Should the U.S. government be permitted to collect data on citizens such as e-mails, phone calls, as well as Internet activity for the purpose of intercepting possible terrorist actions against Americans?
“Fifteen years ago, I would have been outraged,” a friend confides. “However, we live in a post 9/11 and Internet age where terrorists are actively seeking vulnerabilities to exploit for the purpose of attacking us. In such an environment, a trade-off becomes necessary.”
That’s one opinion.
“The widespread lack of moral outrage,” writes a New York Times reader (June 12), “at the revelation of the extent of government intrusion into our collective private records can be attributed to the indiscriminate nature of the action and an inherent trust in this administration. The fact that no one individual is being singled out for attention may make it feel as if there were no trampling of Fourth Amendment protections, but it is the very fact of the enormous unfocused volume of information gathering that is so disturbing.”
According to a Pew Research poll, (June 10), “A majority of Americans – 56% – say the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, though a substantial minority – 41% – say it is unacceptable.”
According a Gallup survey, (June 12), “More Americans disapprove (53%) than approve (37%) of the federal government agency program that as part of its efforts to investigate terrorism obtained records from U.S. telephone and Internet companies to ‘compile telephone call logs and Internet communications.’ ”
Comparing the two polls, Gallup adds, “The combined 58% in the Gallup survey who either approve or say there might be circumstances in which such a program would be right is similar to the acceptable percentage in the Pew/Post wording.”
However, what concerns me about both is, once again, a lack ofcontext.
Last week, Senior CBS News Correspondent John Miller, a former deputy director of national intelligence, offered a clearer explanation of the “meta-data” that is collected by the NSA.
“Meta-data,” Miller says, “is data about data. So, if you’re watching a thousand suspected terrorists’ [phone] numbers in Pakistan and Afghanistan and you want to mix that against a particular threat, you see that this [phone] number has been in contact with 50 other [phone] numbers, but three of which are in the United States. So, does that mean that a terrorist has a cousin in Chicago, or does that mean that there is a cell in the United States? And to collect that data in bulk and run searches against it, you can get a lot of information back that can show you whether there is a piece of communications or whether there is a network at work.
“The key,” Miller points out, “is that it’s not about content. They’re not listening to phone calls or dealing with names. What they’re dealing with is numbers.”
Miller goes on to explain that if any individual within these organizations is listening to conversations without a specific court order (4th Amendment), people will be going to jail.
Responding to questions regarding the Snowden leaks of classified information, FBI Director Robert Mueller (June 13), told a congressional committee that terrorists track leaked information “very, very closely,” and that when leaks, like Snowden’s, occur “…we lose our ability to get their communications [and] are exceptionally vulnerable.”
NSA Chief General Keith Allen (June 12), defended his program, saying that the intelligence programs in question have played a critical role in stopping “dozens” of terrorist attacks.
So the key question for me is, while it may be legal, is it ethicalfor the NSA to collect this data, as John Miller describes it, for the purpose of protecting Americans?
And my answer is, “Yes, but…”
The ability for anyone from the NSA to Google (who, by the way, collects far more data than the NSA) to collect and use personal data is very powerful. Responsibility, therefore, plays a critical role in the gathering and use of this data.
From Edward Snowden’s perspective, “The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to.”
Public oversight? I’m not so sure I want me or my next door neighbor knowing this information, but congressional oversight, absolutely. Oversight at every level of the process is vital in order to protect both the privacy and security of the public.
“Snowden said that he admires both Ellsberg and Manning,”The Guardian writes, “but argues that there is one important distinction between himself and the army private… ‘I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest,’ he said. ‘There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.’ ”
And this is where I disagree with the 29-year-old computer whiz. For starters, with as much information as he may have downloaded and analyzed, I don’t believe one single individual is capable of knowing the big picture. But let’s assume he knows enough to raise valid questions about the process and procedures, Snowden had another option. He could have gone to his superiors, ot the Inspector General, or Congress and reported what he knew. He could have revealed to them, behind closed doors, how he collected his information, from what sources and how he reached his conclusions, and he would have been protected by the federal Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989.
But he didn’t do that.
He bypassed the system and released his information directly to the public. The damaging power that one individual or government can demonstrate over others, the very threat that Snowden is railing against, he himself is guilty of.
When Gallup asked those surveyed whether they believed Snowden’s actions were right or wrong in leaking classified documents, Americans are almost evenly split with 44 percent believing he was “right” compared to 42 percent saying he was “wrong.”
In the 1975 spy-thriller, Three Days of the Condor, the younger CIA operations head, Higgins, is talking to his boss, Mr. Wabash, who is musing about an earlier time in the intelligence community – words that seem eerily suitable to the Snowden matter.
“I go even further back than that,” Wabash tells the junior operative. “Ten years after The Great War, as we used to call it; before we knew enough to number them.
“Do you miss that kind of action?” Higgins asks.
“No, I miss that kind of clarity,” Wabash says.