If there’s one thing we’ve learned about government, it’s that the power it has tends to get abused. We can talk about recent scandals (the IRS targeting conservatives) or old ones (the IRS targeting Nixon’s enemies, the spying on the civil rights movement, etc., etc.), but we know it happens.
So it’s cold comfort when President Obama tells Charlie Rose that the NSA isn’t listening to our phone calls because there are rules against it.
Here’s an excerpt from the President’s much-touted PBS interview:
So point number one, if you’re a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it’s not targeting your emails unless it’s getting an individualized court order. That’s the existing rule. There are two programs that were revealed by Mr. Snowden, allegedly, since there’s a criminal investigation taking place, and they caused all the ruckus. Program number one, called the 2015 Program, what that does is it gets data from the service providers like a Verizon in bulk, and basically you have call pairs. You have my telephone number connecting with your telephone number. There are no names. There is no content in that database. All it is, is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place. So that database is sitting there. Now, if the NSA through some other sources, maybe through the FBI, maybe through a tip that went to the CIA, maybe through the NYPD. Get a number that where there’s a reasonable, articulable suspicion that this might involve foreign terrorist activity related to Al-Qaeda and some other international terrorist actors. Then, what the NSA can do is it can query that database to see did any of the — did this number pop up? Did they make any other calls? And if they did, those calls will be spit out. A report will be produced. It will be turned over to the FBI. At no point is any content revealed because there’s no content that —
The NSA isn’t reading your emails, the NSA isn’t listening to your phone calls, because there are rules according to President Obama.
Which sort of plays into something NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said recently during an online chat hosted by The Guardian: “it’s important to understand that policy protection is no protection — policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens.”
What Snowden means, and what President Obama is tacitly confirming, is that whoever of the half-million or so federal employees or contractors with “top secret” security clearance who have access to our communications data don’t listen to our calls or read our emails because they’re not supposed to.
Not be cause they can’t. We’re just supposed to believe they won’t, because there are rules against it.
But what happens if a rogue NSA employee or federal contractor breaks the rules? What happens if some outside entity hacks the database?
Americans don’t have a lot of assurances in that regard.
If the sanctity of our private communications data that is in the hands of the government hinges upon our ability to trust the government, we’re all in a lot of trouble.