Surveillance and the price of security

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“We’re going to have to make some choices, as a society,” was President Barack Obama’s sensible initial reaction in early June to the revelations of pervasive electronic surveillance of Americans and others by the top secret National Security Agency (NSA). He added that we cannot realistically have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy, plus “zero inconvenience.”

These comments were pragmatic and realistic. They provide insight into his remarkable skill at persuading and winning people, essential to his exceptional success in electoral politics.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s Aug. 9 news conference remarks focused exclusively on public concern about invasions of privacy, and not at all on how intelligence information is best collected and most accurately analyzed. In consequence, he has demonstrated notable failure in fulfilling his presidential responsibility to educate the public, to be distinguished from the candidate’s essential need to court the voters.

The president dramatically announced four new measures to expand official oversight of and public awareness regarding intelligence activities. First, the White House in cooperation with Congress will review and possibly change Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes collection of telephone records. 

This comprehensive law was passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was the sole no vote in the Senate. His opposition centered on concern about excessive invasion of privacy. The bill passed the House of Representatives by 357-66.

Second, the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which authorizes surveillance, will be required to consider opposing viewpoints. Apparently, intelligence agents requesting authority will confront, in adversarial fashion, defenders of uncompromised privacy. This is related to the third proposal, which involves pressing the NSA to make more information public, including a website to serve as “a hub for further transparency.”

Fourth, an outside review panel is to be established. This group will focus on “intelligence and communications technologies.” That is a particularly telling point. 

While the extent of NSA electronic information gathering is unprecedented, U.S. government surveillance of large numbers of citizens is not. Long before 9/11, Cold War concerns led to comparable practices. Some of these were clearly illegal, which does not appear to be the case with current practices of government intelligence agencies.

The NSA was established in 1952 as a new top-secret military intelligence arm of the federal government. During the Kennedy administration, the NSA with the FBI for the first time began collecting information within the United States.

In 1967, amid civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, U.S. Army Gen. William P. Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for intelligence, sent an unprecedented request to the NSA to collect intelligence on the growing domestic unrest. This sparked extensive domestic surveillance involving the Army and CIA as well as the NSA.

The following decade, in the wake of both Vietnam and Watergate, public exposure by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, curtailed the program. Various reforms followed, including FISC.

This earlier program emphasized both electronic and human surveillance. By contrast, the NSA today apparently minimizes messy human dimensions in favor of comprehensive but essentially passive and unimaginative electronic tools. That is real cause for concern. Effective security requires both.

The current controversy provides opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate executive leadership and discuss the need for both surveillance and secrecy. Instead, by emphasizing public anxieties regarding privacy, the White House characteristically continues a purely political approach.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War.”

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