The Senate and domestic spying

Taming Big Brother
By EDITORIAL  |  June 20, 2012

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Catch-22 is alive and well and living — where else? — in Washington.

When two Democratic members of the US Senate's intelligence oversight committee, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, asked the National Security Agency to give them a rough idea of how many people the NSA has spied on inside the United States, they got an absurdist answer straight out of Joseph Heller's novel.

More than a year after the request, the super-secret spy agency told the senators: we can't tell you; to do so would violate the privacy rights of the people we were — or are — spying on.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 2008 gave the government new authority to collect communications — phone calls, e-mails, text messages — of suspected or possibly suspected terrorists who are foreigners outside the US. The legislation was supposed to protect the privacy of people on the other end of those communications, that is, those inside the US.

Wyden and Udall are attempting to exercise the oversight that the surveillance act itself requires. But they are being thwarted not only by espionage establishment, but by their own committee chair.

The intelligence oversight chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, says that oversight authority is optional. Her position is a perverse form of "don't ask, don't tell." If legislative oversight of domestic spying is indeed optional, then it's worthless.

Has Feinstein learned nothing from the massive warrantless wiretapping conducted by the administration of George W. Bush?

If Feinstein has not, then Wyden certainly has. As a result of the stonewalling he has encountered, Wyden is quite rightly blocking the proposed five-year extension of the surveillance act.

The age of international terror in which we now live may sadly require more aggressive intelligence gathering. But are citizens to assume that they can trust President Barack Obama to be more constitutionally conscientious simply because he is not Bush, not a neo-conservative?

If congressional Democrats think a president of their own party is more reliable than a Republican, they should think again. The national security state was, after all, the invention of President Harry S. Truman, a Democrat.

All of this is, in and of itself, disturbing enough. But with the Obama administration preparing to employ unpiloted drones for domestic surveillance, America should get its hackles up.

At the moment, Washington and the mainstream media are fixated on the overseas killing of terrorist targets and the collateral bloodletting of neighboring civilians that results from drone attacks.

Little apparent thought is being expended on the constitutional implications of domestic drone surveillance, of the government having eyes and ears in the sky.

Drones will be more capable of monitoring the population under an even more all-encompassing watch than the sophisticated but static methods now employed by intelligence overlords.

Does Feinstein think oversight of domestic spying via drones should be optional?

One senator who does not is libertarian Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky. That's right, son of Ron and spawn of the Tea Party.

Paul has submitted legislation requiring a warrant for drone surveillance. And he is dead right to do so. The Phoenix does not agree with Paul on many things, but his concern for the integrity of the nation's constitutional rights and the almost sure probability that those rights will be violated by domestic drone flights is admirable.

Obama should order the NSA to answer Wyden and Udall's questions about the extent of domestic surveillance. And we urge a Democratic senator to come forward and co-sponsor Paul's warrant bill. John Kerry, are you game?

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