The Wall Street Journal peels back another layer of the NSA surveillance onion with an exclusive report:
The National Security Agency—which possesses only limited legal authority to spy on U.S. citizens—has built a surveillance network that covers more Americans’ Internet communications than officials have publicly disclosed, current and former officials say. The system has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence, including a wide array of communications by foreigners and Americans. In some cases, it retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic phone calls made with Internet technology, these people say.
More details on "filtering" capabilities and processes. Note well the bits about content interception and data storage:
The NSA’s filtering, carried out with telecom companies, is designed to look for communications that either originate or end abroad, or are entirely foreign but happen to be passing through the U.S. But officials say the system’s broad reach makes it more likely that purely domestic communications will be incidentally intercepted and collected in the hunt for foreign ones...This filtering takes place at more than a dozen locations at major Internet junctions in the U.S., officials say. Previously, any NSA filtering of this kind was largely believed to be happening near points where undersea or other foreign cables enter the country....The NSA is focused on collecting foreign intelligence, but the streams of data it monitors include both foreign and domestic communications. Inevitably, officials say, some U.S. Internet communications are scanned and intercepted, including both “metadata” about communications, such as the “to” and “from” lines in an email, and the contents of the communications themselves. Much, but not all, of the data is discarded, meaning some communications between Americans are stored in the NSA’s databases, officials say. Some lawmakers and civil libertarians say that, given the volumes of data NSA is examining, privacy protections are insufficient.
Libertarians will argue that the State's power to monitor citizens has reached Orwellian heights and must be scaled back. National security hawks may retort that keeping America safe in a world brimming with ever-changing, asymmetrical threats requires the government to aggressively leverage technology -- if only to keep pace with our enemies. These issues aren't easy. On one hand, the omniscience of Big Brother is an undeniable threat to citizens' liberties, perhaps at present, and certainly in the future. On the other hand, the Constitution mandates that the federal government provide for the common defense. Our intelligence personnel work 'round-the-clock to protect us, knowing full well that a single successful catastrophic attack would cost innocent lives and touch of a round of nasty recriminations. How should America's leaders balance these competing realities? The Republican Party is in the midst of a wrenching debate over that very question. But here's where both sides can agree: The overall opacity, misleading statements, and flat-out dishonesty of some government officials regarding domestic surveillance is a real problem. Of course a strong national security posture requires secrets that must be withheld from the public, and those who unlawfully leak these secrets must face consequences severe enough to deter others from following suit. That's why I shed no tears for Bradley Manning, and precious few for Edward Snowden -- although, without some of the latter's disclosures, many of today's concerns would remain in the shadows. All that being said, the president went on national television earlier this month and assured Americans, "we do not have a domestic spying program:"
How would the president characterize a massive federal spying program that does intercept and store communications between US citizens, and has the ability to skim through three-quarters of domestic internet traffic? He'd argue that such incidents are "inadvertent." While that might be true -- at least at the moment -- we've learned recently that these sorts of ostensible mistakes occur by the thousands (at least) on an annual basis. Perhaps that's not a terrible batting average, all things considered, but Americans are being spied on. And the government has the capability to ramp up those efforts to near-total-surveillance levels. Obama also said the following at his pre-vacation press conference:
"If you look at the reports, even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden's put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you're not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people's phone calls or inappropriately reading people's emails. What you're hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now part of the reason they're not abused is because they're -- these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC."
Well, now we're reading about thousands of accidental abuses and a much broader scope of potential abuses than previously disclosed. The president cites the "checks in place," but people might have greater confidence in those checks if top members of Congressional intelligence committees (who are among the most important overseers) weren't discovering key details through the media:
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who did not receive a copy of the 2012 audit until The Post asked her staff about it, said in a statement late Thursday that the committee “can and should do more to independently verify that NSA’s operations are appropriate, and its reports of compliance incidents are accurate.”
And Americans' willingness to swallow reassuring assertions from public officials is severely diminished when outright falsehoods are offered by powerful officials in sworn testimony, then brushed aside and summarily forgiven. The final ingredient in this toxic brew is a widespread erosion of trust that the government won't use its power apparatus to target, harass and abuse dissidents. If an administration is willing to call the IRS and Benghazi scandals "phony" in an attempt to protect its image, what won't they do? These aren't paranoid worries, in spite of Obama's lectures on "rejecting" voices who warn against government tyranny. Many Leftists, whose enthusiasm for government power often knows no bounds, harbor a civil libertarian strain that was honed during the Bush years. Righties, who have traditionally been more hawkish and national security-oriented, are also naturally skeptical of federal power in general. As the swirl of NSA revelations leak out drip by drip, and as other scandals continue to fester, distrust of this administration -- at least on this front -- is bridging partisan and ideological divides. That's a substantive problem for the national security community, and a political one for the White House. Will the formation of a commission and a "conversation" about new safeguards be sufficient to solve either one?