Big Brother an elephant in the room

If you simply shrug your shoulders over electronic surveillance programs run by our government, please turn to the person beside you and ask them to throw cold water in your face.

Good. Now pay attention.

Thanks to Edward Snowden, 29, a “geek” who worked for a defense contractor, we now know that the National Security Agency, with the secret permission of a secret court and with the secret cooperation of private companies, has been secretly keeping track of our phone calls, computer communications and who knows what else since as far back as 2007.

The Obama administration and some members of Congress assert that the surveillance programs, part of the war on terror, are allowed under the 2001 Patriot Act and its 2011 extension.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and other members of Congress, disagree. Sensenbrenner says, “I authored the Patriot Act, and this is an abuse of that law.”

He adds, “Congress intended to allow the intelligence communities to access targeted information for specific investigations. How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation? This is well beyond what the Patriot Act allows.”

Snowden makes much the same point. “The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to.”

His disclosures, considered the most explosive leaks ever, touch on various issues. Here are just a few:

1. Security versus privacy.

President George W. Bush and nearly all lawmakers thought they were doing the right thing back in 2001 when they came up with the Patriot Act. The objective was to prevent another terrorist attack. Conventional wisdom held that only “bad guys” had anything to fear. We know better today, thanks to Snowden. And in a supreme irony, the NSA may even be spying on the act’s progenitors – members of Congress.

Two weeks ago, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill, asked Attorney General Eric Holder for assurances that the NSA was not monitoring lawmakers’ phones in the Capitol. Holder balked. “With all due respect, Senator, I don’t think this is an appropriate setting for me to discuss that issue.”

It’s clear that some officials have set the price we citizens must pay for “security,” but do they have that right? An informed national debate on this is long overdue.

2. HUMINT versus SIGINT.

Our intelligence agencies use three traditional forms of information gathering – human intelligence (HUMINT), signal intelligence (SIGINT) and imagery intelligence (IMINT).

HUMINT has been declining since the 1970s, and it took a serious hit during the Clinton years. Money was tight and, besides, liberals don’t like working with spies. They (spies) can be unsavory.

Human intelligence gathering is still languishing, and we’re relying more and more on technology, cyber surveillance and other advanced technology.

Knowing what we know today, however, it’s time for our politicians to rethink that strategy and ask, “Which is more objectionable, dealing with unsavory characters or compromising citizen privacy?”

3. Truth versus trust.

President Obama says some news coverage of the surveillance programs is “hype” and the programs are “modest encroachments” on freedom. He also says they’re OK because they’re overseen by the judiciary and by Congress.

What he doesn’t say is that judicial oversight takes place in secret, with no one to challenge the government, and he neglects to explain that effective congressional oversight depends upon truth from the overseen.

On that last point, in March, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked James Clapper, director of national intelligence, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

Clapper: “No, sir.”

Wyden: “It does not?”

Clapper: “Not wittingly.”

When quizzed last week, Clapper called his denial “the least untruthful” answer.

How uncomforting.

Many in our scandal-ridden government ask us to look past the lies and just trust them. But shouldn’t they earn our trust by telling us the truth?

Maybe that’s something else for the politicians to ponder.