Time to rein in NSA spies

Controversial spying techniques deployed by the National Security Agency, including daily data collection on hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens, are justified because they supposedly have been key in thwarting 54 terrorist plots. That’s the number touted repeatedly by the Obama administration, U.S. intelligence officials and NSA’s defenders in Congress.

It’s also one of the few points of bipartisan agreement in Washington. Those who have repeatedly cited the “54 terror plots averted” argument include prominent Republicans such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

Too bad it isn’t true.

Earlier this month, a special commission of legal and intelligence experts appointed by President Barack Obama announced that even with access to top-secret material, it could find no evidence that the massive NSA data collection has proved useful against terrorism. “Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of (Patriot Act) Section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional Section 215 orders,” the panel found.

Likewise, a federal judge this month noted that “the government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.” U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon, an appointee of President George W. Bush, went on to rule the program an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees Americans the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The vehemence of his opinion was startling.

“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” wrote Leon.

The presidential review panel has issued 46 recommendations to Obama that would significantly increase judicial and executive branch oversight of the National Security Agency as well as restrict the agency’s powers. In response, Obama promised what he calls “a pretty definitive statement about all of this in January,” when he returns to Washington.

This debate has become possible solely because Edward Snowden, a former NSA consultant, leaked information about the enormous scope of the agency’s activities. He has revealed to us an intelligence apparatus quickly becoming capable of knowing all and seeing all and storing all, in ways that were not imaginable 20 years ago, let alone 225 years ago when the Constitution was being written.

Additional unimaginable technology is no doubt being developed as you read this. And it is an unwritten but almost ironclad rule of bureaucracy that information once collected will be used; the temptation it represents is simply too powerful, especially when those possessing it can operate in almost total secrecy and freedom, as the NSA does.

So the moment is now: Either we put serious, permanent restrictions on the collection of such data, including strict and public oversight of those collecting it, or we surrender to it and write off the Fourth Amendment as technologically obsolete. Personally, I’m not willing to abandon a fundamental right guaranteed us by the founders.