NSA: Problem is the secrecy, not the program

The problem isn't that the NSA has access to every single phone record and Internet session for every American citizen. The problem is they didn't tell us.

Who in their right mind would believe that the massive new NSA data center in Utah was intended to only track overseas communications? We've been hearing about this kind of surveillance for years.

As I noted 6 years ago:

In the wake of 9/11 the government requested massive communications monitoring without legal authorization, which would have been easy to get. Only one telco, Qwest, refused after requesting, and not receiving, legal justification. That telco's then-CEO, Joe Nacchio, is fighting to stay out of prison after conviction on insider-trading charges, claiming on appeal that government retaliation led to less-than-expected results.

Whether you buy Nacchio's story or not it points up the danger to American liberty. A powerful executive branch, dependent telcos and a Congress - Ebay on the Potomac - running on "campaign contributions" from cosseted industries, and American liberty is on the trash heap of history.

Personally, I don't care if the NSA has access to my phone records and my Internet browsing habits. I am much more concerned that that access to that information be strictly controlled and its use legally constrained, with serious penalties for abuse.

Knowledge is power. And the abuse of power is one of the core issues and drivers behind our form of government.

Power is split between Congress, the executive branch, the judicial branch as well as the 50 state governments and numerous local governmental entities so that each element has someone looking over its shoulder to make sure, ideally, that it is behaving itself.

Which is the problem with the NSA's secrecy: because it's secret Americans have no idea how this information is being used. What safeguards are in place to control access. How the use of this information is legally circumscribed.

It doesn't help the NSA either. Someone claimed that over 100 potential terrorist plots have been aborted due to this program. If this is true, it is too bad that the NSA could not claim credit.

Of course the Obama administration will make the usual claims of national security and will, no doubt, pursue the leaker – who has done us all a great public service – to the full extent of the law. But in a free society an issue like this, which touches the life of every American, should be openly and loudly debated rather than hidden in the recesses of the national security community.

The Storage Bits take
The urge to escape accountability is a universal human trait. We do not help our democracy by carving out a huge exception for national security. Yes, some things need to be secret, but massive programs that touch every American aren't among them.

Did everyone in Congress and the security community honestly believe that such a huge program could remain secret forever? Then why even go down that road?

The obvious answer is: they were afraid that if the American people knew about it we wouldn't let us do it. Well, there's a price to be paid for living in a democracy.

That price is that in a democracy the citizens get final say. If, after robust debate, people decided that they would accept a little more terrorism in exchange for a little less surveillance, so be it.

It is the secrecy, not the program, that has created this firestorm. At some point, the national security community has to trust the citizens of these United States to make the decisions on such far-reaching programs.

Comments welcome, as always. For all that nattering about Obama as a liberal, he's only slightly to the left of Richard Nixon and most resembles a Rockefeller Republican, a now extinct species. And Joe Nacchio was sentenced to 6 years in the slammer.

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