News of two expansive U.S. surveillance programs has sparked a national discussion on security versus privacy and civil liberties. The issue is splitting American citizens and even politicians who normally find themselves on the same side.
Two Republicans in South Carolina's congressional delegation are already sharply divided.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the programs “very helpful for us when it comes to national security.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford's reaction was almost exactly the opposite. He said the data mining is “out of control” and has “no regard for constitutional rights.”
“I think that they've crossed a tripwire,” Sanford said. “As a conservative, it's more than alarming. And frankly, it's very disturbing.”
Their reactions came as Congress and the American people absorb the fallout from news of the programs' details, revelations leaked by 29-year-old security contractor Edward Snowden, who has fled to Hong Kong.
Snowden, who has said he worked as a contractor at the National Security Agency and the CIA, allowed The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers to reveal his identity Sunday.
Both papers have published a series of top-secret documents outlining two NSA surveillance programs.
One gathers hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records while searching for possible links to known terrorist targets abroad, and the second allows the government to tap into nine U.S. Internet companies to gather all Internet usage to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas.
The revelations have reopened the post-Sept. 11 debate about individual privacy concerns versus heightened measures to protect the U.S. against terrorist attacks.
The NSA has asked the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation into the leaks. Government lawyers are now “in the initial stages of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access,” said Nanda Chitre, a Justice Department spokeswoman.
President Barack Obama said the programs are authorized by Congress and subject to strict supervision of a secret court, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said they do not target U.S. citizens.
House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said Monday that Snowden's high-profile leaks are part of a broader effort by Obama's opponents to damage the administration politically.
“There is an attempt by several people to do political harm to this president. I just think this is part of that,” Clyburn told BuzzFeed.
Graham did not buy into that assertion, but agreed with Clyburn that Snowden ought to be extradited to the United States to face charges. “I hope they follow this young man to the ends of the earth and bring him to justice,” he said.
Graham said he understands that some people don't trust the Obama administration, but the program “started under (George W.) Bush and has numerous checks and balances that I find are very adequate for civil liberties.”
“I'm very familiar with it,” he added. “This is my area, national security.
A contrary view
Snowden claims the programs are open to abuse.
“Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector. Anywhere,” he said in a video on the Guardian's website. “I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.”
Sanford was not alone in his concern about the wide reach of the surveillance.
“I expect the government to protect my privacy. It feels like that isn't what's been happening,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Again, there's a line, but to me, the scale of it and the fact the law was being secretly interpreted has long concerned me.”
When Sanford appeared before Dorchester County Republicans during a Saturday breakfast meeting, he heard similar concerns.
“Rightfully, they were really, really upset. I think if you're a conservative, you ought to be very, very upset, maddened, frustrated. I think if you're a liberal, you ought to be very maddened, frustrated and upset,” he said. “Wherever you are on the social scale in terms of political philosophy, this whole notion of Big Brother just sort of mining through personal records is flabbergasting from a social standpoint. It's disturbing from a political standpoint.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, contends that the surveillance does not infringe on U.S. citizens' privacy, and that it helped disrupt a 2009 plot to bomb New York City's subways and played a role in the case against an American who scouted targets in Mumbai, India, before a deadly terrorist attack there in 2008. Feinstein spoke on ABC's “This Week.”
Graham also said the programs have been effective and helpful in terms of national security.
“We're not looking at you, we're looking at a group of phone numbers, not names,” he said. “Basically, you're telling the computer, out of this vast array of phone numbers, tell me who has been calling Yemen during the past month. When you get that last, you see if you can match it up with known terrorists, then you have to go get a warrant to monitor content.”
Graham said he wonders whether the leaks already have done terrorists irreparable harm. “If this program suddenly went away, I think we would pay a price for it,” he said. “My concern is it may have already been compromised to the point of being ineffective. ... If that's true, it's a great loss to our national security.”
While many Americans were shocked to learn that the NSA could see their Internet activity or who they called when and where, several Lowcountry technology experts weren't as surprised.
“To me it's not anything new,” said John LaCour, CEO of Charleston-based cybersecurity company PhishLabs.
He said this type of surveillance goes back to the ECHELON program during the Cold War and to telegraph operators before that. What has changed is the nature of the threat.
“With the War on Terror, we're not fighting nation states, we're fighting networks of bad people,” LaCour said. “And by definition they communicate over networks, so if our government is going to protect us from these threats, they're going to need some visibility into the networks.”
Phil Yanov, a former tech company executive who founded local industry groups like Tech After Five, said he assumed the government was making use of the most powerful computing tools at its disposal. After all, if Amazon can use “big data” to recommend books, surely the government is in the game.
“The guys who invented big data, the guys who have the most to win or lose from this information, are going to use it to their own ends,” he said.
Yanov doesn't expect much backlash on a citizen level because we've already publicized so much personal information on social media.
“My guess is if we're going to trust Facebook with all of this data, we're going to trust the government with it as well,” Yanov said.
“I think (Facebook founder Mark) Zuckerberg figured this out,” Yanov continued. “We will give up our privacy a piece at a time.”
Jason Chandler, a 32-year-old Asheville, N.C., resident in Charleston Monday, said he also wasn't surprised to hear of the data-collection techniques.
“Regardless of political party, they will seek out the information they want,” he said. “Whether it has to do with terrorism or not, that line seems to be more gray.”
Chandler has basically given up on privacy. “Everything is open now,” he said. “You sign away your right to privacy when you subscribe or sign up.”
That may be, but even Olivier Galy, who measures website activity for a living, has been put off by the recent revelations.
“The secrecy is wrong,” said Galy, whose Charleston-based Web Tracking Services measures user behavior of people on his clients' websites. “If they want to access metadata and phone calls, we should know about it.”
The Associated Press and Nicholas Watson contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.