Hello-Solveig-Pic-New

BY SOLVEIG TORVIK

“The administration claims authority to sift through details of our private lives because the Patriot Act says it can. I disagree. I authored the Patriot Act, and this is an abuse of that law.”

–Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

 

It appears the 9/11 terrorists were far more successful in weakening fundamental American freedoms than we knew. Did they assume that their attack would cause us to panic and finish their handiwork ourselves?

The wretched legacy of 9/11 is that we’ve not recovered a balance between security and freedom. Spying technology is outrunning laws that regulate it. So are spies. And when the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., wrongly testifies to Congress that his agency isn’t routinely collecting the phone and email records of millions of Americans, citizens can be forgiven for thinking they’re being lied to about the National Security Agency’s domestic spying.

The NSA claims our fears are overblown and says it foiled “dozens” of terror plots while reviewing only 300 phone records in 2012. We do want our government to foil terrorists. But the devil hides in the details of how it’s done. This approach seems unnecessarily secretive and over zealous.

Preposterously, President Obama claims his domestic spying programs are “transparent.” To whom? Not us. We can’t tell if any meaningful accountability governs data mining of our lives. It has all the earmarks of bureaucratic over-reach, doing it “because we can.”

When human technological ingenuity is paired with flawed human judgment, count on bad outcomes.

Once again, then: In a democratic republic, we, the people, are sovereign. Not the president. Not Congress. They govern only with the consent of the governed.

So when did we consent to having our government turn a privately operated, massive techno-nerd spying apparatus on us? Hello?

William E. Binney retired from the NSA after 32 years, having built a system to spy on Russians that captures information about the targeted individual and builds a life file on everyone the individual has any contact with, however innocently. It amasses huge, ever-expanding webs of personal data.

After 9/11, agency officials “took these programs I built and turned them on you,” he told a gathering of the American Civil Liberties Union.

After Binney went public, the FBI came calling, pointing a gun to his head as he was stepping out of the shower, he recounted in a video posted online by the New York Times. He explained to the FBI that he spoke up because President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney “had conspired to subvert the Constitution” by illegal, warrantless spying. Binney wasn’t charged.

These unprecedented intrusions rest on a groundbreaking legal nicety. Listen up; you’re the one whose business it is to decide if the intrusions are tolerable tradeoffs of your privacy for safety or disingenuous sophistries conceived by control freaks who can’t be bothered to protect your civil liberties when chasing terrorists.

The interception of your communications doesn’t happen when it’s grabbed, the government argues. Technically interception doesn’t take place until the messages are examined. First, we are told, your phone number, the number called and length of call are secretly swept up, reportedly to be stored in the enormous, black-hole data storage center nearing completion in Bluffdale, Utah. It’s capable of holding 100 years’ worth of personal data, according to Binney’s calculations. Later, you and your phone records can be targeted and examined, after the fact.

Yet Senate Intelligence committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein asserts that the records are destroyed after five years. Why then this monstrous data repository?

Yes, a secret court called the Foreign (not domestic) Intelligence Surveillance Court is said to approve warrants for individual domestic spying after the mega-data has been mined and stored; only the government’s lawyers appear there. Critics call this court a “rubber stamp” that by 2004 had rejected only five of the government’s 18,761 spying requests. Its rulings remain secret. How Orwellian is that?

Some argue that we are better off sucking up these little incursions into our private business now lest another terrorist attack succeed and trigger even worse government restrictions on our civil liberties.

My own take? Tyranny comes to town quietly on little cat feet. In our time and place, it is most likely to be self-inflicted in increments and by inattention, not invasion.

But there’s much more that’s catapulted off the rails here, as demonstrated by whistleblower Edward J. Snowden, employed to snoop on us by Booz Allen Hamilton, a private contractor handsomely rewarded by us for spying on us.

“I, sitting in my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president, if I had a personal email,” Snowden boasted to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Why do we pay private contractors to accumulate, and be made privy to, massive amounts of private information on citizens? Like those infamous Blackwater USA mercenaries who served us so well in our Middle East misadventures, this is just another example of besotted out-sourcing to private firms of the government’s core responsibilities – and our tax dollars.

It costs twice as much for a contractor to do a job than to have it done by a government employee, according to studies by the watchdog Project on Government Oversight. We spend $320 billion annually for contractor services but private firms aren’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act; even members of Congress still can’t get the U.S. Army to explain the Blackwater contracts for security officers in Iraq.

Today 1.4 million private contractors have top-secret security clearances, according to the watchdog organization. If so, that’s 600,000 more of them than there are government employees with such clearances. But not one of these contractors takes the oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” as do government employees, who are accountable to us. Mercenaries don’t work for us.

This time, the whistleblower claims his goal is to alert us to what’s going awry in our country. But who knows to what private uses this tempting trove of personal data will be put the next time?

 

PREVIOUS HELLO? COLUMNS