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It seems you can’t step away from the computer for more than a few hours these days without a story revealing previously secret information about the National Security Agency (NSA) setting the internet aflame. The scandal has sparked an investigative journalism renaissance with virtually every major news organisation in the country—not just the keepers of the Snowden files—getting in on the act.
Several stories of critical significance broke in the last two weeks. First, the Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA’s surveillance system, “has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence, including a wide array of communications by foreigners and Americans.” The Journal detailed the NSA’s direct access to telecommunications’ fiber optic cables around the country and their extraordinary reach into many corners of the web.
The next day, the administration finally released the 2011 FISA court opinion ruling some NSA surveillance unconstitutional, making front-page news around the country. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the organization for which I work, has been suing the Justice Department for its release for over a year. The ruling showed the NSA had vacuumed up more than a 150,000 Americans’ emails, only alerting the court to a collection method that had been in place for three years. The court also accused the NSA of “material misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program” on two other occasions.
Until two weeks ago, the administration had stuck to the talking point that all the privacy violations were unintentional. That was already cold comfort to Americans, as the Washington Post had previously reported, based on Snowden documents, that the NSA has been committing thousands of privacy violations, however unintentional, affecting untold number of people per year. And the numbers seem to be increasing.
Soon after the FISA court opinion was released, Bloomberg News revealed that a still-classified NSA inspector general’s report documented “approximately a dozen” willful privacy over the last decade by the NSA. This contradicted many previous statements by government officials, including NSA chief Keith Alexander, who said “no one has wilfully or knowingly disobeyed the law or tried to invade your civil liberties or privacy” at a speech on August 8.
The Wall Street Journal followed up, detailing how many of these violations consisted of analysts following former spouses or partners (nicknamed “LOVEINT”). The Journal explained that most of the violations were self-reported. How many went unreported we will likely never know.
Couple this with the fact that NBC News reported how Edward Snowden was able to browse the NSA networks for months without detection, and you have an agency which claims it has strict internal oversight procedures in place, but seems to have only one real mechanism for enforcement: self policing.
Amazingly, all of these stories have come since President Obama was forced to address the issue at a press conference just three and a half weeks ago in response to the first wave of stories published by the Guardian and Washington Post. At that point, the sea change in public opinion about civil liberties and privacy had become clear and Congressmen in both parties had been pressuring the White House for weeks. Obama promised more transparency to programs (it’s important to remember he also promised more transparency six years ago when he was first running for president), but there were no concrete proposals for reining in the out-of-control powers of the NSA. He did not even mention the two major stories of the day, one in the Guardian, and the other in the New York Times. Obama did say this, however:
What I’m going to be pushing the [intelligence community] to do is rather than have a trunk come out here and leg come out there and a tail come out there, let’s just put the whole elephant out there so people know exactly what they’re looking at. Let’s examine what is working, what’s not, are there additional protections that can be put in place, and let’s move forward.”
While the full elephant is the only thing that will satisfy the public at this point, disturbingly, Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, the lone NSA critics on the Senate intelligence committee, cryptically said in a press release after Obama’s press conference that we’ve only learned “just the tip of a larger iceberg.”
Congress is currently on August recess, an annual break where members return to their home districts to hear from their constituents. We can expect some sort of action when they return. Eighteen bills have already been introduced, with many more on their way, and as Politico reported, members from both parties are listening to people at town halls voice their concerns about NSA surveillance, “a sign that fears about the ultra-secret National Security Agency have spread beyond the Beltway as lawmakers embark on their annual town-hall tours.”
Meanwhile, the reporting will only continue, as the Guardian is now sharing some of the Snowden documents with the New York Times and ProPublica after GCHQ disturbingly entered the Guardian offices in London and oversaw the destruction of a copy of the Snowden files.
Early on, the administration and its defenders may have hoped the story would disappear with the next news cycle. It won’t. The NSA scandal is destined to a prime issue in the fall Congressional session, carrying into next year’s midterm elections. The administration’s attempts to calm the public with transparency-after-the-fact PR measures won’t change the narrative.
What we want to see is this headline: “Obama reins in NSA surveillance authority.”