The revelation that the National Security Agency is collecting phone records in the name of keeping us safe isn’t much of a revelation, really. Sure, the details from whistleblower Edward Snowden published in The Guardian were new, but in 2008 Congress passed laws that indemnified the likes of Verizon and Google from breach-of-privacy lawsuits. Pretty obvious, what they were up to.
The silence from our lawmakers has been deafening. There is, however, this nugget: “We must see to it that … all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
No, that’s not Rand Paul, one of the few critics of the data mining; it was Frank Church of Idaho in 1975. After the nation had been lied to about Vietnam, and after President Nixon was caught breaking the law, Congress got a fire in its belly for reform. Sen. Church took on the CIA, the FBI and the NSA, which had been, collectively, reading our mail, disrupting American peace activists and assassinating world leaders in the name of keeping us safe.
The result of Church’s hearings was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which put oversight into a system gone rogue. The key word is “foreign,” as the law stipulated that only foreign subjects could be targeted without a special warrant. Now we know that George W. Bush broke that law after 9/11, and Congress undid Church’s work with its FISA rewrite in 2008.
Now your government is watching you to a degree Church could never have dreamed of. This brings to mind two questions: Is this practice American? And is it effective at preventing terrorism?
Like the Alien and Sedition Acts, we have passed un-American, unconstitutional legislation before. As citizens, we are guaranteed to be presumed innocent and we have a right to privacy. If Congress won’t do anything, we’ll need an opinion from the Supreme Court to settle this.
And while we are told the NSA is squashing terror plots, the Boston bombers slipped by despite warnings from Russia and our own agencies.
Where’s Frank Church when we need him? He never doubted the need to gather intelligence; he just demanded oversight and constitutional boundaries. President Obama says Congress is supervising all the spying; members of Congress say they are not. The blame game and finger-pointing is pathetic and an insult to all we stand for.
Here’s a final thought: If a dictator ever did get his grip on America, Church worried the NSA “could enable [him] to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back. … There would be no place to hide.”