The telephone and internet surveillance program being conducted by the National Security Administration (NSA) is vital for national security, conforms to the law, and violates no privacy rights of any Americans, according to the General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
However, attorney Kate Martin, who has frequently testified before Congress on national security and civil liberties and has brought many lawsuits challenging government actions, believes that the secrecy surrounding the surveillance program makes its difficult to ascertain the validity of such contentions.
General Counsel Robert Litt and Martin were both members of a recent panel at the Newseum examining the topic NSA Surveillance Leaks: Facts and Fiction. The event was co-sponsored by the Newseum and the American Bar Association.
The issue exploded onto the national agenda after 29-year-old Edward Snowden revealed top-secret details about U.S. surveillance programs. Snowden, who is seeking foreign asylum for the espionage charges against the United States he is facing, worked as a security guard at the NSA, then in a computer security job with the CIA, and finally as a NSA
analyst with government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii. Depending on your view, Snowden is either a heroic whistleblower or a traitorous leaker who should be severely punished
Snowden's revelations that the government was obtaining metadata about the phone and computer use of Americans sparked a firestorm of controversy. Supporters of the administration like Litt contend the authorized program offers no threats to Americans' freedom. However, opponents of NSA's extensive spying have likened the surveillance program to the draconian Big Brother measures employed in George Orwell's classic dystopian novel 1984.
"We are always sensitive to the rights and privacy of citizens," Litt said. "We did not collect the identity and conversations." The administration says that in metadata collection only such information as location and length of calls is culled, which is much different than eavesdropping on personal phone or online conversations. Such information is vital to protect the country from terrorists and has actually been used to thwart attack plans on the United States. President Barack Obama is on record as saying "you can't have 100 percent security and 100 percent freedom."
"We cannot target Americans without a court order," Litt told the large crowd attending the special Newseum event. "We need to get an individual order. There must be reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity.
However, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows the targeting of non-U.S. citizens outside of the country without obtaining an individual warrant. "But you can't target outside to get inside," Litt said. "Nobody has ever found that there has ever been any intentional violation of the law".
The General Counsel maintained that the United States would be at great risk without the surveillance. "If you want to find a needle in a haystack, you must have the haystack," he said.
Litt also maintained that Snowden's leaks are going to cause problems for the United States. "These disclosures are going to have consequences," he said, although he did not specify the exact nature of those consequences.
However although she admitted that the government has to "keep legitimate secrets secret," Martin said she was not convinced by Litt's contentions. "If the government had been more open, there would be less public distress. You need to tell us," she said
"You have 2 problems here. Number 1, the public has a right to know what the government is doing and number 2, there are the privacy rights of American citizens (as outlined under the Bill of Rights)," Martin noted.
She said that the rules outlining the restrictions on electronic data collection may be outdated considering the vast communications changes that have transpired since the law was enacted in 1976. "Looking at metadata may be more revealing than listening to the conversations or reading the email of an individual," Martin proposed. "Right now, we have an incomplete picture of what the government's authority is to collect information about American citizens."
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The controversy over the NSA surveillance and Snowden's leaks show no sign of abating soon. It may take years to truly understand where it fits into the American story. Click here for a quick look at this incident and 9 other spying issues in American history.
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