Brave new world of government surveillance

A woman talks on the phone in front of the U.S. Courthouse in Washington on Thursday where the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court resides. The court granted an order by the National Security Agency for Verizon to secretly turn over the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers.
(Cliff Owen / Associated Press)

There’s a lot we don’t know about the secret court order giving the federal government access on an “ongoing daily basis” to millions of telephone records, and that’s a large part of the problem. But we know enough from a report in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which essentially has been confirmed by officials, to conclude both that current law gives the government too much leeway to monitor the communications of its citizens, and that the Obama administration is exploiting that authority as aggressively as the George W. Bush administration did. The result is a brave new world of pervasive surveillance that Americans should find alarming.

On Wednesday, the Guardian reported that the National Security Agency was collecting “telephony metadata” — information about the sources, destinations and duration of all telephone calls — from Verizon Business Networks Services. The surveillance was authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a tribunal that meets in secret and typically doesn’t make its rulings public. The order was issued April 25 and expires July 29.

The fact that the order was issued shortly after the Boston Marathon bombingsled some to speculate that the dragnet was part of the investigation of that terrorist attack. But on Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that as far as she knew “this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years.” If the government is engaged in a long-term electronic fishing expedition, it’s likely that Verizon isn’t the only telecommunications provider turning over data.


Feinstein emphasized that the government was gathering only metadata, not the actual content of communications, and suggested that investigators examine even that limited information only when there is “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that it is relevant and related to terrorist activity. But that is small comfort to Americans, many of whom will be uneasy that information that could shed light on their habits, travels and associations is being warehoused in government computers and possibly mined without their knowledge.

When the Patriot Act was up for renewal, this page argued that its provisions for acquisition of “business records” — the section on which the judge in the Verizon case relied — were far too loose. We still believe that the government should be required to show more than that the material it seeks is “relevant to an authorized investigation.”

Last month, President Obama warned that “a perpetual war — through drones or special forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.” That observation also applies to domestic legislation enacted in the anxious aftermath of 9/11, and to the culture of secrecy to which both this administration and its predecessor succumbed.