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Saturday, October 1, 2016

WASHINGTON — The hardest thing in an argument is to acknowledge competing truths. We know that our government will continue with large-scale surveillance programs to prevent future terrorist attacks. We also know that such programs have operated up to now with too little public scrutiny and insufficient concern over their long-term implications for our rights and our privacy.

The response to Edward Snowden’s leaks about what our government has been up to should thus be a quest for a new and more sustainable balance among security, privacy and liberty. And the fact that some people in each of our political parties have switched sides on these questions is actually an opportunity. We can have a debate on the merits, liberated from the worst aspects of partisanship.

A good place to start would be the bill introduced on Tuesday by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), requiring the attorney general to declassify significant opinions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. To have a thoughtful discussion, we need to know what authority our government has, and claims to have, under the PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Merkley notes that his bill was carefully drawn to protect intelligence “sources and methods.” It focuses on the release of the court’s substantive legal interpretations. Among the bill’s seven other sponsors are two Republicans. One of the pair, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, said in a statement that “ensuring Americans’ safety is one of our government’s most important responsibilities.” The FISA court bill is “a measured approach” toward more transparency.

Other disclosures are also called for. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) chairs the intelligence committee and is a strong defender of the surveillance programs. She has requested that Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, declassify more material so we can know those instances where data-mining efforts might have stopped terrorist plots. Here again, citizens are entitled to know more than we do now.

My hunch is that few Americans were entirely shocked at the extent to which the intelligence services have been ingesting huge gobs of information. We already know that our privacy is compromised by the gathering of Big Data by institutions outside government. As Ross Douthat noted in a perceptive New York Times column on Sunday, “it is practically impossible to protect your privacy … from the service providers and social media networks.”

  • Bill Thompson

    For me the real issue is that we have privatized national security. Not a week goes by that we don’t hear of some corp sending out SS numbers or hacking of company computers. We have no problem spending double the amount of money as long as it is privatized. The fact of the matter is if the US government payed some clown like Snowden, a high school graduate, 200,000 a year the public would be up and arms. But it fine to give tons of money to the privet defense contractor so they can pay a poorly vetted employee 200,000 a year plus add profit for the company.

    • Dominick Vila

      Contractors have been performing maintenance, operations, and engineering tasks in most, if not all, Federal government departments and agencies for decades. I was one of them. There are benefits to having contractors, and there are problems as well. One of the benefits is that the government can choose whomever they believe is best qualified to do the job, and can get rid of them when they don’t meet expectations. A problem is that while the use of contractors has the potential to reduce cost, it often has the opposite results. The reason for it is that instead of focusing on providing a vision, oversight, and managing the budget, civil servants often take their oversight functions to ridiculous proportions and duplicate tasks, at least in theory, that are already being done by contractors. Interestingly, when there is a RIF the people affected are usually contractors, and the civil servants who had little to offer to the process almost always keep their jobs.

      On the issue of security, there are contractors with high security clearances working in very sensitive areas. That has seldom been a problem, but there are always bound to be a few rotten apples everywhere we live and work. The Booz Allen and Hamilton “accountant” was, obviously, one of them. Not only did he reveal classified information, he provided to The Guardian, a British newspaper known for its sensationalism. Obviously, he wanted maximum exposure, and did not care about the damage he was doing to our national security and international credibility.

      • lobdillj

        As a retired scientist who held a Secret DoD clearance and, when necessary, a Top Secret clearance for 30 years, I can assure you, Mr. Vila, that your first statement above should be qualified. Until Clinton’s regime we had sensible oversight of clearances granted to employees of contractors. We no longer have that.

    • idamag

      Yes. I was appalled to learn that 1 in 4 people responsible for our national security is a contract worker. As you can see, our government is being given freely to big business.

    • Charles Evans

      Exactly! Agrees with Bill 100%

    • Fern Woodfork

      That What This New GOP/Tea Party Want To Do With Everything Around Here In America Is To Privatize It!! This What You Will Get Every Time Loose Lips Sinking Ships!! Duh

  • Dominick Vila

    The concept behind the Patriot Act put in place in October 2001 was abhorrent to me since it was first proposed, but the sad reality is that we have no choice but to compromise our ideals with the circumstances that prevail in the 21st century. The threat of terrorism, and the fact that terrorists have infiltrated our society and live among us, is no longer hypothesis or an abstract. It is real, and the only choice available until more robust and less intrusive technology and procedures are available, is to protect our national security with the tools that are available to us at the moment.
    I think it is also important to recognize that the truth behind the hysteria that dominate the news at the moment is that neither the NSA nor any other intelligence agency is interested in our conversations or political opinions. They are doing everything they can to minimize the probability of a sequel to 9/11, and they should be praised and supported for their efforts and commitment.

    • labrown69

      That is such a load of crap. “we have no choice”? We have no brains is more like it and we are living in a fool’s paradise while we become like the Soviet Union. These computers do not target Islamic radicals alone but soldiers returning from the war that we started and political dissidents who speak out against the administration or the government. I would not be surprised if this is how they dug up all the dirt on David Patreus. You people who are so ready to acquiesce to giving up your rights should be executed yourselves for treason.

      • awakenaustin

        Your last line is the type of thoughtful comment we have come to expect from you.

        • labrown69

          Given what you have come to passively “accept” at the very least think of it as a wake up call. You have grown so accustomed to getting fu*ked that it feels good to you but as it pertains for your criticism, when you prosecute truth telling whistle blowing patriots for treason that is an act of treachery. Manning and Snowden are exactly what the US needs. Obama and his secrecy and corruption are not. When you can put together the condition of this nation with the people running it who forbid the American people the truth it may make more sense to you.

    • idamag

      I was against it when the Bush Administration put it in. We can’t be so scared we give up our liberties.

  • elw

    I find that I am very conflicted when it comes to this issue. On one hand it deeply bothers me to know that the government has the power to gather information on such a large scale about mostly innocent people; on the other hand, I am scared and want Government to have the information it needs to protect me. I agree with E.J. this not a black and white issue. It is an issue that should be discussed on a National level and to do that honestly we need information on what has been gained for our security from the program; we need that information in order to be able to assess if the compromise to our right to privacy is worth the cost. My biggest worry is that the GOP’s desperate search for a scandal they can pin on President Obama will turn this very important issue into spoof of what an intelligent and meaningful conversation about it should be. The biggest loser if that should happen is you and me.

  • m8lsem

    Contractors have replaced government employees in many situations pursuant to a quasi-religious belief that the private sector is always more efficient than government, and thus we will ‘save money.’ This belief ignores the fact that government does not seek to make a profit, and only has so much budget to make use of. I believe it’s fiction that outsourcing saves money. The worst example I’ve run into of this fact is the private soldiers sent to Iraq by our ‘favorite’ contractor that a former Vice-President once ran. These clowns were less well trained than our soldiers, and were paid many multiples of what our soldiers were paid.

    Be that as it may, it is well to keep in mind, first, that the telephone records available do not include recorded conversations, only the number of call from and the number of call to, essential for billing purposes; and second, that the sheer volume of that data precludes attention to those not meeting the sought pattern of activity. The endless cycle of work, computerized or done by personnel, to make a decision who was involved in each and every call, is beyond the ability of staffing. What’s more realistic is the image of a phone call from Saudi Arabia or Yemen to a number in the US, with the source number or locale triggering the investigation, and a check made on whose phone was called.

    We haven’t the personnel necessary to sleuth each and every call, to try to figure out who has a mistress/lover … and not the money or time to set up a screen for every such call.

  • Mark Forsyth

    Anyone besides me been noticing that Disqus seems to be tracking our up and down votes on comments? What’s that about?

  • dragons3

    But trust our government? Yeah, just ask any native American how that worked out.
    I have decided to take a passive response to the government spying on me…
    From now on, every text, email, and phone call will at random contain BS words such as
    “BOMB, Muslim, Islam, Obama, fertilizer, etc” just to drive the computers nuts… let everyone do that and we will overload the machine!
    Had they done it correctly ( going to a judge for a tapping warrant) EVERY TIME.. not some BS blanket spying, then I would not have become so “Hissy faced”.
    If you want to feel safer, keep your guns clean and your powder dry!