It has been an extraordinary week as London's The Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post have published top-secret documents revealing that the FBI and National Security Agency -- with the complicity and approval of Congressional intelligence committees, not to mention major U.S. corporations -- for years have been massively spying on U.S. citizens, whether suspected of criminal behavior or not.
The spying apparently extends to private telephone calls, emails, credit-card transactions, and Internet services provided by Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Yahoo and AOL. And that's only what has come out so far.
Officials reacted with the lame observation that national security requires such erosion of privacy. Really? Secret orders from secret courts sound like... well, like George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, as many have pointed out. It is all outrageous -- so outrageous that even the editorial board of The New York Times, which has supported President Obama on many issues, published a remarkable rebuke stating: "The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue. Mr. Obama
is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it
is given and very likely abuse it."
For a timeline of milestones in government surveillance since 9/11, read this excellent piece in Mother Jones.
Thank God for whistleblowers and a free press. The wisdom of the Founding Fathers in adopting the First Amendment is proved once again.
Like many other newspapers and media outlets, we at The Providence Journal will be examining this issue -- privacy v. security -- in greater detail in the weeks to come. It was already on our radar. For now, here's the local story we ran on P. 1 today alongside AP coverage of the story:
Balancing of security, rights urged
G. WAYNE MILLER
Publication Date: June 7, 2013
PROVIDENCE - Disclosure that the National Security Agency is secretly
obtaining daily logs of phone calls made by Verizon customers brought a
comparison on Thursday to George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984," in
which "Big Brother" relentlessly spies on its citizens - whether they
are suspected of criminal behavior or not.
"The revelation that
the government has been secretly tracking the calls of potentially
millions of Verizon phone customers is shocking, but only the latest
example of the insidious growth of a surveillance state in this
country," Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate
of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Thursday.
"In the name of security and safety, the government is approaching Orwellian dimensions in its spying on ordinary people."
an interview, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed said Congress should convene hearings
into the reported surveillance and the general use of the Patriot Act,
under which the NSA apparently justified its data-gathering, with the
goal of "improvements" in the balance between Americans' right to
privacy and legitimate national security concerns.
"This is a topic that Congress should pursue," the Rhode Island Democrat said. "Hearings - absolutely."
revelation was published by The Guardian, a London newspaper that
obtained a copy of a top secret court order, issued two months ago by
the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a furtive U.S. government
body. The order requires Verizon Business Network Services to give the
NSA daily logs of information including the phone numbers, location data
and duration involved of all calls - regardless of whether the callers
are suspected of wrongdoing or not.
It is unknown if other U.S.
telecommunications companies, such as AT&T, are under separate
orders to supply logs to the NSA. The court order does not apply to the
content of the calls, which means the surveillance technically is not
U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-R.I., was among the
members of Congress on Thursday who expressed serious concerns about
such indiscriminate surveillance.
"It is very disturbing to learn
that the National Security Agency reportedly required Verizon to turn
over information regarding the private communications of millions of
innocent Americans," Cicilline told The Providence Journal.
federal government has a responsibility both to ensure our national
security and to maintain every citizen's essential right to privacy.
There has to be a better way - this level of sweeping surveillance has
no place in a free society and we should review this matter thoroughly."
to The New York Times on Thursday, an unnamed senior official in the
Obama administration defended the gathering of phone information under a
contested section of the Patriot Act.
"Information of the sort
described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting
the nation from terrorist threats to the United States," the official
told the paper. (In a remarkable rebuke, the paper's editorial board
Thursday afternoon posted an editorial that said with the Verizon
disclosure, "the administration has now lost all credibility.")
"critical tool" sentiments were echoed by Daniel Castro, senior analyst
with the nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based Information Technology
& Innovation Foundation.
"Government should use data to fight
terrorism. One of the major failures pre-9/11 was the inability to
'connect the dots,' " Castro told The Journal. "Using meta-data such as
phone records is a useful way to identify networks of individuals … .
From a privacy perspective, this is also better than listening in on
phone calls. Data analytics alone won't stop terrorism, but it should be
one tool available to law enforcement officials."
Castro, however, questioned why the surveillance had not been publicly disclosed by the government.
Americans didn't know this was happening," he said. "There's nothing
intrinsically wrong with collecting and using this type of data on a
large scale, but there doesn't seem to be a good reason to do it in
Said David Barrett, professor with Villanova University's department of political science:
program which is known to high officials of the executive branch and to
the two congressional committees on intelligence is not what I would
call Big Brother. I have assumed something like this has been going on
since the passage of the Patriot Act. Notice that this particular order
does not authorize monitoring of the content of such phone calls. That
would take additional authorization."
In a statement to The Journal, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse urged balance between security and privacy.
a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I can't comment
extensively on these news reports, since they relate to classified
information to which I may have been exposed," the Rhode Island Democrat
"That said, when looking at programs of this nature it is
always important to ensure that our nation is protecting both civil
liberties and national security. I have always worked to make sure the
actions of our government are consistent with both goals, and I will
continue to do so."
The ACLU's Brown was more emphatic.
latest disclosure highlights the need for strong action at both the
state and federal level to address these increasing encroachments on
basic privacy rights," he said.
"We can no longer pretend that
our privacy is safe from indiscriminate government snooping. We hope
that steps will be taken to restore some semblance of our right to
privacy in the face of technological advances that are so easily able to