A letter on NSA surveillance
I wish I could make more concrete policy recommendations, but in this case all I can say is “this looks troubling.” Here’s the letter I sent to my representatives today:
Dear Senator Feinstein,
In 2006, we learned that the NSA had secretly tapped all internet traffic flowing through AT&T’s San Francisco peering point. Now, the Guardian’s leaks suggest that the NSA has accrued phone and email records–some metadata, some full content–for millions of US citizens, and stored them for targeted analysis. The criteria for retention and analysis remain poorly understood.
In response to Senator Wyden’s inquiry as to whether the NSA was gathering “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” Directory Clapper answered “No,” then, “Not wittingly.” His recent letter admits this was a misleading statement at best.
We know that surveillance is rarely as clean as intended. In 2008, two NSA whistleblowers independently reported that the NSA routinely intercepted the satellite phone conversations of American citizens in the Middle East, including military personell and journalists. Faulk alleged that he and others inthe NSA’s Fort Gordon facility often shared deeply personal phone calls with office mates.
“Hey check this out, there’s good phone sex,” Faulk quoted, “or there’s some pillow talk, pull up this call, it’s really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, ‘Wow, this was crazy’.”
Kinne alleged that the NSA intercepted hundreds of private conversations between American aid workers. “They were identified in our systems as ‘belongs to the International Red Cross’ and all these other organizations. And yet, instead of blocking these phone numbers we continued to collect on them.”
In the Guardian’s release of an unfinished report on Stellar Wind, the NSA admits that even its internal oversight on signal intelligence has been complicated by secrecy constraints:
“Second, in March 2003, the IG advised General Hayden that he should report violations of the Authorization to the President. In February of 2003, the OIG learned of PSP incidents or violations that had not been reported to overseers as required, because none had the clearance to see the report.”
Establishing the constitutionality of FISA activity appears fraught with absurd legal difficulties. In response to an FOIA request made by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Justice Department located an an 86-page opinion of the FISA court which held the government’s surveillance activity had been “improper or unconstitutional”–but refused to release it, because it was classified. Subsequently, the Justice Department argued that that opinion was controlled by the FISA court and could only be released through that court.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union had asked the FISA court to release an opinion, and the FISA court instructed them to take the matter to the Justice Department instead!
Given Senators Wyden and Udall’s continued concerns over the truthfulness of the NSA’s statements to the public and to Congress; given the alarming allegations of whistleblowers, and given the history of state surveillance, I must express my concern. Much of the information we need to come to an informed decision is too classified to discuss, and what we can discuss appears inconsistent with a democracy predicated on the free exchange of ideas.
I recognize that we must balance the objective of security (and the commensurate need for secrecy) with the goals of individual liberty and public accountability. To argue in absolutes would foil any attempt to produce workable public policy.
As a citizen who believes in the US’s ideals and messy reality alike, I urge you to understand my deep apprehension about monitoring private communications, and to find on our behalf a reasoned, carefully considered set of policy decisions. Please give this matter your strong consideration; I believe it to be of fundamental importance.
Thank you for your time.