After much hand-wringing, fits, starts, and delay, the NSA domestic phone record program sank into oblivion at midnight on Saturday. What began as a trickle of information from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden more than two years ago, derisively dismissed by President Obama, ended with a whimper, and ironically with the signature of the same president that scoffed at Snowden and signed the USA Freedom Act earlier this year. Its reprieve finally exhausted, this represents a small but solid victory for civil libertarians.
The timing of the program’s death couldn’t have been better in light of the angst and subsequent knee-jerk reaction to the Paris terrorist attacks, which has spilled over into American presidential campaign politics. If the momentum against surveillance abuses hadn’t been halted, who knows how draconian the appetite for harsher surveillance laws would have become? As it is, national security hawks insist that ending the program will make America less safe, by depriving intelligence agents of the ability to “connect the dots” between suspected terrorists, precisely when fears about ISIS are peaking.
The demise of the program was foreshadowed by a ruling in May by the Second Circuit court of appeals at a time when many, including the White House and its cronies, were championing an extension of the surveillance curtailed in the USA Freedom Act. The handwriting was on the wall.
The surveillance debate has even divided the usually hawkish Republican Party, where the likes of Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz diverge from mainstream party thought. Cruz (R-Texas), rising in the polls and an early supporter of surveillance reform, weighed in on the topic at a tele-forum hosted by the Washington Examiner this month,
“I believe in the Constitution. I’ve spent my whole life fighting to defend the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and the federal government has no right to be seizing, collecting and holding the phone metadata of hundreds of millions of law-abiding citizens.”
Long at issue is the notion that the NSA only compiled phone metadata records, not the content of conversations. But supposed calls to a therapist, a bankruptcy attorney, or abortion clinic, or God forbid, an innocent call to a Muslim cleric to seek pastoral counseling, can reveal enough in their own right to raise privacy concerns. Even so, positions like those of Cruz and other privacy advocates rankle those in favor of stricter surveillance, especially in light of the events in Paris. The extra hoops that the NSA will have to go through to obtain information are believed by them to be too time- consuming and cumbersome.
Other GOP candidates are taking advantage of Cruz’s stance, some starkly contrasting it with their viewpoint on the subject. These would include front-running Donald Trump, and Ben Carson. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, angling for the more moderate base, while against the ending of surveillance, is more tempered in his tone and rhetoric.
“There are members of the Republican Party – that includes Sen. Cruz and Sen. Paul, who have argued that somehow the government is out there spying on everybody, so we need to gut these programs. That isn’t true. … If you have voted to harm those programs and undermine those programs then we need to have a debate about that, because it is a very different view of what the government’s role should be in our national security.”
The problem that I and many other privacy advocates have is not contained in the need for strong security. Rather, it is a better use of the information collected. The old program had only been conclusively responsible for one arrest and conviction in its 14 years of existence: a San Diego cab driver who was convicted in 2013 of sending $8,500 back home to Somalia to help the terror group al-Shabaab. One conviction in light of the mountains of data collected! Critics say that this should be proof of the program’s ineffectiveness.
The proponents of mass surveillance and data collection counter by contending that often patterns of terrorist activity are hidden in the mountains of data, and will be irrevocably lost. Thus, this debate is hardly over, if it will ever be, but small gains are to be savored along the way.