The Very Real Threat Posed by the NSA

"It can't happen here" just did.

As a Senate candidate in 2003, Barack Obama called the PATRIOT Act "shoddy and dangerous." Once safely in power, Obama started demonstrating his remarkable capacity for "growing in office" -- expanding federal powers while piously moralizing about their potential abuse.

As a senator, he voted to reauthorize the surveillance law in 2006; and as president, signed another PATRIOT renewal from Europe via presidential autopen in 2011.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has long warned of a "secret PATRIOT Act" -- a classified interpretation of the law that allows the administration to undertake massive data collection on American citizens.

Last week, we got a glimpse of what he meant, when a National Security Agency contractor revealed that the agency has assembled a database of at least seven years' worth of Verizon customers' call records -- a practice that apparently extends to other carriers.

"Nobody is listening to your calls," the peevish president said last week; they're "sifting through this so-called metadata," trying to identify potential leads.

About that "metadata": It allows the government secretly to track who a target communicates with and where he's physically located. That knowledge can be used to unearth who's leaking to reporters, when and where political opponents are meeting -- even who's sleeping with whom.

The NSA's massive call-records database is thus a potential treasure trove for bad-faith political actors -- it can be used to ferret out the sort of information that governments have historically used to blackmail and control dissenters.

We needn't resort to hyperbolic examples like the East German Stasi to understand the dangers here -- there's a relevant comparison much closer to home. A series of congressional investigations in the 1970s taught Americans shocking lessons about Cold War-era surveillance abuses.

In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee tasked Deputy Attorney General Laurence Silberman with reviewing former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's secret files.

Silberman was revolted by what he found: Hoover had let the bureau "be used by presidents for nakedly political purposes" and engaged in "subtle blackmail to ensure his and the bureau's power."

In his book "The Secrets of the FBI," Ronald Kessler quotes one of the FBI director's former top lieutenants: "The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator," he'd send an emissary to the Hill to "advise the senator that 'we're in the course of an investigation, and we by chance happened to come up with this data on your daughter. ... Well, Jesus, what does that tell the senator? From that time on, the senator's right in his pocket."

Another congressional investigation by Sen. Frank Church's Select Committee on Intelligence showed massive privacy violations by the NSA.

Under "Project Minaret," from the early 1960s until 1973, the NSA compiled watch lists of potentially subversive Americans, monitored their overseas calls and telegrams, sharing the results with other federal agencies.

Watch-listed Americans "ranged from members of radical political groups, to celebrities, to ordinary citizens involved in protests." Under Project Shamrock, the NSA collected all telegraphic data entering or leaving the United States, "probably the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken."

In 1976, Church warned that the NSA's technological prowess "at any time could be turned around on the American people ... such is the capability to monitor everything -- telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • KalkiDas||

    You should see all the bipartisanship right now! Such harmony! Boener, Franken, Feinstein, McStain, they all agree strongly on this. Sickening.

  • Drake||

    I hope they campaign on their support of domestic surveillance over the next few years.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Depressing.

    Sometimes I think this is all just psyops to demoralize the dwindling remnant of the those who understand and value liberty.

  • Free Society||

    There is bipartisan agreement that telling Americans that they're being lied to and spied on is treason. I guess it would count as treason if the state's interests supersede the interest of the people living under it.

  • CE||

    ...as president, signed another PATRIOT renewal from Europe via presidential autopen in 2011.

    So it was never really signed, and is thus void.

  • Brandon||

    No, no, autopen totally counts unless it is mortgage companies doing it. Then it's, like, totally unfair and racist, or something.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    "Nobody is listening to your calls," the peevish president said last week; they're "sifting through this so-called metadata,"

    And with Obama's record or pathologically lying, he must be telling us the truth.

  • CatoTheElder||

    In connection with the NSA snooping dragnet, I have read a number of comparisons to 1984.

    It's an comparison, but this is 2013.

    Big Brother is so well-ensconced that it is illegal to proclaim that "Big Brother is Watching".

  • ||

    Here is the argument that needs to be made, and loudly:

    "BIN LADEN IS DEAD. WHY ARE WE STILL DOING THIS?"

    You can let people argue till they are blue in the face that under an imminent threat of terrorism, certain invasions of privacy may be necessary to prevent a catestrophic attack like 9/11.

    But if we're still in that situation today, we're never NOT going to be in it. The Boston bombings killed a grand total of four people (last I checked), not counting the bombers, and Al Qaeda didn't even claim credit. This was the work of a couple of degenerate youths, not a vast terrifying, invisible enemy. Surely we can tolerate the occasional rogue moron throwing a molotov cocktail without imposing martial law. Or are we supposed to create a vast computer network to mind-read teenagers facebook pages so we can predict which one of them is going to be a school shooter and arrest them first? I think someone did a movie like this once.

    Anyway, wasn't the whole point of lying about Benghazi supposed to be because the administration didn't want to admit that terrorism was still a threat? At least be consistent, now.

    Bin Laden is dead. Take the fucking credit and end the War on Terror.

    We're in totally fucking mission creep land at this point. No civil liberties until we've rooted out and killed every last underwear bomber.

  • triclops||

    Your problem is that you assumed they were arguing in good faith. They wanted these things, and they said whatever they needed to in order to get them.

  • Brandon||

    If you didn't notice, they are quite happy to take the fucking credit and escalate the war on terror, with "We killed Bin Laden" as justification for continuing escalation.

  • Bill||

    Great comment Hazel. As usual.

  • JWatts||

    +1

  • Fladnag the Yarg||

    My commendation and condolences to Mr. Snowden. Unfortunately he will be persecuted to the end by the Obumbo henchmen.

  • Helen||

    If you think Laura`s story is good..., five weaks-ago mom in-law worked and got paid $9421 sitting there a sixteen hour week from their apartment and there co-worker's sister-in-law`s neighbour was doing this for nine months and recieved a check for more than $9421 part time from a labtop. applie the information on this page, mojo55.COM

  • Brandon||

    "Sitting" there? That's a new position for a hooker. Did she work for the Belgian ambassador?

  • space junk||

    I would rather take my risks of average American life without the NSA. It worked for a long time. But those were the days when this country minded it's own business. It went to war when war was on the doorstep. And don't tell me the boogie man story that terrorism is in every alley and on every street. That is B.S. It is nothing more than a global power grab that is funded by us here at home. Now, they just take as much as they want in order to keep those institutions growing.

    I was having a conversation with a fellow 'libertarian minded' friend the other day. We actually joked about getting enough people and wealth together to go buy a small 3rd world country and turn it around with a limited government, no income tax, and open trade policies. Oh wait, that was tried once wasn't it?

    I wonder if one of the Central American countries will sell us enough land to declare our own country....HA!

  • Dallas H.||

    Or just look into the Free State Project and move to New Hampshire.

  • space junk||

    New Hampshire is just too cold for me. Central America has better diving, sailing, and fishing. However, I do agree with the Free State Project in principle.

  • SteveC||

    Every region has its pluses and minuses, but NH has offers a greater variety of options than most: a varied terrain and four seasons (e.g. quite warm in the summer!). It lacks only a large urban center (nearest is Boston). Even if you can't move to NH, you can get involved there, e.g. by volunteering time, contributing money, or publicizing the project. Not all Jews live in Israel, but they like the idea of having a homeland.

    Next week is the best time of the year to visit, during the FSP's annual festival:
    http://freestateproject.org/festival

  • RandomJackass||

    In the Boston aftermath, we learned that some of the intel on that was provided by the Russians. If the USA is spying on foreigners, and all the countries we share intel with are spying on foreigners including the Americans, then isn't that just a way of circumventing any and all restrictions on domestic spying?

    We spy on their people, they spy on ours, then we trade the data with them.

    Scary.

  • space junk||

    Interesting point. Never looked at it that way. The legal B.S. just gets more complicated with that.

    Either way, our so called 'protectors' missed the Boston Bombing signs all together. So why bother? Alcohol kills more innocent people every year than high level terrorism in this country. Maybe congress will move to legalize terrorism if they can find a way to tax it. Greedy self serving government scum...

  • space junk||

    New Hampshire is just too cold for me. Central America has better diving, sailing, and fishing. However, I do agree with the Free State Project in principle.

  • The Grinch||

    All this and the American people, for the most part, don't give a flying fuck. What are the odds of getting whacked by terrorists? I'm not a mathamatician but I'd wager the odds are south of getting struck by lightening and getting shot on the same day: the inordinate fear is absolutely pathetic.

    Maybe I oughtta move Russia. At least Putin et al aren't hypocritical about being complete bastards.

  • 4th trumps Patriot Act||

    So much for that "standing" barrier that has kept plaintiffs from challenging these domestic spying programs in federal court. We've all been hacked by the feds. They know it, we know it and they've confirmed it. Time to release the lawyers.

  • grey||

    Trying to find a quote I just barely remember, I think it was a founding father, listed totalitarian governments, oligarchy, monarchy, etc., and said something about history teaches us? Can't recall what those governments were supposed to teach us, but the quote...can't....recall.

    Anyone? Help

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement