Other Views: National Security Agency surveillance and the price of security
“We’re going to have to make some choices, as a society,” was President Barack Obama’s sensible initial reaction in early June to the revelations of pervasive electronic surveillance of Americans and others by the top secret National Security Agency (NSA).
The controversy over spying bears directly on the Patriot Act passed overwhelmingly in Congress shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner. R-Wis., drafted that document. He now expresses concern about the widespread character of surveillance. Fellow Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Janesville voted for the legislation. Then-Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was the sole no vote in the Senate.
Unfortunately, Obama’s Aug. 9 press conference remarks focused exclusively on public concern about invasions of privacy and not at all on how intelligence information is best collected and analyzed.
The White House, in cooperation with Congress, will review and possibly change Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes collection of telephone records. The super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which authorizes surveillance, will be required to consider opposing viewpoints. Additionally, the NSA will make more information public, including a website to serve as “a hub for further transparency.” Finally, an outside review panel will be established. This group will focus on “intelligence and communications technologies.” That is a particularly telling point.
United States government surveillance of large numbers of citizens is not unprecedented. Long before 9/11, Cold War concerns led to comparable practices. Some of these were clearly illegal.
In 1967, amid civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, U.S. Army Gen. William P. Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for intelligence, sent an unprecedented request to the NSA to collect intelligence on the growing domestic unrest. This sparked extensive domestic surveillance involving the Army and CIA, as well as the NSA.
The ensuing decade, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, public exposure by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, curtailed the program. Various reforms followed, including FISC.
This earlier program emphasized both electronic and human surveillance. By contrast, the NSA today apparently minimizes messy human dimensions in favor of comprehensive but essentially passive and unimaginative electronic tools. That is real cause for concern. Effective security requires both.
The current controversy provides opportunity for Obama to demonstrate executive leadership and discuss the need for both surveillance and secrecy. Instead, by emphasizing public anxieties regarding privacy, the White House characteristically continues a purely political approach.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College in Kenosha and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.