THE VIEW FROM HERE
The recent revelation that the Obama Administration has been collecting tens of millions of phone records in the United States under an order of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), including both sides of telephone conversation (but, supposedly, not actual wiretaps of conversations), plus revelations about the longer-running PRISM program that obtains huge amounts of data (including emails and chat records) from the internet, raise difficult questions about balancing security and privacy. But they also point up the importance of maintaining the trust of the public.
At present, there is considerable confusion about the boundaries of the surveillance program (for example, there have been unproven rumors that wiretaps can be authorized without a court order) and over whether PRISM is a part of an even larger program, as the Associated Press reported last week.
And, there is a major debate over whether this type of program is effective. General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), the agency in charge of the surveillance programs, asserted in testimony before a House committee that the programs helped thwart more than 50 “potential terrorist events” around the world since September 11, 2001. A deputy FBI director, Sean Joyce, also testified that the internet traffic program help avert a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange and the plot to attack the New York City subways involving convicted taxi driver Najibulla Zazi. The NSA also claims that fewer than 300 phone numbers or other “identifiers” were target last year.
On the other hand, detractors of the program have pointed both to the inability of the program to find the Boston Marathon suspects and have questioned some of the program’s proclaimed successes. For example, British intelligence using conventional surveillance tactics provided key information in the arrest of Zazi. This frankly is a very difficult issue to sort out without both substantial technical knowledge and access to classified national security information. And the program’s attackers and defenders have not been the usual suspects — Al Gore sharply assailed the Obama Administration’s use of the program, while Dick Cheney defended it. In some significant measure, support of the program depends on faith in President Obama and his senior officials to do the right thing in balancing national security and personal privacy.
However, President Obama would be on much stronger ground in asking us to trust him if his Administration had not been caught up in so much suspicious behavior in recent months. The Benghazi attacks and false talking points blaming the attack on a video rather than Islamic terrorists, is one recent example. So is the IRS investigation of Tea Party groups, supposedly just the idea of bureaucrats in Cincinnati. Then there was the massive surveillance of the press and in particular the warrant, approved by Attorney General Eric Holder, for the emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen.
Just this week, we seem to have another highly suspicious case. CBS reporter Sharyl Atkisson, who was involved in investigative stories on Benghazi and on the Obama’s Administration’s botched “Fast and Furious” gun program, noticed that both her work and home computer were acting strangely, and reported this to her employer. An investigation determined that her computers were hacked, but the intruders, who had access to Ms. Atkisson’s financial information and passwords, did not seem interested in her money or stealing her identity. If this turns out to be connected with the Obama Administration, it would again undermine trust at a time when the President most needs it.