From the evidence so far, there’s no good reason to let the National Security Agency continue its massively intrusive practice of logging our private phone calls. Congress should pull the plug.
I’m not ignoring all the officials, including President Barack Obama, who swear that the NSA’s electronic snooping has foiled dozens of terrorist plots and saved untold lives. I’m just listening carefully, and what we’re getting is a lot of doublespeak and precious little clarity.
It’s important to keep in mind that Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who absconded to Hong Kong and started blabbing the spy agency’s secrets, has thus far disclosed the existence of two separate clandestine programs. One, known internally as PRISM, involves the international harvesting of emails and other electronic communications. The other involves the domestic collection of phone call “metadata” — a vast, pointillist record of our contacts and movements.
The NSA’s defenders have consistently — and, I believe, deliberately — blurred the distinction between the two. When they talk about the would-be terrorists who have been nabbed and the potential devastation that has been prevented, they lump the programs together.
Obama did so in his interview with Charlie Rose. “We are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe .
But it is becoming clear that we should consider “these programs” separately. Privacy concerns aside, PRISM at least seems to produce results. Unless we’re flat-out being lied to, PRISM — which does not target Americans — has produced substantial quantities of useful information about bad people overseas who seek to do us harm.
The phone-call tracking, on the other hand, is a huge infringement on Americans’ privacy that has not been shown to have much investigative value, if any.