Faced with the likelihood that Congress will curb the power of the National Security Agency bulk collection of Americans’ phone records next year, President Barack Obama recently announced a series of measures designed to save that and other NSA surveillance programs. He should have saved his breath.
After five years of resisting any national discussion of NSA collections policies, the president called for “an open debate” on the programs and promised more “transparency” in their administration.
But on Friday The Washington Post published findings from an internal audit by the NSA and other documents showing that the agency has violated the privacy of Americans and overstepped its legal collection authority “thousands of times a year” since 2008.
The documents, provided by former NSA contractor and now fugitive Edward Snowden, appear to directly contradict what President Obama said about a supposed absence of abuses in the NSA surveillance programs.
That won’t help the president’s case to keep these controversial programs operational.
The violations occurred when NSA operators listened in on communications of U.S. residents without a court’s permission. The NSA can intercept foreign communications, but must have the permission of a special federal court to intercept domestic calls and emails.
The audit findings undercut Mr. Obama’s defense of the NSA programs. “If you look at the reports ... what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails,” he said. “What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused.”
The president said there are safeguards in place that prevent that abuse. Clearly, they aren’t working.
And he did not help his case when he recently chose the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, to establish a group of “outside exerts” to “consider how we can maintain the trust of the people” in the nation’s surveillance programs and technology.
It was Mr. Clapper who, during a March hearing, said “No, sir,” when asked by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., if the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”
Confronted three months later with public evidence that he had lied, Mr. Clapper told NBC he had provided what he thought was the “least untruthful” answer.
He is hardly the ideal choice to select the group charged with determining how to gain “the trust of the people” in massive government surveillance programs.
As part of his effort to save NSA’s surveillance programs, Mr. Obama promised to make public the secret interpretation of the Patriot Act under which the phone surveillance program has operated.
The administration contends that the NSA can lawfully demand that all telecommunications companies routinely hand over the phone records of every person in the U.S. despite language in Section 215 of the act that requires any such demand to be relevant to a specific investigation.
The administration clearly hopes to mollify congressional critics of NSA’s surveillance. But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., recently declared that he has not seen convincing evidence that the telephone records collection program has led to successful counter-terrorism actions.
If the program has little or no success, then it is not essential to national security. That makes it an intolerable invasion of privacy. Congress should waste no time putting an end to this abuse of power.