The U.S. government is trying "to create a database of every [phone] call ever made."
That's how one informed person described the National Security Agency's effort to USA Today. That newspaper also confirmed that not only is the government collecting every phone record from Verizon -- as first reported by the British newspaper The Guardian -- it's also collecting similar data from other phone companies.
It's important to emphasize that the NSA isn't listening to the content of these calls. Indeed, it couldn't if it wanted to, given the sheer volume of conversations. It'd be like one person trying to eavesdrop on every single conversation in a packed football stadium.
The revelation has caused some giddiness among President Obama's critics. This news is just the latest example of how so much of Obama's "change we can believe in" has really been "continuity kept secret from us." As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama routinely tore into the Patriot Act as if it was worse than the Espionage Act of 1917. Now, not only is he using the Patriot Act to spy on, well, pretty much everyone, his Justice Department actually used the Espionage Act to label a journalist a possible co-conspirator in espionage.But after the schadenfreude wears off, the question remains: Is this bad policy? Just because Obama might be a hypocrite for employing the tactics he decried when his predecessor used them, it doesn't mean he's wrong. One can flip-flop from the wrong position to the right one.
Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor (he put away the "Blind Sheikh" who masterminded the first World Trade Center bombing), makes a strong case that the NSA program is not only legal, important and necessary, but also that the outrage over these revelations is overblown. Phone records -- as opposed to the content of phone conversations -- are not private under the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, the "metadata" collected by the NSA is essential for tracking terrorists' patterns before they attack.
After every terrorist attack, everyone always asks, "Why didn't the government connect the dots?" Well, what the NSA is doing is connecting dots. Moreover, McCarthy notes in his National Review Online article, this is no rogue operation. It's true, every branch of government was kept in the loop. Congressional leadership was briefed. The administration sought these warrants from a judge. This isn't a scandal so much as it is a controversy over a legal policy -- to which I say, fair enough.