Phone Surveillance Revelation Should Prompt Reassessment Of NSA Spying

Does evidence of a decades-old surveillance program throw out the case many public officials have made for the modern surveillance state?

Since Edward Snowden first leaked documents about secret National Security Agency (NSA) programs, government officials have defended them in the name of September 11 and national security. Again and again, we heard that these programs were built in the wake of that tragic day to “connect the dots” so no event like that would ever occur again. They addressed issues of national security, not day-to-day policing.

But a new report from USA TODAY suggests that the precursor of this program was implemented almost a decade earlier — fighting drug cartels, not terrorism.

The report says the United States began keeping secret records of billions of Americans’ calls to international numbers in 1992. The program, which the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration led, spanned more than two decades and affected calls to as many as 116 countries, even if the callers were not suspects in crimes.

The government collecting our calls and communications is not news. Snowden’s leaked documents revealed that the government was collecting Americans’ phone records in bulk, as well as using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to intercept calls, messages and emails, as long as one side of those communications occurred outside the United States. The similarities between the NSA programs and the DEA program are no coincidence — this was the NSA’s blueprint.

The DEA program had fewer limits than the NSA has today, gathering records without court approval and searching them more frequently, according to the report. Beyond just tracking drug cartels, it was used to rule out links to terrorism in the Oklahoma City bombings. Following 9/11, the report says its scope was only expanded.

The government decided to end this program in the wake of the Snowden revelations two years ago. According to the USA TODAY report, officials realized they could not defend this and the NSA program. The program was not revealed until this year, and this is the first report to expose its broad scope.

After two years of disclosures about the overreach of the American intelligence apparatus, it would be easy to dismiss this news. We’ve had two years to become comfortable with the fact that the government knows who we call, two years to become complacent about our civil rights.

Instead it should be a wake-up call. Today’s news calls on us to reevaluate why the NSA programs exist and if they are effectively addressing national security.

Even though I’m opposed to broad government surveillance, I thought I understood its inception. Lawmakers wanted to make sure they were doing everything they could to protect us in the uncertain and frightening days that followed 9/11.

But today’s report makes me question that. Our public officials are charged with achieving a delicate balance of protecting our civil liberties and protecting our national security interests. But if the government would violate our civil liberties in the absence of a major national security threat with the DEA program, how could they abuse the NSA programs in the name of national defense?

Yesterday I wrote that since the Snowden disclosures, the government has done very little to alter its surveillance practices. The USA TODAY story proves me wrong and shows that the public’s response did prompt the government to dismantle a program that could have jeopardized our fundamental rights.

Just as the DEA program was a preview of the actions the NSA would take following 9/11, perhaps the manner in which it was dismantled could provide a blue print for how current surveillance programs could be reformed. Since 2013 instead of collecting a dragnet, the DEA assembles a list of phone numbers implicated in drug trafficking and submits a daily electronic subpoena to phone companies. Although the lists sometimes include thousands of numbers and this practice is costly, it results in a much smaller, targeted data set than the one it previously had.

This approach is not that different from one that has been proposed to end the NSA phone record collection program. Congress has until June 1 to reform or extend the similar NSA program that collects Americans’ phone records. They should take notes.