On Wednesday, London’s Guardian newspaper reported on a secret court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, itself a secret panel, authorizing the National Security Agency to collect the telephone records of Verizon’s U.S. customers — potentially 121 million subscribers.
The order, permitted through the Patriot Act, covers the phone numbers and locations of both parties on the call, its time and duration, and what are called “unique identifiers.”
It is not clear whether the order applies to other telecommunication companies, but a former intelligence official told The Associated Press it applies to all U.S. phone companies.
The three-month order has been regularly renewed.
The program began at least seven years ago, according to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, putting its origins in the Bush administration. For a change, it appears that key members of Congress had been briefed on the program — at least none of them appeared surprised. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that the program was necessary for homeland safety and that privacy rights were carefully protected. That’s quite a departure from the tone she took when discussing Bush’s “data mining.”
Her House counterpart, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said the records had thwarted a “significant” terrorist attack on the United States a few years ago, but did not give details. A White House spokesman called the program “a critical tool” in fighting security threats.
The government has collected an immense amount of information, and the temptation to broaden its use may become too great. Why not, some agent might ask, use it to detect crimes like money laundering and financial fraud? Having gone that far, why not use it to track individuals holding suspect political views? That has happened before in our history.
But by the same token, the widespread surveillance of telephone, telegraph and mail transmissions was standard practice beginning with the Roosevelt administration during World War II, and continuing under both Republicans and Democrats during the Cold War. Americans historically have been willing to relinquish their privacy rights to some degree in wartime, but with the expectation that such changes were short-term in nature.
The “war on terror” is a gray area, neither war nor peace, although Obama said last month it is virtually at an end. That government surveillance, however, apparently will continue. And this from a president who promised “the most transparent presidency in history.”
For the moment, the response of the White House, congressional leaders and NSA is: “Trust us.”
For the moment, we have no choice. But we should not forget Jefferson’s admonition: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”