These are dark days for people who trust government whole-heartedly to strike an effective balance between protecting constitutional liberties and keeping us safe from terrorists. We have learned more about the way the government operates in the past two weeks than most people would ever want to know. What we're learning is discouraging, to put it mildly.
When the revelations about PRISM broke earlier this month, Bill Kristol, Lindsey Graham and other steadfast defenders of state power scrambled to make excuses for the government's recording of virtually every byte of data that passes through the web. "In fact, the law requires that warrants must be issued to target communications between two U.S. citizen," Kristol assured us in the pages of the Weekly Standard last week.
He may be technically correct. The funny thing is, the government doesn't care what the law says.
According to U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the NSA has admitted in a closed-door briefing that it has been accessing private phone calls without judges' warrants. Surprise! The government really doesn't care for silly things like warrants and laws. That's for the peasants.
If the NSA wants "to listen to the phone," an analyst's decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned.
Nadler added: "I was rather startled."
According to CNET: "Not only does this disclosure shed more light on how the NSA's formidable eavesdropping apparatus works domestically it also suggests the Justice Department has secretly interpreted federal surveillance law to permit thousands of low-ranking analysts to eavesdrop on phone calls." William Binney, a former technical director at the NSA, estimates that the agency eavesdrops on the phone calls of between 500,000 and 1 million individuals.
Not creepy enough? That's just the tip of the iceberg.
Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) indicated that members of Congress learned "significantly more than what is out in the media today" during a closed briefing about the NSA last Tuesday. She stated on C-SPAN last week that NSA spying is even "broader than most people realize." She refused to divulge more information, citing security restrictions.
The NSA's secretive activities have been managed for most of the last decade by its current head, four-star army general Keith B. Alexander. According to a well-researched piece in Wired, he's admiringly known in government circles as "Emperor Alexander," a J.-Edgar-Hooverish character whose tenure has spanned several administrations. According to an anonymous CIA source: "We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else."
What does Alexander want? Nothing less than complete control of the internet, of course.
According to Wired, "in [Alexander's] telling, the threat is so mind-bogglingly huge that the nation has little option but to eventually put the whole civilian internet under his protection, requiring tweets and emails to pass through his filters, and putting the kill switch under the government's forefinger."
Alexander said as much at a recent security conference in Canada: "What we see is an increasing level of activity on the networks ... I am concerned that this is going to break a threshold where the private sector can no longer handle it and the government is going to have to step in."
Alexander rules a formidable and growing security apparatus with an estimated $10 billion budget that includes at least 14,000 "cyber troops," government workers who spend every work day doing routine things like reading your emails and listening to your phone calls.
This is unlikely to be the last revelation to stir the long-overdue public debate on cybersecurity and civil liberties. Since the ruling class saw fit to keep us in the dark while they trampled the Fourth Amendment, we have the lonely, exiled, and probably doomed Edward Snowden to thank for shedding light on these deeply invasive — and ever-expanding — abuses of government power. We should all be so heroic.