Throwing America’s Privacy Under the Bus

Once upon a time in Washington, lawmakers cared about invasions of privacy that are commonplace today.

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This is a bad week for Americans' personal freedoms.

First, the Supreme Court opens up a national DNA database for people arrested of a serious crime. This, no doubt, will lead to more of an invasion affecting many more people, as I pointed out in a column a few days ago.

And yesterday, the Guardian revealed a collaboration between at least one phone company, Verizon, and the National Security Agency to collect phone records of Americans. We will know shortly whether other phone carriers are involved. But Verizon has 98.9 million wireless customers, 11.7 residential customers and about 10 million commercial customers. That is a lot of telephone calls!

In my view, we have a serious problem. First, a little history.

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In the spring of 1975, I was a young 27 year old on a mission as a Senate staffer to investigate the National Security Agency for spying on Americans. At that time, many used the line that NSA stood for "No Such Agency." For those of us on the Senate Intelligence Committee, penetrating the agency was far more difficult than breaking into Fort Knox.

But thanks to some at the top of the super-secret agency who were concerned with spying on American citizens who were protesting the war in Vietnam or participating in civil rights demonstrations, it opened up and halted such intrusions in the mid 70s. Sadly, all that has changed.

We are now where we were at the start in 1945 except that the technology today is so mind-boggling. Back then, the NSA and Western Union, AT&T and others had a loose agreement that international telegrams would be provided, en masse, to the government. In the 1940s and 1950s, all ticker tape of incoming and outgoing telegrams from the central location in New York City would be scooped up off the floor, put in bags and transported to Washington for potential analysis.

Key "watch list" names were selected for interception. Mostly, at that time, these were suspected spies or foreign agents. Later, the ticker tape was dispensed with and computer tapes of the telegrams were sent to the NSA. At the peak, these numbered about 150,000 messages a month. And during the 1960s and early 1970s names of well-known war protestors or civil rights advocates were added to the list.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This prompted Senator Frank Church, D-Idaho, the Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, to remark that Operation Shamrock, as it was known, was "probably the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken."

The ability of the government to collect information on Americans was considered a real threat back during the Church Committee investigations of 1975-76. This led not only to revelations of abuses but to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to curb them.

But our concern back then was the need for a special FISA court that could examine both the right to privacy and national security interests and create a balance. Warrants were required and were limited. Oversight was created, judicial and legislative. Yet, our real concerns at the time were about tapping home phones or the privacy of pay phones – cell phones, the internet, Twitter, Facebook, texting, email were not even remotely on our radar screens! What was digital, anyway?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Senator Church seemed to see around the corner, however, when he commented on the NSA: "That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide."

We are there.

The decisions since 9/11 to allow the government access to all phone calls, domestic and foreign, from any American, for any reason, has created a dangerous precedent and sent us down a slippery slope. The access to virtually all phone records, internet communications, emails and postings has left us "no place to hide."

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We need to seriously rethink the role of the FISA court and the relationships between telecommunications companies and the NSA. We need to determine whether we are headed toward building files on Americans that contain not only their communications but their DNA as well. We need to take seriously the sad conclusion that many Americans have come to that "there is no right to privacy anymore." Everything is out there. Everything is fair game. By going on my computer or talking on my cell phone, I have given up my freedom.

That is not the America we should accept or have believed in for nearly 250 years.

I wonder what my old boss Frank Church would think if he were alive? Would he be haunted by his own words from 1975? :

I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency (NSA) and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Why the Deficit and Debt Debate Is Outdated in Five Charts
  • Read Brad Bannon: Obama Executive Overreach Runs Wild With Verizon Phone Record Collecting
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