Does it matter the government knows who I'm calling?

ASSOCIATED PRESS Whistle-blower Edward Snowden is a source of fascination - and that's not about to change.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Whistle-blower Edward Snowden is a source of fascination - and that's not about to change.
Posted: June 19, 2013

THE FLURRY of revelations over the past few weeks by whistle-blower Edward Snowden about massive spying by the National Security Agency on American phone calls and some email traffic has done something many thought impossible - it exploded the partisan divide in U.S. politics.

It's an issue that unites the likes of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and right-tilting libertarian Rand Paul as critics of the government, but joins conservative House Speaker John Boehner and liberal Dianne Feinstein as defenders of the established order, who believe that Snowden should be returned from Hong Kong and tried as "a traitor."

That's because the exposure of the government's data-mining of phone records and other wide-reaching spying cuts to the very quick of the great debate that has animated political thinkers since the Founding Fathers: liberty vs. security.

Is Washington's large-scale intrusion on your privacy a shocking violation of the spirit of the U.S. Constitution and the civil liberties promised in the Bill of Rights? Or are critics of the NSA programs naive waifs who can't handle the truth of what the government must do to keep its citizens safe from terrorists?

"It's gotten very frightening in my opinion," said Fred Branfman, a journalist who's been writing about national security issues since the Vietnam War era.

But are people overreacting? Here are some questions and answers:

Q: Is the government listening to my private phone conversations?

A: Not unless you're one of a handful of suspected criminals or terrorists for whom the government has gone the extra - and traditional - step of obtaining a court order. Indeed, a widely circulated "scoop" this past weekend on the website CNET about alleged call-listening has been debunked. Snowden dodged the issue in an online chat yesterday, insisting that the spy agency had broad powers to scoop up "content" but said nothing about tapping into phone calls.

Q: So what are they doing regarding my phone calls?

A: In the classified top-secret judicial order released by Snowden to blogger/journalist Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, Judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) OK'd the government getting three months of data from the phone company Verizon - records of phone calls and how long they lasted. But it's widely believed NSA has been getting this data from all major phone companies dating as far back as the mid-2000s. Experts say intelligence agents can use this so-called metadata to study patterns of calls that might indicate terrorism, or to retroactively study calls when a suspect is identified.

Q: Is that legal?

A: The Obama administration and many members of Congress think so - under Section 215 of the 2001 USA Patriot Act, the law that was passed overwhelmingly while the World Trade Center was still smoldering and which gave the government greater powers to collect information from third parties such as phone companies or Internet providers.

Others - including the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing, and even the Patriot Act author, GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin - say the huge data grab was not the purpose of the law, and it's also quite possibly in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unwarranted searches and seizures by the government.

"It stands the Fourth Amendment on its head," said Christopher Pyle, a Vietnam-era military whistle-blower who teaches law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College. He was referring to the scope of information that the government is apparently collecting about everyday citizens who stand accused of no wrongdoing.

Q: Aren't they reading my emails, too?

A: You're asking about a second NSA program that was revealed by Snowden, called Prism. It involved collecting data from Internet providers and sites such as Google and Facebook, which could conceivably include the content of emails and even live chats. Most details of the program remain secret, but some experts have surmised that the program gives the NSA faster access to data - but doesn't mean they're actually scooping it all up, let alone reading it. Prism is supposed to target only foreign emails, but one official acknowledged there's only "51 percent confidence" it's doing that.

This past weekend, the Associated Press said Prism had been preceded in the 2000s by much larger Internet data grabs, noting, "Inside Microsoft, some called it 'Hoovering' - not after the vacuum cleaner, but after J. Edgar Hoover, the first FBI director, who gathered dirt on countless Americans."

Q: I keep seeing arguments over whether this Snowden is a "hero" or a "traitor" - which is he?

A: Snowden, the 29-year-old high-school dropout who ditched a six-figure job as a government consultant and a girlfriend in Hawaii to reveal the NSA's secrets, is a source of fascination, but the debate over his personality obscures what really matters: the questions he raised about government activities. At the end of the day, it's likely that Snowden will be indicted, arrested, extradited (his current location, Hong Kong, doesn't offer much protection) and get his day in court, which may help people decide.

Q: But when James Clapper, director of national intelligence, was asked point-blank under oath by Congress whether NSA collected data on millions of Americans, he replied, "No sir . . . not wittingly." Isn't that a lie?

A: That's what they call it where we come from.

Q: Will he be indicted for perjury?

A: Since he's not a major league baseball player accused of using steroids, probably not.

Q: But isn't the NSA gathering information that has helped break up terrorist plots and kept me safe all these years?

A: So they claim, but for the most part the government also claims that the details of the plots they've broken up are classified and can't be revealed to the American public. There is one case they've cited publicly - a would-be New York subway bomber named Najibullah Zazi - but others familiar with the case say the plot was discovered by good police work, not by Orwellian technology.

Basically, the good people who brought you Vietnam, Watergate and "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq are asking you to trust them, this time.

Q: Will anything change from Snowden's revelations?

A: Signs point to "no." Although a large minority of Americans are in a revolutionary uproar over the revelations, there's a big silent majority out there - and 56 percent told a Pew survey that phone tracking of "millions of Americans" was acceptable if the goal was to track terrorists. The answer of whether anything comes of this is really in the form of a question: How outraged are you?

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch


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