Anation’s belief in its core values, laws and character can only be proven when it’s put to the test. As such, the revelation that the National Security Agency has been building a massive database of domestic phone records suggests that our nation no longer values its citizens’ right to privacy. Such a program is contrary to any reasonable reading of the Fourth Amendment. Worse, the decision to spy on untold millions of innocent citizens was made by an out-of-control national security apparatus, with practically no meaningful Congressional oversight. As it stands, this program is destructive to liberty and must be modified or ended. We must not stand by as the Fourth Amendment becomes a casualty of the so-called war on terror.
The NSA’s secret program, as detailed in a recent USA Today story, has used the records of three major telecommunications corporations in an attempt to, in the words of one source, “create a database of every call ever made” on American soil.
While two of the phone companies named in the story – BellSouth and Verizon have denied participation in the NSA program – The New York Times and The Washington Post have both independently confirmed the core of the USA Today story: that the NSA has built an immense database of domestic phone records.
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant on the belief that a government able to investigate any citizen without cause can easily stumble down the path to tyranny. There seems, on face, to be little reason why the government should have unwarranted access to data of any citizen’s phone calls. The potential for abuse is too extreme.
Indeed, the USA Today story claims that NSA officials said the phone records it sought might be shared with other agencies, ranging from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Two investigative reporters from ABC News recently said that a federal official informed them that their calls were tracked and suggested they get new cell phones, although it’s unclear whether this persecution of journalists is tied to the NSA program or is simply an unrelated facet of the Bush administration’s assault on civil liberties.
But Sept. 11, the NSA’s defenders will argue, changed everything – and it is true that the nation is engaged in an ongoing debate over the proper balance between liberty and security. It’s too bad, then, that Congress has been excluded from this debate.
Until last Wednesday – the day before confirmation hearings for Gen. Michael Hayden, the former NSA head now nominated to run the Central Intelligence Agency – most members of the Senate Intelligence Committee had not even been briefed on the NSA program.
If the program is somehow legal, as the Bush administration’s misguided view of the Fourth Amendment would make it out to be, surely informing senators on the Intelligence Committee wouldn’t hurt? The complete lack of Congressional oversight for this program not only further weakens the system of checks and balances, but it invites public mistrust.
President Bush has tried to calm fears about governmental spying, insisting on the same day of the USA Today report that the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. But remember that in 2004, Bush said in a town hall meeting addressing the Patriot Act, “A wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.” That was a lie, as reports last December about warrantless NSA wiretaps of the international phone calls of American citizens proved.
Without effective Congressional oversight, there’s little reason to believe that the administration is currently telling the whole truth about the extent of its spying on American citizens.
What else do we not know?