Another week, another scandal: NSA taps phones, Internet

phoneIf we hadn’t had government abuse scandals such as targeting journalists or the IRS targeting a specific group of individuals and organizations, perhaps there would not be the uproar that now is brewing regarding the government’s monitoring the internet and phone calls in America. The problem for the Obama Administration is there is a recent history of abuse — either intentional or accidental.

This is also fascinating since it is another issue that has no partisan divide. Both the Democratic Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Republican Chair of the House Intelligence Committee support these programs. The Independent Senator Angus King has said he thinks we need more discussion on the topics and perhaps not have the NSA (National Security Agency which is doing the spying) storing the phone calls on government property but perhaps at an independent facility.

The two sides boil their arguments down to two issues: security versus privacy. The proponents of the programs say that they don’t listen to the content of the phone calls unless something triggers them to do so. If you have nothing to hide in life, you have no worries. They say they just target foreign traffic on the Internet (although they admit many Americans information is picked up in the sweep). The other side says that a person’s privacy is one of the paramount guarantees of the U.S. Constitution, and there is room for the government to abuse all the information they are collecting. Since we have seen some government abuse recently, their argument might be stronger at the moment. Of course, then there is the fact that these broad searches have stopped a few terrorist threats, which helps the supporters on the other side of the issue.

big brotherI think we will now have the discussion as to what balance we can and should achieve in security versus privacy. All of us have read George Orwell and most Americans — even if they have nothing to hide — do not want Big Brother knowing what time they go to bed, what they eat, what sites they look up for information, or what TV shows and movies they watch. (If you watch Dexter, will someone think you are a potential serial killer?) The amusing thing is that now that this is all over the world press, it is highly unlikely that the organized Islamist terrorists are going to be using any electronic anything to plan a meeting – even if an innocuous one. The telephone companies who produce throwaway phones will probably see an up tick in their sales.

I can see both sides of this argument. Most of my friends would assume that since I come from an intelligence background and know how hard it is to get good actionable information that I would err on the side of the programs. I don’t. Although I know that these programs have helped us stop terrorism, I tend to be more like Senator Scott and think that there is a better way to do these broad sweeps and to store the information. Yes, we have a FISA court but it doesn’t seem to have been too effective in limiting the surveillance. And we don’t believe that the NSA employees who set the parameters for these searches have abused any of them, but then I never thought that IRS employees in Ohio would be targeting specific groups that used the term “patriot” either. I am fascinated by the Senator’s idea of moving the raw material outside of the NSA so as to have it after the fact (such as with the Boston bombers), but, to be honest, by the time this is discussed and a middle ground is found, there will be new technology not covered by any specific laws.

The bottom line is that perhaps we should be focusing on the balance of powers in any part of the government or its actions. Many feel that the IRS has been able to run wild for years with no true oversight since who wants to complain about the IRS? You might get audited. So I am awaiting the rational players on Capitol Hill to craft an oversight system that makes Americans feel safe — both in their daily lives and in their private lives. I know it’s a challenge, but since this debate has both parties on either side maybe it can be an example for cooperation in other areas.

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