More details on the National Security Agency's massive surveillance programs continue to dribble out from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The latest revelation is that for years the agency was vacuuming up "metadata" logs of Internet communications without court approval, an action that so violates personal privacy that it sparked a showdown within the executive branch. This comes on top of Snowden's leaks about other NSA surveillance programs shocking in their breadth. The public has a right to know the superstructure of these programs, and Congress and the courts should strike a better balance between national security and privacy rights.
Snowden's release of a 2009 NSA inspector general report clears up that it was this warrantless sweep of Internet metadata logs, the record of where people go online, that was behind the dramatic 2004 confrontation in the hospital room of an ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft. James Comey, President Barack Obama's current pick to be FBI director, refused to reauthorize this executive branch program when he was temporarily acting as attorney general, and White House officials tried an end run. But four months after the program's suspension, it received court approval from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and was back on.
That court also has approved the capturing and storing of millions of domestic phone records of Verizon customers, information that would allow the NSA to create a vast profile of people based on their calls, including their political, religious and social affiliations. And court approval was received for a secret program named PRISM, in which the NSA sweeps up the Internet activities of foreigners.
Surveillance approved by a court is better than the Bush-era program operating without court oversight. But the FISA court has failed to act as a sufficient check. Gathering and storing the telephone data of potentially all Americans is an unprecedented assault on privacy. There is no legitimate legal basis for the government possessing this much revealing information, even if the government only examines a tiny fraction. Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the FBI to demand that businesses turn over user records relevant to a terrorist investigation, cannot be reasonably interpreted to include everything on everyone.
Congress has participated in this breach of public trust, with only a few members willing to raise cryptic warnings over the extent of surveillance. Now a bipartisan group of 26 senators has signed a letter to national intelligence director James Clapper demanding unclassified answers to a series of questions regarding the bulk collection of Americans' data. They want "an informed discussion" and a public one on the surveillance powers the government is claiming. Florida's senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, have not joined the letter. They should. Americans have a right to have a say on their privacy and understand how and why it is being compromised.