The NSA’s surveillance programs are either a godsend or the bane of democracy’s existence, depending on who's talking. On one extreme, supporters deem these programs crucial to protecting Americans from terrorism, and defend their stance by listing the attacks that the NSA has prevented. On the other side of the divide are the opponents of big data, who worry that the collection and storage of citizens' information is a heinous trampling of the U.S. Constitution. Americans still reserving judgment on PRISM and metadata collection will soon have more information to make an informed decision on these programs.
Yesterday, an intelligence official announced that more information on these programs will be declassified, as part of of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s commitment to greater transparency. This raises two central questions. First, will the government level with Americans about the scope of the NSA’s programs? And second, are there plans to expand the reach of these programs into new channels of our private information? The latter question is just as important to this privacy debate as the former, as terrorists will undoubtedly be changing their tactics to avoid detection by the NSA’s current methods.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a critic of the NSA’s practices, said on Tuesday that intelligence agencies have violated court orders, and that “those violations are significantly more troubling than the government has stated.” Wyden is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which affords him access to levels of information that other lawmakers don't have. His statement should give us cause to believe that the government hasn’t been as forthcoming as we would hope in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's leaks.
Clapper, who many have called a perjurer for misleading Congress about the NSA’s capabilities, said he answered in the “least untruthful” way possible during his hearing on Capitol Hill. While it's a poor excuse, his hands were tied as to what he could say on the public record, proof that coordination between the Obama administration, intelligence agencies, and lawmakers is not as close as some would have us believe. If the NSA and other agencies were keeping lawmakers informed about the technologies used in modern-day espionage, and had properly vetted surveillance through the FISA court, then Clapper would never have been asked such a sensitive question in a public hearing. Instead, Clapper was put on the spot, and knowing he could not divulge sensitive information publicly, was forced to answer in the “least untruthful” way possible.
The release of these new documents will reveal more about the programs in question, but we'll have to wait and see just how much they reveal.
Snowden’s information leak to the Guardian and his subsequent globetrotting interviews have been followed by one maelstrom after another. While some NSA opponents will seek complete abolition of the agency’s data collection programs no matter what, the upcoming disclosures will better inform us as to how the government plans to balance civil liberties and national defense, and may justify some of the agency's activities. As President Barack Obama aptly put it, we can’t have total security and total privacy at all times.