NSA Spying: The Three Pillars of Government Trust Have Fallen


Cindy Cohn and Mark M. Jaycox
eff.org
August 16, 2013

Photo: Bernard Goldbach and the ACLU

Photo: Bernard Goldbach and the ACLU

With each recent revelation about the NSA’s spying programs government officials have tried to reassure the American people that all three branches of government—the Executive branch, the Judiciary branch, and the Congress—knowingly approved these programs and exercised rigorous oversight over them. President Obama recited this talking point just last week, saying: “as President, I’ve taken steps to make sure they have strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards to prevent abuse and protect the rights of the American people.”  With these three pillars of oversight in place, the argument goes, how could the activities possibly be illegal or invasive of our privacy?

Today, the Washington Post confirmed that two of those oversight pillars—the Executive branch and the court overseeing the spying, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court)—don’t really exist. The third pillar came down slowly over the last few weeks, with Congressional revelations about the limitations on its oversight, including what Representative Sensennbrenner called “rope a dope” classified briefings. With this, the house of government trust has fallen, and it’s time to act. Join the over 500,000 people demanding an end to the unconstitutional NSA spying.

First, the Executive. After a review of internal NSA audits of the spying programs provided by Edward Snowden, the Post lays out—in stark detail—that the claims of oversight inside the Executive Branch are empty. The article reveals that an internal NSA audit not shown to Congress, the President, or the FISA Court detailed thousands of violations where the NSA collected, stored, and accessed American’s communications content and other information. In one story, NSA analysts searched for all communications containing the Swedish manufacturer Ericsson and “radio” or “radar.” What’s worse: the thousands of violations only include the NSA’s main office in Maryland—not the other—potentially hundreds—of other NSA offices across the country. And even more importantly, the documents published by the Post reveal violations increasing every year. The news reports and documents are in direct contrast to the repeated assertions by President Obama (video), General James Clapper (video), and General Keith Alexander (video) that the US government does not listen to or look at Americans’ phone calls or emails. So much for official pronouncements that oversight by the Executive was “extensive” and “robust.

Second, the FISA Court. The Post presents a second article in which the Chief Judge of the FISA Court admits that the court is unable to act as a watchdog or stop the NSA’s abuses: “The FISC is forced to rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the Court,” its chief, US District Judge Reggie B. Walton, said in a written statement. “The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance.”  Civil liberties and privacy advocates have long said that the FISA Court is a rubber stamp when it comes to the spying, but this is worse—this is the Court admitting that it cannot conduct the oversight the President and others have claimed it is doing. So much for claims by officials from the White House (video), NSA, DOJ, and Intelligence Committee members of Congress that the FISA Court is another strong pillar of oversight.

Third, the Congress. Last week, Representative Sensenbrenner complained that “the practice of classified briefings are a ‘rope-a-dope operation’ in which lawmakers are given information and then forbidden from speaking out about it.” Members of Congress who do not serve on the Intelligence Committees in the both the House and Senate have had difficulty in obtaining documents about the NSA spying. Last week, it was even uncovered that the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, failed to provide freshmen members of Congress vital documents about the NSA’s activities during a key vote to reapprove the spying. Senators Wyden and Udall have been desperately trying to tell the American people what is going on, but this year the House Intelligence committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight has not met once and the Senate Intelligence committee has met publicly only twice.

One, two, three pillars of government, all cited repeatedly as the justification for our trust and all now obviously nonexistent or failing miserably. It’s no surprise Americans are turning against the government’s explanations.

The pattern is now clear and it’s getting old. With each new revelation the government comes out with a new story for why things are really just fine, only to have that assertion demolished by the next revelation. It’s time for those in government who want to rebuild the trust of the American people and others all over the world to come clean and take some actual steps to rein in the NSA. And if they don’t, the American people and the public, adversarial courts, must force change upon it.

We still think the first step ought to be a truly independent investigatory body that is assigned to look into the unconstitutional spying. It must be empowered to search, read and compel documents and testimony, must be required to give a public report that only redacts sensitive operational details, and must suggest specific legislation and regulatory changes to fix the problem—something like the Church Committee or maybe even the 9/11 Commission. The President made a mockery of this idea recently, by initially handing control of the “independent” investigation he announced in his press conference to the man who most famously lied to Congress and the American people about the spying, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The three pillars of American trust have fallen. It’s time to get a full reckoning and build a new house from the wreckage, but it has to start with some honesty.


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