It began with the Department of Justice seizing telephone logs of Associated Press reporters. Journalists were outraged by that attack on their First Amendment rights, but since the public really doesn’t much like the media, the storm faded. Then Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA analyst, leaked documents to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, and the storm became a hurricane.
President Obama, in California on Friday to meet with China’s president, reassured Americans with, “Nobody is listening to your calls.” Too late. Intelligence experts had joined Snowden in a flurry of tell-all revelations.
Former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente beat Snowden to the punch by a month. Though unsupported by secret documents, Clemente answered a question from CNN’s Erin Burnett about what the FBI could learn about past telephone conversations. “We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said,” Clemente told Burnett, adding, “Welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak, whether we know it or like it or not.”
The following night, with CNN’s Carol Costello, Clemente amplified his comments and said all the content and every detail of communications — including phone calls, emails, online chats, credit card purchases and Web surfing — are automatically recorded and stored, including the words in every phone call.
Clemente was foreshadowed in 2006 by former AT&T engineer Mark Klein, who testified that AT&T had given the National Security Agency (NSA) full access to its customers’ phone calls and had also shunted all of its Internet traffic to the NSA from a secret room in its San Francisco office.
Arguably the most credible whistleblower is former NSA official William Binney, a 30-year agency veteran. He’s confirmed the existence of a program called “RAGTIME” that collects and stores massive amounts of communications data — including the content of phone calls and emails — from millions of Americans.
These revelations clash with testimony by the keepers-of-secrets. At a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on March 12, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” To which he replied, “No, sir.” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden followed up with, “It does not?” Clapper answered, “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.” That suggests he does not know what the NSA and the FBI are doing with programs like PRISM, Boundless Informant and RAGTIME, or that the thousands of analysts working for him are “inadvertently” and “unwittingly” collecting huge amounts of data from Americans.
Clapper also said collection programs “cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone within the U.S.” Yet, in 2008, NSA operators told ABC News they routinely eavesdropped on telephone calls between hundreds of troops overseas and their wives and girlfriends at home in America, titillated by their intimate conversations.
The NSA’s director, Gen. Keith Alexander, also seems to have trouble with his memory. In March, he forgot about Boundless Informant in testimony before Congress and denied that the NSA knew how many Americans have had their electronic communications collected or reviewed. Asked if he could get those figures, he said, “No. No. We do not have the technical insights in the United States … nor do we have the equipment in the United States to actually collect that kind of information.” He has never given details about the NSA’s $2 billion Utah Data Center.
Now we know the NSA and the FBI are vacuuming up Americans’ telephone calls, emails, Google searches, parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases and all sorts of digital “pocket litter.” Vast quantities of the world’s communications are being stored in Utah, available for government inspection.
Now we know the NSA and the FBI have consistently misled Congress and the public with half-truths about supposed oversight by congressmen and staff who have little idea of what is happening because so few understand arcane technical testimony that includes words like “metadata.”
Now we know our monstrously expensive NSA has not really stopped terrorist attacks, including 9/11, the Boston bombings and Major Nidal Hasan’s Fort Hood massacre, and that regaining our Fourth Amendment rights to privacy will not give aid to al Qaida.
Now we know the sudden flood of leaks is not damaging our security. As William Binney told The Daily Caller on June 10, “Terrorists already knew all this stuff. … So, who are we keeping this from? It’s not the terrorists. We are really keeping it from the American public. Because that’s who they’re collecting data about. And that’s who they’re keeping it secret from.”
The Daily Caller asked Binney if he thought the Fourth Amendment could be restored or reformed. “Certainly it’s possible to do,” he said. “There’s a technical way to do it. But these people have all been duped by the intelligence community agencies. They throw technobabble down at the Congress and the judges. And those people have no idea what they’re talking about. All they can do is listen to the agencies and take their word for it. And they have no way of double-checking or verifying. So I look at the oversight by Congress and the courts as just a joke. In the last year, how many requests for a warrant has the FISA court rejected? Zero. It’s just a rubber stamp. In 2002 the FISA courts found out that the FBI lied on 75 affidavits for a warrant. And they didn’t do anything as a result of that. How good of an oversight is that? It’s nothing, it’s a joke.”
So is it just that Americans love Big Brother because they haven’t been told the truth in the past? If so, the latest revelations may cause a shift in public opinion.
The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus doesn’t think so. He argues that unlike Snowden, Americans don’t value privacy and happily wallow in global social media. They believe government is in their lives like a Facebook “friend.” Pincus recalls Yale professor Harry Rudin saying in the 1950s that Americans are unusually willing to trade civil liberties for personal security.
Maybe Professor Rudin was right.
Chet Nagle is a graduate of the Naval Academy and Georgetown Law, and the author of “Iran Covenant.”