States are going to have security services. They’re going to have federal police like the FBI which [have] a right to have their operations not discussed in the media because it could get people killed. Are any mafia figures ever going to want to cooperate with the FBI again if they think what they’re talking to the FBI about is going to be put in the newspaper next week? I expect not.

By the same token, the United States cannot conduct intelligence operations around the world without some reasonable expectation of secrecy about them, at least for a few decades. You either believe that or you don’t. And if you don’t believe that, you are staking out a very radical position that is completely new, that has never existed until a few years ago.

WHAT ARE WAYS THAT SURVEILLANCE PLAYS INTO RHODE ISLANDERS’ LIVES? FOR EXAMPLE, IS SOMEONE TRACKING THIS PHONE CONVERSATION? I would highly doubt that. Look, the issue is this: the US Government has made [it]clear; we’ve seen congressional testimony recently about what NSA does. And of course NSA is a foreign intelligence organization. Let’s make this very clear: it spies on the rest of the world. However, there are situations where Americans can be involved in foreign intelligence or foreign terrorist activity.

If you had a situation where, let’s say, we had an American hypothetically talking to a known Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, let’s say, and they’re talking about terrorism — they’re actually talking about operational terrorism matters — that could be a legitimate intelligence target, but you would still have to go through the same process through the federal court system to get what is essentially a warrant.

I can state quite confidently if you’re an American, if you’re sitting in, you know, Narragansett, living your life and you are not involved with a foreign intelligence or foreign terrorism, NSA is in no way interested in you.

HOW MUCH PRIVACY SHOULD WE BE WILLING TO GIVE UP IN THE NAME OF SAFETY? Americans are used to giving up an enormous amount of their privacy to corporations every single day. Unless you are a member of Al Qaeda, Google knows vastly more about you than NSA does. Americans accepted the sacrifice of their privacy to large corporations actually in a way that I find mystifying, frankly. So discussing privacy and the right to privacy is not just a governmental thing.

Secrecy and privacy are absolutes and they’re obviously in opposition to each other. But it’s actually a sliding scale. And that sliding scale slid a bit after 9/11 toward the side of secrecy.

Does it now need to move back toward privacy a little bit? I think it’s a great debate that the American public and Congress need to have. And one of my greatest disappointments with the Snowden saga is, briefly, Snowden perhaps opened the door to a real debate about these issues, which should happen — is overdue, in fact. The amazing bizarre saga this has become with his ’round-the-world tour, the constant leaks about NSA foreign activities, has basically killed any discussion of a serious debate in Congress over this. And I think that’s really unfortunate.

Professor John Schindler blogs at and tweets from @20committee.

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