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Read This If You Want To Understand Just How Far The NSA Has Gone, And The Political Mess Behind It

from the must-read dept

I cannot say enough good things about Ryan Lizza’s comprehensive article about the NSA’s surveillance programs and the legal mess and political fights they’ve created. There’s nothing particularly new in the article, but it does an astoundingly good job putting everything that we’ve learned into context. Even as someone who’s been following all of this very closely, it was still a bit of a jumbled puzzle in my mind, but Lizza’s piece took all of it and laid out the entire picture. It goes through all of the details of how and why the NSA began the program, its regular and repeated (often egregious) abuses, and the questionable legal defenses to protect the program. It goes into great detail on Senator Ron Wyden’s long fight against these programs and in favor of civil liberties and the Constitution. It details how and why President Obama flip-flopped from his position as Senator and kept the programs, despite multiple opportunities to dump them. Even crazier, it discusses how a proposal Obama made as Senator might have stopped these programs years ago:

Even without a full picture of the programs, two senators who were not on the Intelligence Committee became intense critics of N.S.A. domestic surveillance: Barack Obama and Joe Biden. In May, 2006, after the USA Today article appeared, Biden said it was frightening to learn that the government was collecting telephone records. “I don’t have to listen to your phone calls to know what you’re doing,” he told CBS News. “If I know every single phone call you made, I’m able to determine every single person you talked to. I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive.”

Obama’s objections to domestic surveillance stretched back even further. In 2003, as a Senate candidate, he called the Patriot Act “shoddy and dangerous.” And at the 2004 Democratic Convention, in the speech that effectively launched his eventual campaign for President, he took aim at the “library records” provision of the law. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states,” he declared. In 2005, when he arrived in Washington, Obama became one of Wyden’s new allies in his attempts to reform the law. The Patriot Act was up for reauthorization, and, at Wyden’s urging, the Senate was trying to scale back the “library records” section. One of the first bills that Obama co-sponsored, the Security and Freedom Enhancement Act, would have required that the government present “specific and articulable facts” if it wanted a court order for records, a much higher standard than the existing one.

Obama and several other senators, including John Kerry, now the Secretary of State, and Chuck Hagel, the current Secretary of Defense, laid out their legal case against the provision in a letter to colleagues on December 14, 2005. The government could “obtain library, medical and gun records and other sensitive personal information under Section 215 of the Patriot Act on a mere showing that those records are relevant to an authorized intelligence investigation,” they wrote. It allowed “government fishing expeditions targeting innocent Americans. We believe the government should be required to convince a judge that the records they are seeking have some connection to a suspected terrorist or spy.” The following day, on the Senate floor, Obama said that the provision “seriously jeopardizes the rights of all Americans and the ideals America stands for.”

The Bush White House fought Obama’s changes, but offered a few minor concessions. Most notably, a business that received a demand for records could challenge in court a nondisclosure agreement that accompanied the demand. That was enough to placate some Democrats, including Obama. Wyden objected that the change did nothing to address Obama’s concerns, but the reauthorization of the Patriot Act passed the Senate on March 1, 2006. Wyden, eight other Democrats, and one Independent voted against it; Obama and Biden voted for it. Bush signed the law on March 9th.

Wyden later learned that, while he and Obama were fighting to curtail Section 215, the N.S.A.’s lawyers were secretly arguing before the FISA court that the provision should allow the N.S.A. to legally collect the phone records of all Americans. The lawyers, encouraged by their success in retroactively legalizing the Internet-metadata program, believed that they could persuade the FISA court to force phone companies to regularly hand over their entire databases. At the FISA court, there are no lawyers challenging the government’s arguments; all the N.S.A. needed to do was convince a single judge. Had Obama’s language been adopted, the N.S.A.’s case would have collapsed.

It’s a long but fascinating article that you owe it to yourself to read, no matter where you stand on these issues. It paints the whole picture that hasn’t been clear to many, and highlights just how dysfunctional the oversight has been of the NSA. And, if you weren’t already impressed enough by Senator Wyden, the article presents even more reasons to be impressed by him (and depressed that there’s only one of him).

On Twitter last week, after the Snowden leaks showing that, yes, as Wyden had been hinting all along, the NSA has been collecting location data on tons and tons of people, there was a great tweet by Kade Ellis, saying:

New rule: when Ron Wyden asks “NSA, do you do this spying?” HE ALREADY KNOWS THE ANSWER AND THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS YES

Unfortunately, as the article details, Wyden very rarely is even allowed to ask these questions, and the intelligence community stonewalls at every opportunity. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who should be managing oversight of the intelligence community appears to believe her job is rather to defend and support the intelligence community.

Still, the most disappointing aspects of the article really focus on how President Obama and his advisors, many of whom had spoken out against the Patriot Act and various aspects of the program now in place, suddenly changed positions once they were in power, and it was their power to abuse. The repeated stories of intelligence industry insiders coming up with the flimsiest of reasons why these programs must continue are plenty troubling. However, the fact that no one in the government seems to think that the American public can even be trusted with their basic reasoning and interpretations of the laws of the land is just ridiculous.

Either way, as stated, you owe it to yourself to find some time to read the whole thing — but prepare to be outraged.

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Comments on “Read This If You Want To Understand Just How Far The NSA Has Gone, And The Political Mess Behind It”

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out_of_the_blue says:

Re: Re: Defeatism is a product of disappointment

Seriously, it’s those defeatist attitudes that caused the Civil Rights movement to shit blizzard.

i was not defeatist .. once

i became defeatist after years of speaking up, only to be shutdown by the very people who’d have the most to lose by standing back and doing nothing (Most artists doing nothing about copyright letting the laws get worse and worse while screaming ‘freetard!’ and ‘thief!’ if you dare question copyright’s sovereignty .etc)

the problem with having hope is that it defies reality

and reality is this: Stockholm Syndrome is rampant, and many are willing to give up a lot of their rights for some perceived safety or ‘position’ of power (Artists who put up copyright so they can control what people do with their stuff, even if it means the MAFIAA will delete/takedown some of their stuff from time to time.. it gives them some ‘power’ so they don’t care about the repercussions)

many couldn’t care less either way, it’s not gonna interfere with their Fakebook or Honey Boo Boo or Miley Cyrus twerk so if it doesn’t affect them who gives a damn

as much as i’d like to not be defeatist, i’m too painfully aware of the failings of the Human race to think otherwise

out_of_the_blue says:

Re: Re: Re:

Artists who put up copyrestrict so they can control what people do with their stuff, even if it means the MAFIAA will delete/takedown some of their stuff from time to time..

*Artists who put up with

**even if it means the MAFIAA will delete/takedown some of their stuff from time to time AND bar them from using certain things, AND instill fear and permission culture making their life hard

Sorry I’m feeling really loopy today

out_of_the_blue says:

I'm not here for MORE outrage, Mike, already have plenty. -- SO WHAT DO YOU ADVISE?

C’mon, college boy, toss us just a hint for suggested action. You claim to run around with Washington types, so should be ready with a practical plan. — At least who to blame, who to indict, how many years should be sentenced? … Anything? — I admit it’s tough and a bit unfair of me, but you’re making a profit off re-writing this story. I say leading the revolt is the mission your parents sent you to the Ivy League for, modern noblesse oblige, and you’re not trying so much as you do with fantasy football. If with your advantages, you’re not even leading yells for indictments, then as Orwell wrote: the proles aren’t going to rise up, either. — So are you a man or are you a Googler?

Pragmatic says:

Re: I'm not here for MORE outrage, Mike, already have plenty. -- SO WHAT DO YOU ADVISE?

Shut up, Cathy. Mike is not going to bone you now or ever.

Nor will a man who expects us to think for ourselves position himself as a thought leader. He states the facts as he finds them and leaves it to us to make our own minds up.

In any case, if he ever did, as you suggest, post a list of specific remedies (as he sometimes does – you’ve chosen to ignore them), you rant and rail that they’re not good enough. It’s not worth trying to respond to or communicate with people who consider facts an alien concept, reason as quaint, and logic as for losers.

It’s obvious; the system is inherently corrupt; few, if any of our glorious leaders are on our side; and it’s time for we the people to effect change by using our rights to vote instead of allowing ourselves to be caught up in partisan spin and divisions.

Did you really expect your rantings to provoke Mike into leading some sort of violent coup?

We’ll leave the fantasies and stupidity to you. Good luck with the revolution.

Anonymous Coward says:

the way Obama changed his view of things, completely going in the opposite direction, is shameful! i want to know, like almost everyone else, i would think, is what exactly was it that did it? as he knew previously what was going on and what was needed to stop and/or change things, there had to be a specific thing that was advantageous to him to get the vote altered. then what was/were the things that had his buddies change their minds as well? it sure makes me very suspicious and shows as well exactly who is in charge of America. it sure as hell aint the president!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Why do you think that the Nobel Peace prize was taken away from him.

He proved that all of his campaign speeches were nothing but a bunch of lies to fool the gullible American population.

Sad thing is that you fell for it twice.

I guess most Americans have not heard the expression ‘Once bitten, twice shy’


‘fool me once, shame on you, Fool me twice, shame on me’

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: They're puppets

It’s certainly starting to look that way isn’t it. The lack of any meaningful response from obama could be telling…

It’s a difficult thing to balance though. You need some programs (not necessarily these ones) to protect from agressive nations or other entities and they benefit from a long history of working in the business. On the other hand, you don’t want these people to hold on to this kind of power for a long time.

You get to make a choice on how much risk you’re willing to take. Currently it would seem the risk tolerance is set to zero.

Anonymous Coward says:

The real problem with spying is yet to come

The real problem of all this spying has yet to come, or maybe it has and we don’t know it yet. That problem is political blackmail. The party in control of the spying will eventually have enough dirt on opponents that it can shut them up or even manipulate election results. Maybe that is why Obama and his cronies have flipped their positions. They have either been manipulated or they are doing some manipulating of their own.

Heck, think about the press articles you can have written if you have dirt on the journalists. This is why every American, Republican or Democrat, should be against the spying.

Jerrymiah (profile) says:

Obama flip-flopping

The reason: Once he got in a position of power, he received so many millions of dollars from the defense industries that he could not be against it. It just shows his hypocrisy. He’s definitively not a man to be trusted. Just to bad the american people does not see through this hyprocrisy. He cannot fire Alexander, Hayden and all because he has too answer to them, they are his boss.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

I was a supporter of Obama... until...

When he was still a US Senator from Illinois, Obama was distinctly opposed to the FISA act. Then when it came up for vote, he voted for it, and gave a very unsatisfactory rationale for his change. His actions as POTUS have continued in this vein… Personally, I think the NSA has something to hold against him which is why he has become their flag carrier. Nothing else makes any sense to me! 🙁

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