Question for the day: Do you feel more secure or less secure, now that you know the government is keeping a gargantuan pile of information about everybody’s telephone calls in the name of national security?
You have heard, I’m sure, that the National Security Agency has been mining Verizon’s records for information, such as numbers called and the location where the call was made. This is known as “telephony metadata,” and the very fact that we now have a term like “telephony metadata” is perhaps reason enough to be against the entire concept.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” President Barack Obama assured the American people Friday. Well, probably nobody. And, if they are, it’s under an entirely different part of the program.
We’ve had a passel of these stories this past week. (It also appears that the NSA is sucking personal emails and other data from the servers of the giant Internet companies.) Security issues are very tough to figure out. One side is always saying, as Obama did Friday, that whatever is going on will “help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
The phrase “help us prevent terrorist attacks” is sort of a conversation-stopper.
The other side is worried about privacy, but the public is hardened to the idea that some Big Brother is monitoring their communications. After all, we live in a world where you can email your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.
Let’s start with the real basics. Does the NSA really need all the stuff it’s collecting? Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, the agency has been exploding. It has an enormous operation outside of Washington, and it is building another million-square-foot complex in the Utah desert. It collects an estimated 1.7 billion pieces of communication a day.
“When you have the ability to get more and more data, the natural inclination is to get as much as possible,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, the former chairman of the House oversight committee.
Those of us who have seen the show “Hoarders” know that more is not always better and that “as much as possible” sometimes means covering up a pile of dead cats. After all, the government didn’t fail to stop the attack on the World Trade Center because of a lack of data. It had lots of information about al-Qaida and its plan to stage an attack on America. The problem was with follow-up.
And the NSA has been known to go overboard. During the administration of George W. Bush, it decided to drop a modest in-house plan for data analysis in favor of a gargantuan program called Trailblazer, which funneled more than $1 billion to private consultants and turned out to have the additional liability of not working. The official who fought most vigorously against it was rewarded by being charged with violating the Espionage Act when he released information to a reporter.
That was only one incident, but we do seem to have an ominous combination: an agency with a bad record on thriftiness, and practically everything it spends money on is secret. “It’s a tough balancing act,” an Obama administration official told me. “It’s incumbent on us and Congress to do the job of scrutinizing the budget, both in terms of cost and efficacy.”
Yeah, what about Congress? The president keeps saying that “Congress is continually briefed” about security issues. In reality, the briefing is pretty much confined to the members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who are sworn to secrecy. Many of them also have a long-standing record of being in the pocket of the intelligence community. A few of the others had been desperately trying to warn their colleagues about the telephone-call program without breaking their vow of silence. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon did everything but tap dance the information in Morse code.
“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” he asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, at a public hearing.
“No sir,” said Clapper.
I wouldn’t rely on Congress to keep things under control. It’s really up to the president. Obama looked as if he would be great at riding herd on the NSA’s excesses. But if he has ever pushed back on the spy set, it’s been kept a secret. Meanwhile, the administration scarfs up reporters’ emails and phone records in its obsessive war against leaks.
And without the leaks to reporters, we would never be having discussions about whether it’s a good idea for the government to collect piles of records about our telephone calls every day.
“I welcome this debate,” Obama said Friday. “I think it’s healthy for our democracy.” Under further questioning, he said he definitely didn’t welcome the leaks. Without which, of course, there would be no debate.
Do you remember how enthusiastic people were about having a president who once taught constitutional law? I guess we’ve learned a lesson.