The place is in an uproar over news broken by Glenn Greenwald at the UK Guardian that the NSA has obtained en masse the metadata of American telephone calls. Millions upon millions of calls, all without suspicion that we’re doing anything wrong. All approved by Judge Roger Vinson sitting as FISA judge.
And the place is in an uproar. Because the reality of what we’ve allowed and approved, even if tacitly, for decades has come to light? Grow up.
Congress enacted FISA in 1978. The riff raff, like us, didn’t know about its existence until sometime in the 1980s, at which point we pulled our hair out, yelled and screamed, over this outrageous violation of basic principles of freedom, privacy, liberty. And it was news for a few hours until everybody went back to watching TV and the stock market.
And all was forgotten, because the truth is that we don’t care all that much, our attention span is brief and shiny things are more fascinating to the American public. They always have been.
It’s been extended and expanded since then, including a paradigm shift in how it worked back in 2004, during the mid-second-Bush years. The New York Times wrote about it. The few who were interested knew about it. The rest were busy scrambling to get their new iToys. Remember that? No, I didn’t think so.
And so we now learn about the government getting it all, and likely far more than Greenwald tells about. And uproar ensures. Turning to the person who will always offer the finest explanation of why the government knows what it’s doing, Stewart Baker calmly explains:
Makes perfect sense, given what the NSA has been tasked with accomplishing.
The Director of National Intelligence issued a statement late last night about the NSA collection flap.
First, large-scale collections give the government a way to screen for patterns in communications that will bring to light terrorists who are unknown to the government. As the DNI puts it, ”The collection is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism-related communications. Acquiring this information allows us to make connections related to terrorist activities over time.”
Second, the government justifies collecting a reservoir of data because it is only allowed to consume the data a spoonful at a time.He goes on to provide details of restrictions in place on the government side to assure that they won’t abuse the accumulation of every bit of data there is. As one might expect, it can be summed up with the words, “we’re the government, and you can trust us” not to abuse what we possess. Stewart offers the only possible outcome:
But you don’t trust the government, right? So why was this okay with you in 1978, or the 80’s, or 2004? What did you think was happening after the nation first became aware of secret FISA courts doing secret stuff that nobody outside was allowed to know about?
In short, there’s less difference between this “collection first” program and the usual law enforcement data search than first meets the eye. In the standard law enforcement search, the government establishes the relevance of its inquiry and is then allowed to collect the data. In the new collection-first model, the government collects the data and then must establish the relevance of each inquiry before it’s allowed to conduct a search.
If you trust the government to follow the rules, both models end up in much the same place.
Yes, of course this is outrageous, but just as it was outrageous before. Yes, there is good reason to believe that the government cannot be trusted with this monumental quantity of personal and private data, all possessed upon the premise that they would never sift through it unless they had damn good reason to do so.
Is this “end of the world” type stuff? Maybe, but since our world hasn’t ended up to now, and it would be fair to assume that this has been going on for a long time before Greenwald broke the latest news, I wouldn’t count on a second big bang today.
But it’s wrong, and it’s been wrong for a very long time. Yet all the hand-wringing interest today will fade and we will elect the same men and women to power to continue to re-enact the same laws that allow the government to do such things to its own people, and presidents who believe so strongly in their own exceptionalism that they can be trusted with our personal data even though the other team could never be.
This is despicable conduct by our government, and tomorrow the uproar will turn to something else and it will all be forgotten. Except by those whose days are spent trying to deal with the detritus of your neglect and transitory interest in liberty. To us, it was always despicable, but nobody else gave a damn. It’s unlikely to change this time around, or the next re-enactment and expansion. Or the one after that.
You really do trust the government. You just can’t bring yourselves to admit it.