Winning Progressive offers thoughts and questions on the NSA, surveillance, security, and civil liberties. (More)


Last week’s revelations about the National Security Agency carrying out a massive data-mining operation in which it collects data about virtually every telephone call made in the US has, of course, set off a firestorm. Many of the claims being made by critics on both the left and the right regarding these programs appear to be extreme hyperbole. That being said, there are important concerns and questions that need to be answered regarding the NSA spying programs and their costs, impacts on civil liberties, and effectiveness. As such, we progressives should be calling for and welcoming an open and transparent public evaluation and debate regarding these programs to make sure our national security efforts are both making us safer and minimizing impacts to our civil liberties. Following are some specific thoughts on these issues.

The NSA Spying Programs Raise Important Civil Liberties Concerns

Perhaps the most hotly contested question regarding the NSA spying programs is whether they infringe on civil liberties. Answering that question is made difficult by the fact that we simply do not know the extent of the NSA programs. In addition, while some supporters claim that there have been no abuses of the program, that claim is hard to verify given the levels of secrecy around these NSA programs. At a minimum, full disclosure of the extent and details of US government surveillance of Americans is necessary so that we can assess exactly what civil liberties impacts may be at stake here.

That being said, we already know enough that we should be concerned about the civil liberties implications of the NSA spying programs. For one thing, the data mining and other spying techniques being carried out has led to the creation of a sprawling surveillance infrastructure, which will almost certainly seek to perpetuate and expand its reach. In addition, the collection and retention of information regarding every phone call you have made, who you called, how long your spoke with that person on the phone, etc., certainly appears to infringe on people’s right to privacy. Many will respond that privacy concerns are overstated here given that most Americans already reveal far more personal information online or to corporations. But there is an important distinction when it comes to government surveillance, and that is that, unlike corporations, government is able to bring the full weight of the law against a person based on the information that is being secretly collected.

President Obama is Neither Solely to Blame Nor Blameless

While many in the media portray the NSA spying programs as Obama spying on Americans, the reality is that officials in all three branches of government, from both political parties, have authorized the growing levels of government surveillance that our country has seen over the past 40 years, as is well-documented in this timeline by ProPublica. Republicans and Democrats worked together to draft the PATRIOT Act that authorized much of the NSA spying program, and Congress has not seen fit to amend the PATRIOT Act or rein in the NSA’s data-mining operation. As such, it is pure sophistry to suggest that President Obama is primarily responsible for the increasing levels of surveillance that have been occurring, or that such programs represent a “scandal” for this Administration. Instead, the Obama administration is simply aggressively using the tools that Congress and the previous administration provided.

That being said, it is the Obama Administration that is today, among other things, tracking the telephone calls made by virtually every resident of the US.  Unfortunately, many Democrats have reacted to this fact by approving of the types of NSA spying programs under President Obama that they found illegitimate under President George W. Bush. But we should not allow our partisan interests override the need to call out a program that raises serious civil liberties concerns. In short, if the NSA’s collection of data on basically every phone call made in the US was wrong when the Bush Administration started it in 2002, and was wrong when Congress blessed it in 2006, then it remains wrong now that the Obama administration is doing it today.

There is Little Evidence that Data-Mining Works for Counter-terrorism

A significant objection to the NSA data-mining programs is that there is little evidence that such programs are effective in rooting out terrorists. Instead, given the extreme rareness of both terrorism incidences and terrorists, the predictive ability of data-mining on counter-terrorism issues is questionable at best. In addition, analysts sifting through the massive amounts of data that are collected will end up with large numbers of false positives (i.e.: people incorrectly flagged as potential terrorists), and will spend valuable time and resources tracking down an inordinate number of false leads created by the data-mining. In order for data-mining to really work when it comes to something as rare as terrorism, you need information that enables you to target and narrow the assessment, which is exactly the type of information that is gathered through traditional police and intelligence work, rather than massive data-mining projects.

We Are Spending Vast Resources on the National Security State

The fact that the NSA is collecting phone records on every call made in the U.S. is just the latest example of how we have built a massive national security state over the past decade.  As the Washington Post summarized in a 2010 investigative report on the extent of the national security state:

 The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

Among other things, the Washington Post found that there were 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on counter-terrorism and homeland security programs, that 854,000 people had top-secret security clearances, and that 33 building complexes totaling more than 17 million square feet have been built since September 2001.

While it is difficult to find reliable data on exactly how much all of this national security infrastructure costs, one can get a sense of the amounts at issue when you consider that Booz Allen Hamilton, the private contractor where Edward Snowden worked, just received a five-year, $5.6 billion contract from the government for this work.

Questions That Need to Be Answered

The civil liberties implications of the NSA spying programs are critical and should be fully investigated and publicly aired. But there are other important questions regarding the effectiveness of the approaches being taken, and the resources being expended on these programs that should also be evaluated. Specific questions we would like to see answered include:

– Is the data mining approach effective? Is so much data being collected that it is difficult if not impossible to sift through it in a timely and meaningful fashion?

– How much is being spent on these spying efforts? Is such level of spending necessary to achieve our national security goals, or could we achieve those goals with less?

– Why are so many private contractors, as opposed to government employees, being used, and how are they selected and compensated? Do these contractors turn around and lobby Congress for even further spending on the national security programs that the contractors profit off of?

– Most importantly, would more limited and targeted efforts be more effective, cost less, and infringe less on our civil liberties?

While the details of the NSA spying programs remain to be determined, the basics are very concerning. We’ve created a giant national security apparatus, involving large private contracting firms, collecting massive amounts of information, with essentially no public oversight and little evidence that such an approach will preserve our safety or our civil liberties. In order to protect both our national security and our civil liberties, we need an open and transparent evaluation and debate about the national security state that we have built up so far, and an assessment of whether more effective and less costly methods for protecting national security while also protecting our civil liberties could be pursued.