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Domestic Wiretapping Programs Should Not Be Secret

from the oversight-needed dept

A whistle-blower reports that an unnamed wireless carrier has provided a government facility in Quantico, VA, with unfiltered access to its core network. The whistle-blower says this gives the government direct access to private information such as text messaging and call records. He doesn't name either the company or the government agency involved. But a 2006 lawsuit featuring similar allegations named Verizon Wireless as the culprit. And Threat Level says that Quantico, VA, just happens to be "the center of the FBI's electronic surveillance operations." When asked about this, a Verizon Wireless spokesman wrote "What you're talking about sounds as if it would be classified and involving national security, so I wouldn't be able to find out the facts."

The idea that ordinary domestic surveillance activities are a matter of national security, and therefore immune from public scrutiny, is both wrong-headed and malicious. I guess the idea is that we don't want to tip off the terrorists about our surveillance programs. And obviously, information about specific targets needs to be kept secret. But the terrorists have to already know that most communications channels can be intercepted. Moreover, it's just not reasonable to expect that the broad details of our government's domestic surveillance activities will remain a secret indefinitely. Despite the secrecy, we're gradually learning about the scope of these programs. If terrorists didn't know their calls were being tapped five years ago, they certainly do now.

The problem is that because details about these programs (and information about abuses) dribble out slowly over several years, Congress never has the opportunity to conduct meaningful oversight of them. For example, this week we also found out that abuse of national security letters, which was previously only reported to have occurred from 2003 to 2005, continued into 2006. Of course, the administration says they've fixed the problem and that no more NSL abuses will occur. But that's what they always say when privacy abuses are uncovered, yet new examples keep popping up. The only way the abuses will stop is if Congress rejects the idea that domestic surveillance is immune from judicial and Congressional surveillance. The Bush administration needs to disclose the exact scope of its domestic surveillance activities so that Congress can have an open, public debate about the proper scope of government spying powers.

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  1. identicon
    George Fragos, 7 Mar 2008 @ 10:44am

    Missing the point

    It was stated that the terrorists know cells can be tapped -- true enough. However, being so open that they will know what we won't do is valuable information for the terrorists. It let's them know how to avoid being spied on. I agree that oversight is a part of checks and ballances. The problem is that oversight can't be transparent in this case. People uninformed about the intelligence community think that a security clearance of some level is an entitlement. They don't understand that the reason security works is because that "entitlement" is further controlled by demonstating a "need to know".

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