Fear of Spying

Obama's assurances about oversight of NSA surveillance ring hollow.


Last Friday, in an interview with CNN, President Obama acknowledged that "the capabilities of the NSA are scary to people." The challenge for him, he explained at a press conference earlier this month, is "how do I make the American people more comfortable" with the National Security Agency's routine collection of information about the intimate details of our lives, including the destination, timing, and length of every phone call we make.

The original plan was simply not to tell us about the government's mass surveillance of innocent people, since what you don't know can't discomfort you. Now that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks to the press have forced Obama into a debate he never wanted to have but nevertheless welcomes, the plan is to assure us that the NSA's scary capabilities are exercised under close supervision by the judicial and legislative branches. The only problem is that isn't true.

Last week, responding to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the Obama administration finally released a heretofore secret 2011 ruling in which John Bates, then the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), deemed one aspect of NSA surveillance, involving the collection of "wholly domestic" Internet communications, unconstitutional. The White House presented Bates' decision as evidence that we needn't worry about our privacy because federal judges are monitoring the spies who are monitoring us.

A close reading of the opinion, however, reveals that FISC's ability to discover abuses hinges on the executive branch's willingness to admit them. "For the first time," Bates writes, "the government has now advised the Court that the volume and nature of the information it has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the Court had been led to believe."

A footnote provides further cause for concern: "The Court is troubled that the government's revelations regarding NSA's acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program." One of the earlier cases involved the NSA's disregard for the rules governing searches of its phone record database. "Contrary to the government's repeated assurances," Bates writes, "NSA had been running queries of the metadata using querying terms that did not meet the required standard for querying."

What is the other example of misrepresentation that Bates had in mind? We don't know, because that part of his opinion is blacked out.

As Reggie Walton, FISC's current chief judge, explained to The Washington Post, "The FISC is forced to rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the Court. The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance, and in that respect the FISC is in the same position as any other court when it comes to enforcing [government] compliance with its orders." Except that FISC operates in secret, hearing only from the government, and people subject to NSA surveillance almost never have a chance to challenge it in court.

Even when the government is honest with FISC, we cannot necessarily count on the court to protect our privacy. As a "white paper" released by the Obama administration on August 9 emphasizes, "fourteen different FISC judges" have approved the collection of everyone's telephone records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which authorizes court orders demanding "any tangible things" reasonably considered "relevant" to a terrorism investigation. If information about the entire population is "relevant," what isn't?

The white paper argues that Congress implicitly approved this amazingly broad interpretation of the law because it "twice reauthorized Section 215" after information about the NSA's phone record dragnet "was made available." How available was this information? Not very, judging from the objections lodged by more than 200 House members, including a chief author of the PATRIOT Act, after Snowden's revelations. Yet Obama claims the program is "fully overseen" by Congress.

Are you comfortable yet?

NEXT: Matt Welch Talks on Fox News About How NSA Spooks Spying on Love Interests Is Like Dogs Licking Themselves

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  1. The challenge for him, he explained at a press conference earlier this month, is “how do I make the American people more comfortable” with the National Security Agency’s routine collection of information about the intimate details of our lives

    In a democratic society, does not convincing the public about the virtue of a program usually come *before* implementing said program?

    I keep hearing from Democrats about how fundamental our right to vote is and how they are the custodians of that right against the attacks of Republicans. I am certain that they have an answer as to how they can reconcile these two conflicting views on democracy’s role, unless voting is meant to be a totemic and symbolic, rather than a meaningful, part of our government.

    1. This is a representative republic, meaning you vote Democrats or Republicans in and they take it from there. Your representatives in D.C. told you that they were fully aware of the program and had your back in case the government’s agents tried to take it too far. Edward Snowden ruined that fairy tale.

      1. Why would an intelligent person conflate the primacy of individual liberty, the free market, the superiority of the individual to the collective and the rejection of worshipping any parasite who signed up for military or police work with democracy?

        1. Why hello there One-Note Oscar. We should call you Old Reliable.

          1. It’s good that he exists, just so our enemies understand that we’re the moderates.

            1. Do you think that will help you when they come to get you?

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  2. “how do I make the American people more comfortable”

    Holy shit, what kind of a fuckwit would even say such a thing?

    1. I guess it is just too early in the am. This is the same guy who said republicans are obstructing him because they are afraid of Rush Limbaugh. The same guy who said “you didnt build that”. The same guy who preaches pay your fair share.

      The idiocy is off the scale. But he is the smartest president ever.

      1. Yeah, affirmative action beneficiaries are brilliant, even the ones who are born in Kenya.

      2. He understands what electoral politics is, namely leading a circus of fools for one year out of every four.

        There is, and shall be, an inordinate number of fools in circulation within this population of tailless apes.

      3. O got his smarts from learning by rote. THAT should make you more comfy.

    2. He’s not an idiot. He’s a true believer.

      1. He doesn’t believe shit. He wants money and power, that’s all. He’s never had anything resembling moral scruples in his entire worthless life.


        1. I referred to as being a putz on another site. Deleted it. Racist, I suppose. I posted again using the definition of putz and it was posted!

          1. Should be referred to O…

    3. The same one that said this-The White House presented Bates’ decision as evidence that we needn’t worry about our privacy because federal judges are monitoring the spies who are monitoring us.- Government watching over government’s shoulder. Sounds like we’re gonna need a lot more government to watch over government’s shoulder to keep us safe.

      1. Don’t give them any ideas…


  3. How do you make us comfortable? Shut down the program, defund and dissolve the agency, throw the FISC and the agency heads in prison for 320million counts of violating civil rights. They should be eligable for release in about 3 billion years.

    1. Eh, we’ll reduce the maximum sentence per violation to 1 minute. So 320 million minutes.

      1. I don’t think 608 years is long enough for what they did.

        1. Eh, there’s that whole diminishing return for adding years past life span.

          1. And one minute for violating civil rights would be bad precedent for people who do so on a smaller scale.

  4. Okay, so when we have our libertopian country, we can set up a lot of web services and social media sites that people all over the world can access. And when governments ask for information on their people, we can tell them to “go pound sand”. Actually, I think something a little more harsh would be in order.

    1. I’m going to live in that imaginary world for a while this morning. Until some asshole posts a brickbat.


      1. And not only that, we would go to the public with their requests, detailing who requested the information, the target of the information, and dates, times, and government agents making the request. This would go, not only to the target, but to the public at large.

        1. I am interested in your ideas and would like to subscribe to your news letter.

  5. “how do I make the American people more comfortable”

    *** sung to the tune of Brahms’s Lullaby ***

    NSA and goodnight, with FISC it’s all right
    With sniffers o’er spread is baby’s wee bed
    Lay thee down now and rest, may thy phonecalls be blessed
    Lay thee down now and rest, may thy e-mails be blessed

  6. “People know that they love Big Brother. What they don’t understand is, Big Brother loves them too. And that’s what I’m here today trying to get people to understand.”

    1. Do they love big brothas who can not complete a sentence without hemming and hawing if they are not reading from a teleprompter?

      1. Don’t you prefer incompetent big government to the alternative?

  7. What a self-absorbed, self-directed arrogant jackass.

    So the issue is not our government spying on us after it swore that it wasn’t. The problem is how he makes us “comfortable” with being spied on and lied to about it.

    What a prick.

    1. A fear-mongering prick.

  8. And another thing…

    This impending war with Syria couldn’t possibly be a Wag the Dog maneuver to distract from the NSA and sagging poll numbers, could it?

    1. No, no, just look at those WMDs hidden behind the curtain. Yeah, right over there, don’t stop looking……

  9. But, but, but they thwarted like fifty domestic terror plots! That’s like a couple billion dollars per plot! Money well spent! Why do you want the terrorists to win?!?

  10. Hmmm… Official misrepresentations to a judge? If made under oath, and they should be, that is perjury. Add that to the sentence.

  11. I’m particularly taken with the ‘one-on-one talk’ between the president and a lap-dog media life-form.
    I’m sure there were a lot of really difficult questions regarding his favorite colors.

  12. I don’t think comfort with the program from the populous is likely at this point. Perhaps the comfort to build is with the safety the program brings or the terror plots foiled, but not with the program. They aren’t even giving it straight to FISC, why would they to the general public? We should acknowledge the abuse and decide if it is warranted/able to be tolerated for whatever merits it brings.

  13. RamBozo the Clown, “A Cabbage Patch terrorist to call our own”

    Said the Dead Kennedys.

  14. my neighbor’s sister-in-law makes $86 hourly on the computer. She has been out of a job for 6 months but last month her paycheck was $21285 just working on the computer for a few hours. Resources http://www.work25.Com

    1. Is she working for a defense contractor for the NSA?

  15. Obama’s a liar and should be impeached – the sooner the better for the USA.

  16. was simply not to tell us about the

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