NSA Scandal: No Defense For Obama's Massive Phone-Gathering Program


Glenn Greenwald of London’s Guardian dropped a bomb on the Obama administration last night, publishing an exposé on a national, indiscriminate dragnet of all Verizon call records demanded by the National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The leaked court order — signed by Judge Roger Vinson, member of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and a prominent federal judge who declared Obamacare unconstitutional — reads as a staggering, disturbingly casual dismissal of American privacy rights.

This is the biggest domestic spying scandal since Bush’s NSA was caught wiretapping American citizens in 2005 without even the FISA court’s knowledge. That revelation included agents listening in on real-time conversations and accusations of improper records collection, but the Verizon story rivals it in terms of sheer scope.

At least as far back as April of this year, the FBI has demanded that Verizon turn over records of every call made by its customers in the United States and all incoming calls from abroad to its U.S. customers. Every day. Furthermore, Verizon was forbidden from publicizing anything about the court order, which was classified “Top Secret.”

According to Greenwald, “The order appears to be a routine renewal of a similar order first issued by the same court in 2006 …The order is reissued routinely every 90 days and that it is not related to any particular investigation by the FBI or any other agency.” The mind fails to conceive of why a federal investigation would require such a vast collection of personal data, unless systemically breaching a raft of constitutional protections has simply not been a high enough hurdle for the unknown bureaucrats responsible to lose their potentially valuable trove of dirt. Already mired in controversy involving subpoenaed phone records, the news that the Obama administration is forcing a private communications company to provide data on millions of unwitting citizens could not have arrived on a more devastating cue.

I offered faint defense of the current administration on each of the three scandals it was facing last week, which after this revelation will likely seem long ago. Regarding the AP records, it didn’t seem far-fetched to grant the benefit of the doubt to the Justice Department, which after all had committed no crimes in requesting the call logs. But that at least looked like a targeted investigation. This Verizon story has no defense. It stretches even the Patriot Act, it is so epic an intrusion.

Nor should any American strain to construct one, especially those of us who find this story an unprecedented blow to the confidence we had placed in President Obama. The informed voter base that elected him were driven to the promise of an optimistic outsider by the cynicism and betrayal we felt after a mounting of stories exactly like this one.

Subterfuge, the gross abuse of power, extra-legal tactics at best: why can we not escape these hallmarks of post-9/11 government?

Deeper reflection on the implications of this scandal eludes me at this shocking moment — and it should be a scandal, never mind the judge’s signature — but it’s clear that the answer to that question is that most citizens have simply not felt a pressing need to demand our privacy freedoms. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have fought and sued against this very practice for a decade, but only among a niche crowd outside the Beltway mainstream. This news has shined a light on their cause. This needs to blow up in the faces of the public-facing government so that the shady bodies who permit all that they can get away with are rooted out and exposed as the threat they are.

I didn’t talk like this yesterday. Today, there is a pall over the U.S. government.