US should rein in its spy agencies

October 29, 2013 

A great irony of the U.S. government’s embarrassing spying disclosures is that U.S. officials who sit atop these mountains of secretly gathered information are so uninformed.

How can there be so much intelligence and so much cluelessness?

The latest and perhaps worst of the controversies involves charges that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on the leaders of America’s allies including those of Brazil and Mexico. Now reports in the German press say that the snooping included tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone as far back as 2002.

Despite the seriousness of this clandestine activity, President Obama says he was unaware of it until recently. Now he’s saying such spying will be prohibited, and he’s apologizing and reassuring the targeted leaders. But none of that can undo the damage to the trust that’s essential for a true and powerful alliance. Obama campaigned on a promise to restore relations with allies that were strained by the counter-terrorism policies of President George W. Bush. Instead, he has unwittingly presided over an agency that was sabotaging those relations.

Heads of U.S. spying operations testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday and delivered a combination of denials and promises to increase transparency and step up efforts to protect civil liberties. They said European press reports based on leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden were exaggerated or false. But James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, acknowledged that monitoring friendly world leaders is a “fundamental given” of intelligence

Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat who as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee has been a staunch defender of the nation’s surveillance operations, says she was shocked to learn about the spying on friends.

“I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers,” she said in a statement. She said her committee would begin a “major review of all intelligence collection programs.”

Feinstein should be more than surprised. She should be ashamed. Her role in open democracy is to exercise civilian control over the shadowy operations that have been shown to violate Americans’ civil liberties and antagonize the nation’s friends. Instead, she has appeared more impressed with her special access to intelligence operations and more intent on shielding them than supervising them. If the senator overseeing intelligence – and a liberal at that – can’t be counted on to guard the civil liberties of America’s people and the privacy rights of America’s friends, who can?

Apparently the answer is Edward Snowden, whose leaks exposed the bewildering extent of the NSA’s domestic surveillance and its foreign intrusions. Snowden was vilified by Obama and Feinstien as a treasonous criminal for copying NSA files and carefully distributing them to media outlets.

Under threat of arrest, he has obtained temporary political asylum in Russia. His actions were wrong in respects, but the effects of his disclosures have forced the United States to explain its actions and to open the NSA to much needed scrutiny and debate.

That’s a whole lot more than the president or Feinstein had done about the legally delicate and potentially dangerous activities of an agency that had been allowed to operate not only in the shadows but in total darkness.

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