NSA Surveillance: When the Government Says "Trust Us," Run For the Hills


The last two months have brought us remarkable insight into the dark side of executive power, and the abuses of that power under President Obama. First, we learned the Justice Department secretly collected the phone records of Associated Press reporters. This was followed by revelations the Attorney General authorized a search warrant accusing FOX News investigative journalist James Rosen with aiding and abetting violations of the Espionage Act. Then on May 21, Sharyl Attkisson, the CBS journalist investigating the “Fast and the Furious” and Benghazi scandals, reported that her computer had been compromised and that she was, like Rosen, being investigated by the administration. 

At the same, the Inspector General reported IRS officials improperly targeted conservative “Tea Party” groups applying for non-profit status. At the heart of the scandal was Lois Lerner, the Exempt Organizations Director who oversaw the targeting. As a former Federal Elections Commission lawyer, Lerner once threatened Al Salvi, an Illinois Republican Senate candidate, with prosecution unless he promised to “never run for office again.” When Salvi refused, Lerner dispatched the FBI to interrogate his elderly mother and warned Salvi, saying “We never lose.” Needless to say, she did very little to inspire confidence in the administration when she plead the fifth, and refused to answer any questions about her role in the Tea Party targeting from the House Oversight Committee. 

And that was just May. 

Beginning on June 5, the Guardian and Washington Post began publishing leaked documents revealing the NSA’s secret domestic surveillance programs. This included ongoing collection of almost all domestic phone records of ordinary Americans.  Documents also revealed the NSA’s PRISM program, a collaboration with private Internet companies. In what Snowden and others describe as “turnkey tyranny,” we learned the NSA now boasts the technical capacity to spy on the online communications of every American, but is supposed to only collect data on non-U.S. persons.  

Much has been made of the NSA’s minimization rules, which are supposed to protect Americans’ privacy. These rules require at least 51 percent confidence that surveillance targets are not “U.S. Persons.” However, NSA analysts make these decisions independently, and auditors review only five percent of these judgment calls. Moreover, there are substantial exceptions in the minimization rules that threaten American privacy. For example, American phone calls and emails can be retained if they contain evidence of criminal activity, foreign intelligence information (including privileged communications with your lawyer), encrypted communications, or information related to cyber-security.  

Basically, these secret minimization rules are only as good as the people bound by them. As General Alexander explained, “at the end of the day, we have to trust that our people are going to do the right thing.” In other words, the government is saying “trust us.” 

In my view, this “trust us” excuse does not pass the smell test.  One need only look to the numerous breaches of trust revealed in May to understand that our government cannot be trusted. Even before the recent leaks, the president’s credibility was on the rocks. Chief among these were the president’s broken campaign promises. Contrary to Obama’s campaign promises to end warrantless wiretapping, records show his administration actually intensified the practice. Similarly, as a candidate, Obama pledged during his campaign to respect state medicinal marijuana laws. Once in office, however, his administration escalated its assault on medical cannabis, hurting the patients who desperately rely on it. And remember candidate Obama promising a public option and no new taxes on households making less than $250,000 per year? The president managed to break both of these promises the moment he signed the Affordable Care Act into law. 

More recently, the administration’s chicanery and deceit has taken center stage. When Attorney General Holder was caught lying to Congress about his knowledge of the “Fast and the Furious” operation, his excuses failed to satisfy the critics. According to a Senate report, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano repeatedly misled lawmakers about “fusion centers,” which the report chastised for wasting tax dollars and violating the Privacy Act. In another incident, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson came under fire after revelations that she used an email address under the alias “Richard Windsor,” allegedly as a way of shielding her correspondence from Freedom of Information Act Requests. Last week, the NSA agreed to remove a misleading and inaccurate “fact sheet” about domestic spying from its website. 

But perhaps the most egregious example came when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted lying to Congress about the NSA’s domestic spying at a Senate hearing last March. This led to bipartisan calls for his resignation and prosecution for perjury. Astonishingly, Obama has not only refused to pursue perjury charges, he has kept Clapper in charge of these surveillance programs while simultaneously assuring us that his administration can be trusted.  

So should we trust a government that has lied to Congress, targeted political opponents, threatened journalists with prosecution, and reneged on campaign promises? Should we trust a government (and its media accomplices) who misled the nation to war in Iraq? Should we trust a government that imprisons people indefinitely without trial in Guantanamo Bay? Should we trust a government that admits to the extrajudicial assassination of four American citizens? Should we trust a government that resists every call for transparency, while simultaneously shredding the notion of individual privacy in the United States? 

Faced with a surveillance apparatus in the hands of the NSA, I submit that now is the worst time to trust our government. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “The time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they shall have gotten hold on us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.”