The disclosures from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden have had the effect of spurring a much-needed debate while at the same time shifting Americans’ views of surveillance programs being operated by the United States government.
Polling has shown—as a result of revelations from documents Snowden handed over to journalists like Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras or The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman—Americans decreasingly believe the government is doing a good enough job protecting Americans’ rights and freedoms and is doing a “poor job protecting the right to privacy.”
At the forefront of efforts to limit the political effects of this shift in public opinion is Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California. She has used her status in the Senate as the chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee to help the NSA defend programs that have come under scrutiny.
Feinstein had The Wall Street Journal publish an op-ed from her on October 13. In particular, she defended a call records program (which she deceptively maintains is not a surveillance program so she does not have to address concerns about privacy).
The program was revealed in June through a released top secret court order to Verizon demanding the company hand over call detail records on all Americans for collection and storage for up to five years. The collection order is apparently renewed about every three months so the NSA can have the data to search for “relevant” terrorism investigations. However, the collection is not targeted. Little of the data collected relates to illegal activities or behavior, which amounts to a violation of the law that is supposed to govern such collection.
She emphasized the threat of terrorism if the program was discontinued, and, in the spirit of former vice president Dick Cheney, she declared, “If we end this vital program, we only make our nation more vulnerable to another devastating terrorist attack.”
One week later, on October 20, The USA Today has published another op-ed that echoes much of what she said in her WSJ op-ed and furthers her insidious agenda to shield the NSA from having to give up its surveillance powers.
She emphasizes how the program has allegedly helped the NSA “connect the dots,” which she again misleadingly contends was a main failure of intelligence before the September 11th attacks.
Feinstein suggests, “The NSA must be able to conduct these queries quickly, without regard to which phone carrier a terrorist or conspirator uses. And the records must be available for a few years — longer than phone companies need them for billing purposes.”
Only a “strictly limited number of NSA analysts (among the thousands of professionals at the agency) may search the phone records database and only after articulating a specific reason that must be approved by a senior official,” she adds. “Those decisions are reviewed regularly by the Justice Department, Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, which imposes strict privacy protections.”
Notably, a change in her defense of the NSA can be detected. She claims, “Since its inception, this program has played a role in stopping roughly a dozen terror plots and identifying terrorism supporters in the US.” However, in her prior op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, she wrote:
…[T]he call-records database and other NSA programs have aided efforts by US intelligence agencies to disrupt terrorism in the US approximately a dozen times in recent years, according to the NSA. This summer, the agency disclosed that 54 terrorist events have been interrupted—including plots stopped and arrests made for support to terrorism. Thirteen events were in the US homeland and nine involved US persons or facilities overseas. Twenty-five were in Europe, five in Africa and 11 in Asia… [emphasis added]
Feinstein did not mention “54 terrorist events” in her USA Today op-ed. Instead, she suggested a “dozen terror plots” have been stopped because of the call records program.
At a glance, that would be consistent with what she said in her Wall Street Journal op-ed but notice she attributes the disruption of these “dozen” plots to the “call-records database and other NSA programs.”
It does not really matter if these unnamed programs did help or not. NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander himself admitted in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that only one to two plots had been disrupted specifically because the NSA was able to search collected call records.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said during this hearing, “The American people are getting left with an inaccurate impression of the effectiveness of the NSA programs.” He added, “We’re talking about massive, massive collection. We’re told we have to do that to protect us.” But, if statistics are “not accurate,” the numbers are not credible to the committee’s chairman, Congress or the country.
A March 2009 FISA Court opinion found the NSA was collecting data that “otherwise could not be legally captured in bulk by the government.” Yet, the court reauthorized collection of “call detail records” because the government had explained such data was “necessary to analytical methods that are vital to the national security of the United States and that it had “minimization procedures” to “carefully restrict access” to the data. A program the court considered to be violating the law was permitted to continue even though the court’s role was to act as a check against this kind of abuse of authority.
Feinstein has said Snowden committed an “act of treason.” It is understandable that she would choose to play a role in the intelligence community’s public relations operation intended to ensure no significant surveillance powers are curtailed in the aftermath of Snowden’s disclosures.
The Pew Research Center did a “wording experiment” in one of its recent polls on support for government surveillance. Between July 11 and 21 of this year, it asked 2,002 adults if they would favor government data collection but described the surveillance in four different ways: if metadata was collected but not content, if phone calls were collected but not emails, if the collection had court approval or if the collection was part of anti-terrorism efforts.
“Mentioning the role of courts and describing the program as part of anti-terrorism efforts each had a substantial effect on public sentiment,” Pew Research found. Support for the NSA went from 26% to 35% when terrorism was mentioned. Saying the surveillance had “court approval” increased increased support for the surveillance by 12%.
If those surveyed heard it described as collecting “metadata from nearly all communications in the US with court approval as part of anti-terrorism efforts,” the surveillance garnered the most support. However, suggesting it collected the “metadata from nearly all communications in the US” or “recordings/text of nearly all communications in the US” garnered the least amount of support.
Therefore, the falsehoods related to the role the call records program has had in thwarting terrorism and the checks placed on it by the FISA Court are specifically tailored to keep the program from being scrapped.
What Feinstein hopes to accomplish is the codification of the call records collection program into law. Senator Ron Wyden has warned that if this were to happen it would become more permanent and “usher in a new era of digital surveillance would normalize overbroad authorities that were once unthinkable in America.”
Making the program permanent would enable the Executive Branch to use the PATRIOT Act to collect medical, financial, library, firearm or other records of Americans for searches in the future. But, perhaps, that is what the NSA would like to be able to do and they do not want Congress to foreclose the possibility of being able to hoard more data on Americans.
Americans must understand: Feinstein is fulfilling her duties as the US intelligence community apparatchik she has been developed to be. All talk of reform is not to increase protection of Americans’ privacy. It is to help restore Americans’ faith in the NSA while helping the NSA escape having to give up any surveillance powers whatsoever. And, if she is successful in her role, it will be profoundly disappointing to have seen the moment Snowden helped create co-opted by her embrace of the politics of counterinsurgency aimed at repressing grassroots opposition.