On Wednesday, The Guardian revealed that the National Security Agency had obtained a top secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to collect records of all telephone calls made by Verizon customers for a three-month period ending July 19.
When grilled about the issue, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "As far as I know, this ... has been in place for the past seven years ... This renewal is carried out [by FISC] under the business records section of the PATRIOT Act. Therefore it is legal." Eric Holder further added, "Members of Congress have been fully briefed as these issues, these matters have been underway."
The country has exploded with criticism of the Obama administration, with accusations of this being a unprecedented level of invasion of privacy. "From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming ... It is beyond Orwellian," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Of course, the term "Orwellian" may be a little too harsh. The Obama administration justified its reasons for monitoring the public's phone activity as a "critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counter-terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States."
Seeing as how terrorist attacks still take place (think Boston), the government's reasons seem justified. This sort of phone monitoring by the government "has proved meritorious because we have collected significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years," said Senator Saxby Chambliss (D-Ga.), another leader of the Senator Intelligence Committee.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has also taken to reassure the public of the harmless nature of the phone monitoring activity: "I don't mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going ... to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States. I don't think you're talking to the terrorists. I know you're not. I know I'm not, so we don't have anything to worry about."
Of course, the line between phone monitoring solely to protect the country from threats to national security and simply being an excuse for "Orwellian" espionage is very fine, and Congress' and the Obama administration's reactions to the leak have not exactly helped their public image either.
First, the government should have made public its intention to monitor phone calls the moment it issued the order. The public has a right to know that someone is monitoring their phone activity. Besides, since it is done for the purposes of national security — a justified reason — what is there to hide from the public?
The government should also have made more of an effort to explain its actions. While it believe that its actions are justified, it should have anticipated the public backlash if and when these actions were revealed. Not only did the government lack a sufficiently extensive justification for its actions, Congress revealed that this sort of phone monitoring had been in place for seven years, with Senator Chambliss adding that "every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this."
The fact that Congress and the Obama administration only took to justifying these actions after a newspaper leak raises the question of how long the government would have continued this activity in secret, without anyone knowing. Moreover, the fact that Congress revealed that it had known this for the past seven years, yet kept it from the public, unintentionally gives the government the appearance of — dare I say it — a police state.
The government took a hard hit this morning following the release of this scandal. Let this be a lesson for them to further increase the transparency of their actions and their accountability to the public.