James Clapper, the Obama Administration’s Director of National Intelligence has said NSA does not “wittingly” collect data on citizens. General Keith Alexander, NSA’s Director as well as his predecessor have testified that NSA is not spying on or collecting data on citizens. Even the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee has told the media that the American intelligence community is not intrusively monitoring the communications of our citizens without a warrant.
So the House Intelligence Committee is clearly in the pocket of the government institutions whose activities it is supposed to be monitoring on behalf of the American people. With the revelations provided by Eric Snowden and Glenn Greenwald and other journalists and whistleblowers, we know the opposite is the truth. We are now living in the Surveillance State many of us once feared would reappear after the Senator Frank Church hearings in 1975, which resulted in legislation to get a rogue intelligence apparatus under control. Sure enough, here it is again.
Finally we hear from Senator Feinstein, who recently stated that intelligence data collection was no different from the functioning of local grand juries. Now she acknowledges that unaccountable monitoring of phone conversations of many of our allies is a breach of trust and an impediment to our ally relationships. Even hawkish former California congresswoman Jane Harmon now advocates reforms to rein in our intelligence apparatus.
It seems to me that there are at least two major criteria on which to evaluate the massive scale of surveillance being undertaken by NSA, as well as the various intelligence missioned agencies they service. First, the damage being done to trust in our government by our citizens as a result of the infringement of our civil liberties by our post 9-11 Patriot Act. Second, the results produced by NSA and other intelligence/counterintelligence activities as a result of the massive ramping up of domestic surveillance.
Various polls and studies are widely disseminated by the media showing public trust of our federal government at an all time rock bottom. The damage is clear. Very similar in fact to the post Watergate period. In the surveillance arena, the Church Commission did a major service to our democracy with the reforms instituted then to enhance oversight and transparency. Over time, public trust greatly improved.
We can do it again through congressional work on Patriot Act reforms and aggressive oversight of our intelligence apparatus. The mission of NSA, originally focused on foreign signal intelligence, needs to be significantly reviewed and clarified. The FISA court process currently does not involve advocacy of citizen civil liberties and should, according to former Senator Gary Hart and others he is working with on the due process component to our surveillance policy. In addition, House and Senate congressional oversight needs revitalization, as do their security clearance policies which deny key leaders needed information on intelligence operations.
Rep. Alan Grayson points out that non-Intelligence Committee members are routinely denied information from both the committee and the intelligence agencies they need to properly advocate for the privacy and civil liberties of their constituents due to absurd policies on security clearances. Further, he argues that he and his peers are routinely lied to and misled about intelligence matters impacting their constituents they are elected to serve, in the name of “security”. He argues that the Intelligence Committee is complicit with the agencies in misleading and denying access.
In the results area, there are already some distressing indications that the disproportionately huge increases in our domestic surveillance are not yielding huge results. In fact, the results are miniscule. NSA has reported that 54 terror attacks have been thwarted; 25 in Europe, 11 in Asia, 5 in Africa and an underwhelming 13 in the USA.
42 of these 54 were interrupted plots and 12 involved terrorist activities of material support. Surveillance of foreigners, ours and that of foreign governments, yielded 1/2 of these. Four plots have been detailed by intelligence agencies, including a San Diego terror supporter sending money to Al Shabab in Somalia, a NYC subway plot foiled, a Chicago supporter of terror providing support for the unfoiled Mumbai attack and a plot against the NY Stock Exchange foiled.
Senator Ron Wyden pointed out that of these four terror projects, only two were significantly impacted by Federal surveillance. He also pointed out that of the 54 plots, the evidence suggests the overwhelming majority were foiled not by surveillance but by traditional informant help.
Peter Bergen of CNN estimated that of 33 terror plots derailed he studied, the evidence showed that of 29 were stopped not by surveillance but tips and informants.
Are we getting any kind of a reasonable return on investment in our surveillance of our own people in conjunction with both the massive human and financial commitment of national resources ? It sure doesn’t appear so to me. A tough minded audit of results and payback are imperative.
Of course the American public would and should not have privy to much of the how-to of our surveillance and intelligence gathering process for obvious reasons. But through our representative democracy process, our elected law and policy makers must have much more hands on oversight of NSA and other agencies who have, as history has shown, the natural inclination to overreach and deny access to those who are charged with both maintaining our security as well as our civil liberties.
Delaware congressional delegation- are you in?