As the revelations about our government’s secret national security programs spread around the globe, it sometimes feels like we have been sucked into the pages of a Robert Ludlum spy novel.
In the opening chapter we meet the self-proclaimed leaker of two classified programs, Edward Snowden, who is holed up somewhere, possibly in Hong Kong. The 29-year-old high school dropout with a security clearance breaks his silence long enough to tap out answers in an online Q-and-A.
At nearly the same time, the president of the United States, a Constitutional law professor no less, sits down for an interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose. President Obama recites his talking points, acknowledges the tricky balance between civil liberties and national security in a post 9/11 world and calls for a national debate.
Even the Chinese government gets in on the act, criticizing the United States for running secret programs that collected the phone records of millions of its citizens as well as tracking foreign activity on U.S. Internet networks. Isn’t this the same Chinese government that has systematically denied its citizens access to an unfettered Internet?
There’s no telling where the plot will go next. But when you clear away all the fog and dodge, what is clear is that the federal government has been caught over-reaching in the name of national security.
The president has defended these efforts by pointing out the checks and balances that are already in place. But a story by Alex Seitz-Wald on Salon.com tells us that the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews and approves the government’s intelligence-gathering requests, has hardly provided the high bar that is needed.
The secret court has not denied a single government request in the last four years, according to reports made to senior members of Congress. Over the last 11 years, the court has approved more than 15,000 government requests, modified several dozen and rejected only 10.
Members of Congress, who are also supposed to be an arm of oversight, are hardly prepared to ask the tough questions about the world of cloak and dagger.
If Obama wants to calm a public that is nervous about government databases and intrusions of privacy, he can begin by adding teeth to a secret court that has become a rubber stamp.
That would be the beginning of what might turn out to be a satisying ending to this potboiler. ••