My girlfriend, who is of Russian descent, tells me about a joke that went around Russia after the U.S. Embassy burned down in Moscow one year:
The U.S. Embassy burned down. The only injury was a KGB agent. He burned his ear.
If my house burns down tomorrow, will an NSA agent report a burned ear?
By now, it is nearly cliche to assert that the U.S. government has trampled upon the civil rights of its citizens in its prosecution of the war on terror. Old hat, cliche, and ridiculous in the opinions of some. Each revelation of a new program is met by howls of outrage … then by grudging acceptance as it becomes clear that a line has been almost, but not quite crossed. Or if it has been crossed, the crossing was in a murky manner that might not be crossing.
This week, the New York Times outed a super-secret program under which the National Security Administration gained the power to snoop on phone calls and e-mails that originated or terminated in dirty phone numbers, and had somebody in the United States at the other end.
At first, I was ready to fly into a libertarian lather, but I thought, “wait, there was information shared, this worked, and it’s being revamped in response to concerns.” But still, I’m growing uncomfortable with the current government’s propensity for crossing certain lines on domestic surveillance and warrantless searches.
The Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer bring it all together in a news analysis. The recite the latest revelations — the NSA wiretaps, the Pentagon protesters database, and the FBI use of national security letters, and their most telling finding is:
No president before Bush mounted a frontal challenge to Congress’s authority to limit espionage against Americans. In a Sept. 25, 2002, brief signed by then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, the Justice Department asserted “the Constitution vests in the President inherent authority to conduct warrantless intelligence surveillance (electronic or otherwise) of foreign powers or their agents, and Congress cannot by statute extinguish that constitutional authority.”
This inherent authority, by the Bush administration’s arguments, encompasses the power to spy on U.S. citizens because they are suspected of being foreign agents, in the executive branch’s own, internal judgment. But doesn’t the constitutional set of checks and balances prohibit such unilateral decisions? Isn’t Congress supposed to provide more oversight regarding these sorts of programs? Moreover, considering the programs that have been revealed so far, does anybody else wonder what else the Bush administration might be up to, what other domestic surveillance programs we don’t know about?
Not too long ago, such questions only had credibility when whispered in rooms lined with aluminium foil. After all, no American administration would dare to slice so far into the civil liberties that American citizens take for granted. But now? Now, I wonder if I should line my own home with foil.