When Lord Acton noted famously in 1887 that, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he could hardly have imagined just how powerful the agencies of government would become a century later, and just how apt his warning would be about the dangers of absolute power.
Washington Post writer Barton Gellman reported last week that the National Security Agency violates privacy restrictions on monitoring innocent U.S. citizens thousands of times each year. This data comes not from an outside organization with an axe to grind with the powerful eavesdropping agency headquartered just outside the nation’s capitol in Ft. Meade, Maryland. Rather, the incriminating evidence is found in an internal audit and other classified reports that, as Gellman notes, provide a level of detail and analysis of the NSA’s secret spy programs that is rarely (if ever) provided to Congress, to the courts that supposedly oversee these programs, or to the American people.
Rather than appreciate the seriousness of these privacy lapses, the government considers them to be minor “errors” and attributes them to the fact that its employees at NSA are “only human,” and work in a “complex environment.” The government’s flippant attitude, thus revealed, should concern all Americans; perhaps even more than should the thousands of annual violations confirmed by the report.
For all of the “regulatory regimes” the NSA and its supporters champion as safeguards to civil liberties, and despite President Obama’s vow to open the process to scrutiny, there still is an utter lack of transparency. Even the few Members of Congress made privy to classified NSA program data, are given access under such severe constraints they cannot really conduct in effective oversight. Moreover, it is highly unlikely these members would be effective watch dogs in any event, insofar as members of the House and Senate intelligence committees -- especially the top members from each party -- serve largely because of their strong support for the government’s intelligence functions and agencies.