Wednesday, June 19, 2013

NSA Snooping: “Working As Designed” LA Congressman Says

Somewhat lost in the furor over the NSA snooping debate is the fact that all 7 Louisiana Congressmen and both Senators voted to Approve the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) reauthorization of 2012.  

The recent additional revelations of government spying on average citizens through the use of warrantless searches has also put the FISA Court, which approves such searches, in the spotlight.
Warrantless searches were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court however, in 1978 Congress created a special court to secretly review government requests to spy on foreign communications. Initially, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 covered only “foreign intelligence information” between “foreign powers” and “agents of foreign powers”.

The system was expanded by President Bush post 9/11 with the Patriot Act. In 2005, the New York Times disclosed that the Bush Administration was using the Patriot Act for warrantless domestic wiretapping.
In addition to approving surveillance on “foreign powers”, the FISA Court now approves warrantless searches on Americans.

In The Advocate, Congressman Charles Boustany (R-Lafayette) said that he approves of the current system in place.
“Based on everything I’ve heard, the programs have been working as designed,” Boustany said. “But we need to continue to have proper oversight.”

Congressman Boustany also referenced “very vigorous congressional oversight” of the snooping program.
Tuesday, in a radio interview on KPEL 96.5fm in Lafayette, Congressman Boustany again defended the program on “The Ken & Bernie Show”.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there in the media. This program has been carefully vetted.  Legislation has been changed to put in more safeguards over time.  Congress is very much involved in oversight as well as the FISA Court (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) which has to approve anything involved with American citizens…When we pick up information involving an American citizen or someone who is in America protected under the Constitution, then what happens is, the FISA court has to approve any other action on that.  If it’s just dealing with foreign to foreign contacts we can track that and it’s helped us uncover a number of major terrorist plots here and abroad.”
I don’t want to pick a fight with the Congressman, but how much oversight really exists?

According to Fox News, from 2003-2012, the FISA Court approved 18,748 requests to monitor communications, email or telephone calls.
And how many requests were denied? 10.

Even NPR is crying “foul” on that.
In an article, Nina Totenberg writes

As a result, the FISA court became "less a court than an administrative entity or ministerial clerk," says William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University. "They weren't reviewing law anymore; they were simply sort of stamping papers as approved or filed."
And there’s more.

A second program overseen by the FISA court was authorized in 2001 by the Patriot Act. Under the law, the government has collected all communications metadata for Americans and non-Americans alike. Unlike the PRISM program, metadata does not include monitoring of content per se. Instead, the program orders U.S. telecom companies to provide the government with records of all phone calls made and email identifiers sent through their servers. The information also includes how long individual calls last, the locations that the calls are made from and specific websites surfed.”
Several news outlets have also reported that leading web sites and companies like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Facebook are also routinely providing the government with information on your internet surfing, many from offshore locations, to avoid U.S. government scrutiny.

So, with the blink of an eye, or, really, the stroke of a pen, the government can and does track which websites you go to, how long your calls last and where you made them from.

Yes, Congress has been briefed on these programs but does a briefing qualify as “very vigorous congressional oversight”?

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) has been critical of the snooping program.

"We've seen this movie before," Lee said. "We know how it ends. We know that eventually, when people are given too much power in government, they will abuse that authority for nefarious purposes, sometimes for political purposes, and that's not ok."
How much “oversight” can be done when 1,800 requests are approved for every 1 that is denied?
Like Congressman Boustany, President Obama continues to defend the program.

On the PBS “Charlie Rose Program”, Obama defended the NSA programs and called them “transparent”.
To dispel criticism, President Obama disclosed that he has created yet another board.

Obama, who repeated earlier assertions that the programs were a legitimate counterterror tool and that they were completely noninvasive to people with no terror ties, said he has created a privacy and civil liberties oversight board.”
Let’s hope that board works better than “very vigorous congressional oversight” and a whole lot better than Obama’s much-ballyhooed jobs committee.