Editorial: NSA stops one abuse, but many remain
The National Security Agency has decided to halt a controversial surveillance program, but this was just the tip of an iceberg of government abuses of privacy and due process.
The NSA said last week that it will no longer engage in warrantless spying on Americans’ digital communications that merely mention a foreign intelligence target, referred to in the intelligence community as “about” communications. The agency had claimed the authority to engage in such surveillance under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows it to target non-U.S. citizens or residents believed to be outside the country, although Americans’ communications are oftentimes swept up, as well.
“NSA will no longer collect certain internet communications that merely mention a foreign intelligence target,” the agency announced in a statement. “Instead, NSA will limit such collection to internet communications that are sent directly to or from a foreign target.”
“Even though NSA does not have the ability at this time to stop collecting ‘about’ information without losing some other important data, the Agency will stop the practice to reduce the chance that it would acquire communications of U.S. persons or others who are not in direct contact with a foreign intelligence target,” it continued.
It is a significant departure from previous assurances that the program was vital to national security, though many have forcefully disputed that claim. Its effectiveness has always been difficult to gauge, however, due to the lack of information the NSA has provided about it.
The agency’s decision is certainly welcome, though we must make the perhaps generous assumption that it will do — or not do, in this case — what it says it will, and that it will not simply change its mind in the future. Our enthusiasm is also tempered by the realization that this is an agency, along with various other government intelligence agencies, that is built on deception and has repeatedly lied about its spying activities and violations of Americans’ constitutional rights.
We are reminded of the public testimony of then-National Intelligence Director James Clapper at a March 2013 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. At one point, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Clapper plainly, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper then lied to his face, and the faces of all Americans, saying, “No, sir,” and then, “Not wittingly.”
Within a matter of months, news stories based on information from the Edward Snowden leaks would reveal the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone metadata and Internet communications.
Then there is the matter of the “backdoor search loophole,” by which the FBI or other agencies may search NSA databases for information about Americans collected under Section 702 without having to go through all that pesky business of obtaining a warrant. The loophole is sure to be a bone of contention during congressional debate over the reauthorization of Section 702, which is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
Given the government’s repeated abuses of Americans’ privacy through its snooping activities, those looking to reauthorize Section 702 have some serious questions to answer about how many Americans have been swept up in this supposed foreign surveillance and how useful this intelligence actually is.
The Fourth Amendment is quite clear: Government searches require a warrant issued by a judge based on probable cause and describing the specific “place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” New technology may make our communications quicker and more convenient — as well as more easily recorded and stored — but it does not alter that fundamental principle.
— The Orange County Register, May 6