which the terrorists allegedly hate us. We would hope that members of the Judiciary Committee would ask some hard questions about what the bulk spying program, spawned by this alleged war, is doing to our Constitutional values.
In 2003, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) co-sponsored a bill that would have put a moratorium on the Total Information Awareness program while Congress investigated it. He said then, “Do we really need a file on everyone from the small town of Lodi, Wisconsin, to protect national security?”
Apparently, the answer is yes. National security requires a file of mail covers, and metadata of phone calls and emails for everyone in the United States, even though, as Mr. Morrell admitted. “There is not, in my mind, a sharp distinction between metadata and content.
Apparently, the answer is yes, even though a study by the New America Foundation that committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D – VT) inserted into the record, stated that claims that bulk surveillance of phone calls and emails kept the US safe were “overblown and even misleading”.
Apparently, the answer is yes because Mr. Morrell said:
It is absolutely true that the 215 program has not played a significant role in disrupting any terrorist attacks to this point. That is a different statement than saying the program is not important. The program…only has to be successful once to be invaluable.
No Senator followed up Mr. Morrell’s statement by asking him the most obvious question: Does such a bulk surveillance program monitoring the communications of virtually everyone in the United States without probable cause to suspect ANY wrongdoing, much less terrorism, mean that we are all terrorism suspects?
Apparently, the answer is yes, even for members of congress. A few weeks ago, Senator Bernie Sanders (I – VT) wrote to the NSA to ask if sitting members of Congress have been spied upon. He received an answer that he said did not rule it out.
On the Friday following the hearing, President Obama addressed the nation on the reforms he was willing to make to the bulk spying program. He said:
The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible. This capability could also prove valuable in a crisis.
The program does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans. Rather, it consolidates these records into a database that the government can query if it has a specific lead, a consolidation of phone records that the companies already retain for business purposes.
Of course, Obama is being totally disingenuous. The NSA CAN listen to your phone calls. But it’s horribly inefficient. They can find out most of what they want to know via the metadata. As Mr. Morell said, there is not a sharp distinction between metadata and content.
If ISPs and phone companies already retain the records for business purposes, why have they rejected the idea of holding the database for the government? Is it too costly for them to hold the data as long as the government would like. Or would it be just bad PR, tearing the last fig leaf from their cozy relations with Washington?
Again, why spy on everyone indiscriminately? Why can the Utah data gathering center hold 312 billion iPhones’ worth of information? The president’s review group found no use of the information to suppress dissent… yet. But if such a mass surveillance program could be deemed invaluable if it worked once, isn’t it also true that the program is a menace if it is abused once? Why does the NSA have access to our medical records?
I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata.
Much was made at the Judiciary Committee hearing of a supposed distinction between keeping the information in government hands or in private hands. I don’t think corporations should have it because we keep hearing news of people’s credit card data being hacked and released. The recent problems at Target come to mind. But beyond the data security issue, there’s the perpetration of the phony “Public is bad. Private is good” distinction that is destroying the ideas of public goods and a commonwealth in favor of the hegemony of rapacious corporations. If the TPP, a.k.a NAFTA on steroids, passes, it won’t be long before corporations are the government.
There is some stirring among people at the state level, which I applaud, to stop this devastation of our civil rights and liberties. There is a web site called OffNow.org, which has put out a short video, that was posted on You Tube by the Tenth Amendment Center, urging people in the state of Utah, which has a physical NSA data center, to get their state officials to cut off water from the NSA facility. The narrator says:
FACT: There’s absolutely nothing in the Constitution that requires your state to help the Feds violate your rights.
Given drought conditions in the West, should Utah really be supplying the NSA with 1.7 million gallons of water a day to maintain its domestic spying operation?
According to a January 15 article in Examiner.com, by Jim Kouri, Law Enforcement Examiner, Washington State, which also has a physical NSA presence, is considering the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, based on model language drafted by the OffNow coalition, which would make it Washington State policy “to refuse material support, participation, or assistance to any federal agency which claims the power, or with any federal law, rule, regulation, or order which purports to authorize, the collection of electronic data or metadata of any person pursuant to any action not based on a warrant.”
The quote from the hearing that I placed at the top of this article shows the reason why the government deems this mass surveillance program necessary. The government is in what Obama called “the open-ended war footing that we’ve maintained since 9/11.” How will they find the real terrorists if we are all suspects? That’s like adding hay to the stack while you are looking for the needle.
About the author: Kellia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the e-book Eating Poison: Food, Drugs and Health. In 2014, her commentaries will appear every other week (twice a month) in the Leftist Review. Different commentaries will appear on alternate weeks on the website Intrepid Report. She can be reached at theendofmoney[at]gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @endofmoney.
* Section 215 of the Patriot Act greatly expands the FBI’s power to spy on Americans (and anyone else) within the United States.