On June 5th, Journalist Glenn Greenwald revealed the first in a shocking series of leaks, provided to him by whistleblower Edward Snowden. These leaks showed the disturbing extent of spying on Americans committed by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the name of national security. That surveillance includes mass collection, without suspicion, of information about all phone calls made in this country. A separate program also enables direct government access to servers for some of the biggest companies on the internet, such as Facebook and Apple.
The discussions around these revelations seem strangely ahistorical, and have focused on the terrorist threat that has supposedly proliferated over the past decade. However, as Rachel Maddow notes: “These are just the latest in a long series of revelations about how much the NSA is spying on us. We’ve had these revelations periodically essentially ever since the NSA was born. The programs don’t go away. They just expand.”
Media reports seem as if no one has ever heard the history of NSA. The NSA was established in 1952 by President Harry Truman and has always had an enormous amount of power, ripe for abuse. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was the result of the Church Committee, a special investigative committee that was created in response to the COINTELPRO abuses that spanned decades from the 50s through the 70s, and ultimately spawned the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence now chaired by NSA apologist Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
As historian James Bamford points out in his chronicles of the NSA, this is not the first time this country has been “shocked”. Operation Shamrock, active from the 40s until the Church hearings, was a program under which the NSA had access to all telegrams leaving the United States. They obtained these telegrams through agreements with major telecommunications companies, much like PRISM. Mass surveillance is nothing new.
The question now is, what happens next? The answer is very unclear.
In his interview with Greenwald, Snowden stated that he thinks a policy change is the only way anything will improve, which is why he leaked the documents. That is also why Congress’ reaction to these revelations is particularly important, and these reactions have ranged from blind defense of the programs to lukewarm concern to justifiable outrage.
Blind defense of the programs comes, predictably, from members of the Congress that have championed surveillance, such as Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), author of the incredibly flawed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), who has said that the leaks have already led terrorists to change their behaviors. Similarly, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has said that “he is ‘glad’ that the National Security Agency is collecting millions of telephone records — including his own.” These members of Congress clearly don’t want to see any change. Without substantiating their claims, they state that these programs are keeping us safer. However, at least they are clear on where they stand.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has had a predictably lukewarm response to the revelations. While she continues to state that she is concerned about privacy, she has done little to protect it. After Greenwald exposed the programs, Feinstein said in a press conference that they surveillance was simply routine. She has now said “I’m open to doing a hearing every month, if that’s necessary,” while making clear that she sees the program as invaluable and delaying any hearings on NSA oversight.
There does seem to be some hope, however. There are already several legislative proposals to address NSA surveillance.
Senators Mark Udall (D-CO) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), both of whom have been vocal about their concerns with NSA surveillance in recent months, have introduced bi-partisan legislation to limit surveillance by amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to “require specific evidence for access to business records and other tangible things, and provide appropriate transition procedures…” Significantly, the Wyden-Udall proposal enjoys substantial bipartisan support from Republican senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
A bill from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would also heighten the standard for collecting evidence, while strengthening reporting standards by requiring a semiannual report with numbers of applications and “An analysis of the effectiveness of each application that was granted or modified in protecting citizens of the United States against terrorism.” Finally, a bill from Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) would declassify FISA court rulings that authorize programs like PRISM. In the House, Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI) have introduced legislation very similar to Senator Sanders’.
These are all certainly positive developments. However, the Church Committee was also a positive development, as was the passage of FISA in the first place. Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg said publicly at a recent talk in Berkeley that we are nearly in a police state at this point. He is not exaggerating. None of these changes will happen if the public does not fight for them, as many members of Congress have made clear.
What’s more, any potential changes will remain ineffective if the public forgets about them again, as we forgot about the historical abuses of power that made FISA necessary. Without continuing grassroots activism that includes public education alongside opportunities for community members to engage their elected representatives, this is exactly what will happen.