In a deeply troubling revelation, the government has been compiling a huge database of telephone calling logs of virtually every American, and it has been going on for no less than seven years. In addition, another program has been secretly collecting information on the Internet activity of foreigners overseas who use the nation’s big Internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Apple.
The sweeping reach of these programs demonstrates once again the administration’s disregard for many of the liberties that make this nation great – from a free and unobstructed press to freedom from unreasonable searches and the abuse of government authority.
The post-9/11 mood helped create the Patriot Act and related legislation, which traded away some of our freedoms because we were told it would make us safer. Now we find out that the government is using those laws to indiscriminately sweep up incredible amounts of personal data on Americans with no clear target. The Obama administration cannot and should not excuse these actions as routine moves in the fight against terrorism.
The administration dismisses criticism of the telephone surveillance, saying that no conversations were listened to, and besides, Congress approved the program and it requires renewal by federal judges every 90 days. But Congress and the secretive court have provided more of a rubber stamp than actual oversight. Any votes in Congress have been done secretly and as far as we know the court, also meeting behind closed doors, has never turned down a request from the government.
Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., sent a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. last year in which they said, “We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of … these secret court opinions. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.”
The current outcry shows how right they were.
When he was a senator, Obama was critical of the Bush administration for undue monitoring of Americans. The Bush administration “also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide,” according to Obama-the-senator. “I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom.”
Friday, in a massive understatement, Obama called the surveillance “modest encroachments on privacy.”
After years of operating in the shadows, the program is out in the open, meaning the debate on the issue that we should have had then can finally begin.
Obama also said Friday, “It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.”
Now is the time for the administration to make its case for continuing its surveillance of Americans and for the American people to weigh in on where the line should be drawn.