Herald-Leader Editorial

Tell Congress to rein in NSA

August 6, 2013 

The disclosures began exactly two months ago. Whistle blower Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency's excesses: warrantless collection of American phone calls, collusion with major Internet companies for online data and extensive cyberwarfare and hacking operations. But while Snowden recently received temporary asylum in Russia, ordinary Americans have little respite.

With Congress in recess and at home this month, citizens should urge their lawmakers to act on Snowden's revelations by restoring congressional oversight of domestic spying, if not abolishing it altogether.

There simply is no justification for the NSA's infringement.

We are not blanket opponents of all electronic surveillance; there is a place for specified surveillance of foreign targets and even Americans, if individual warrants, as constitutionally guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, are issued. In addition to the serious constitutional questions, another glaring problem with spying on Americans without warrants is that it has not netted significant results.

NSA Deputy Director John Inglis admitted to Congress last Wednesday that "at most one plot might have been disrupted by the bulk records collection alone."

And Sen. Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reviewed a classified list of the terrorist plots uncovered and remarked that he was "not convinced" by the results of the domestic spying programs. "If this program is not effective, it must end," he said.

Staunch supporters will point to this weekend's embassy closings — the result of intercepted messages between senior al-Qaida leaders — as somehow justification for granting the NSA a blank check. But a lawful intelligence program working as intended does not justify all intelligence programs, especially those that stomp on constitutional rights without yielding useful information.

More troubling is the fact that members of Congress were deliberately left in the dark about the programs. Contrary to the administration's laughable claims of congressional oversight, these programs were not debated or discussed publicly. Instead, President Barack Obama invoked a wildly out of context provision of the Patriot Act to enact programs that most members of Congress know nothing about. Members of the intelligence committees, the few members of Congress who are actually briefed fully on the programs, are barred from discussing abuses with the public.

The courts are no better. The Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, often referred to as the FISA Court, rubber stamps nearly every request made by the government — denying only 11 of the 33,949 requests made from 1979 to 2012. Until recently, the Department of Justice served as the headquarters for the court.

Of the current 11 justices, appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, 10 were appointed by Republican presidents. The judges hear no opposing arguments. The court was intended to only sign off on specific warrants but granted itself the authority to issue opinions, all classified, to allow the NSA to collect data on every American.

Intelligence agencies should not be run by executive fiat. The disastrous Bush legacy of Guantanamo Bay, extrajudicial renditions and torture is a testament to that. Many Democrats who criticized President George W. Bush's extreme policies seem hesitant to criticize Obama, who has only expanded the policies to include targeted assassinations of American citizens and troubling pursuits of journalists.

Unconstitutional executive powers, especially when oversight by the other branches of government is nonexistent, ought to be condemned, no matter which party holds the White House.

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