On June 5 and June 7, London-based Guardian printed and reported on two government documents.
One shows Verizon has been providing the National Security Administration with detailed records of every phone communication from all of its more than 100 million customers. The document was a secret court order directing Verizon to turn over call records to the NSA for a three-month period starting April 2013. This order, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein said later, is a routine extension of orders in place since 2007.
The other document, a NSA Power Point presentation, describes the NSA’s top secret PRISM program, in which the spy agency has been directly seizing all foreign Internet communications from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple. While the NSA claims PRISM only targets foreign communications, it also records domestic communications it comes across in the process of its searches and turns some over to the FBI, the Guardian reported.
“The threat from terrorism remains very real and these lawful intelligence activities must continue, with the careful oversight of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government,” said a June 6 statement from Feinstein, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Several times they said the government is not listening to your phone calls, but collecting and analyzing patterns of telephone numbers, length of calls and other “metadata.”
To listen to someone’s phone calls, Feinstein and Chambliss said, “would require a specific order from the FISA Court,” referring to the top-secret courts set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 that rubber-stamp spy agencies’ snooping warrants.
At a press conference in California June 7, Obama said “modest encroachments on privacy” are tradeoffs to protecting the American people and assured that “my team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly.”
“That’s not to suggest that you just say, trust me; we’re doing the right thing; we know who the bad guys are,” Obama said. “The reason that’s not how it works is because we’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight.”
After Sept. 11, 2001, then President George W. Bush initiated the current wiretap operation. After it was revealed by the New York Times in 2005, it was made legal by a bipartisan Congress in 2008. The authorization for the spying was extended for five years by Obama and Congress at the end of 2012.
Vocal opposition to the spy programs has been limited to a small handful of senators — Kentucky Republican Rand Paul and Democrats Mark Udall from Colorado and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
The Wall Street Journal was among the major dailies that ran editorials praising the Obama administration’s spy programs. The conservative Investor’s Business Daily, on the other hand, denounced the government’s violations of constitutional rights, while milder criticisms were printed in the liberal New York Times and Washington Post.
NSA contractor leaks to press
On June 8 self-proclaimed whistleblower Edward Snowden, who had access to classified information at the NSA as a computer specialist and employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, came forward to claim credit for the leaks. Snowden said what he did was similar to what Private Bradley Manning did, but more selective and with more concern for U.S. government interests. A court-martial hearing for Manning, who was arrested in May 2010 for turning over a massive amount of classified data to website Wikileaks, began June 3.
“The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting,” Snowden told the Guardian. “I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.”
“You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody,” Snowden continued. “Then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis.”
The interviews were conducted in Hong Kong, where Snowden fled before leaking the documents.
“I think it’s an act of treason,” Feinstein said June 10 in reference to Snowden’s leaks to the press, reported The Hill.
Snowden’s leaks come less than a month after two other revelations: the Justice Department’s wiretapping and spy operations against Associated Press and Fox News reporters and the Obama administration’s use of the Internal Revenue Service to go after political opponents.
As part of the Obama administration’s efforts to defend use of executive power to expand spy operations, they have invoked the Espionage Act of 1917 to go after government officials they charge with leaking secrets to the press. Obama has used the act to file charges six times — twice as many as all his predecessors combined.
“To my knowledge, we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information,” Senator Chambliss asserted in a joint press conference with Feinstein, in reference to the recent leaks to the Guardian.
In fact there have been a number of legal challenges to the wiretap programs, including from Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The Supreme Court threw out the case brought by the ACLU and Amnesty International, agreeing with the government’s argument that since the programs are secret, those bringing suit could not prove they were being wiretapped.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation suit is still in court. The Obama administration says it should be tossed out because the wiretaps are protected by “presidential privilege.”
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home