How the NSA and FBI foil weak oversight

Yochai Benkler writes: Over 20 congressional bills aim to address the crisis of confidence in NSA surveillance. With Patriot Act author and Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner working with Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy on a bipartisan proposal to put the NSA’s metadata program “out of business“, we face two fundamentally different paths on the future of government surveillance.

One, pursued by the intelligence establishment, wants to normalize and perpetuate its dragnet surveillance program with as minimal cosmetic adjustments as necessary to mollify a concerned public. The other challenges the very concept that dragnet surveillance can be a stable part of a privacy-respecting system of limited government.

Pervasive surveillance proponents make two core arguments.

First, bulk collection saves Americans from foreign terrorists. The problem with this argument is that all publicly available evidence presented to Congress, the judiciary, or independent executive branch review suggests that the effect of bulk collection has been marginal. Perhaps, this paucity of evidence is what led General Alexander and other supporters to add cyber security as a backup exigency to justify the program.

The second argument that defenders of mass surveillance offer is that detailed, complex and faithfully-executed rules for how the information that is collected will be used are adequate replacements for what the fourth amendment once quaintly called “probable cause” and a warrant “particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized”. The problem with this second argument is that it combines two fundamentally incompatible elements.

Mass surveillance represents a commitment to near-universal all-seeing gaze, so as to assess and respond to threats that can arise anywhere, at any time. Privacy as a check on government power represents a constitutional judgment that a limited government must have limited power to inspect our daily lives, and that an omniscient government is too powerful for mere rules to restrain. The experience of the past decade confirms this incompatibility. Throughout its lifetime, NSA dragnet surveillance has repeatedly and persistently violated any rules in place meant to constrain it. [Continue reading…]

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