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Political wheel may be turning on the NSA’s surveillance programs

It is now clear that the US government’s National Security Agency (NSA) has undertaken an unprecedented surveillance program. NSA’s aim is to monitor all communications of every American, and this is no…

NSA director Keith Alexander has been forced to defend his agency’s operations after a series of revelations, exposing mass data gathering and surveillance programs on US citizens and world leaders. EPA/Shawn Thew

It is now clear that the US government’s National Security Agency (NSA) has undertaken an unprecedented surveillance program. NSA’s aim is to monitor all communications of every American, and this is no secret. During a recent Senate hearing, Democrat senator Mark Udall asked NSA director Keith Alexander:

Is it the goal of the NSA to collect the phone records of all Americans?

Alexander bluntly replied:

Yes, I believe it is in the nation’s best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox that we could search when the nation needs to do it. Yes.

The NSA has achieved significant inroads into realising this aim. It has collected and stored incomprehensible quantities of data in the form of voice records, emails, phone call records, texts and financial information. The NSA now possesses vast amounts of information on world leaders, foreign citizens and ordinary Americans.

The general picture painted by these releases is of an immensely powerful, out of control, secretive government agency. And this is not completely wrong. The executive and legislative branches, whose primary job it is to direct the actions of agencies such as the NSA, have apparently been shut out or negligent in their duties.

And so, the world is now watching US president Barack Obama and Congress to see whether - or how - they will bring the NSA’s operations under control.

There are an increasing number of voices within Congress who are advocating taking action against the NSA. However, to date, these moves have been half-hearted. There are three main reasons why.

First, the politics of these revelations have been muddied by the way they were discovered. This latest round of disclosures was triggered by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who is now hiding out in Russia. Although it was clear to many in Congress that the activities of the NSA were deeply concerning, they were hamstrung.

How, on the one hand, could a member of Congress support charging Snowden for espionage while arguing for urgent new laws to stop the activities he revealed?

Congress thought it couldn’t. Using Snowden’s material might have been misconstrued as though they were supporting the accused leaker. However, this has begun to change, with the latest admissions of the spying on Angela Merkel and other world leaders the latest of Snowden’s leaks.

Second, the NSA’s surveillance programs have a long history — dating back to the 1940s. But they grew exponentially under George W. Bush’s presidency and have continued to do so under Barack Obama. This has meant that partisans from the Republicans and Democrats have not been able to forge the issue into a political weapon.

Finally, members of Congress continually complain that they are not “in the loop” on the NSA surveillance campaign. Democrat representative Alan Grayson, for instance, has written that he learns more about the activities of the intelligence community from the media than from the agencies themselves. In a scathing attack, Grayson argued that what the Edward Snowden affair revealed to him was that:

…members of Congress, who are asked to authorise these programs, are not privy to the same information provided to junior analysts at the NSA.

Will Barack Obama bow to Congressional pressure to curb the activities of the NSA? EPA/Martin H. Simon

Despite a previous lack of action, there are fresh signs emerging from the White House and Capitol Hill that there might finally be some significant (and bipartisan) moves to restrain the NSA’s operations. Yesterday, Democrat senator Patrick Leahy and Republican representative Jim Sensenbrenner (the chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee and of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, respectively) announced they will introduce the USA FREEDOM Act.

If successful, the bill would end dragnet collection of telephone records and require the intelligence community to gather information in a more focused way.

However, the bill is not certain to pass. In July 2013, a similar bill was narrowly defeated in a floor vote in the House of Representatives, 217 to 205. The politics of the vote were interesting. The ayes achieved 94 Republican and 111 Democrat votes, the noes 134 Republican and 83 Democrat votes. Clearly, it was far from a partisan vote.

Interesting alliances also emerged from the vote. Republicans including Speaker of the House John Boehner, firebrand Mike Rogers and Tea Party standard-bearer Michele Bachmann were on the same side of the debate as Democrat and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi - who all voted against the bill - as well as the Obama administration, which called on Congress to vote against the measures.

This time, however, the outcome might be different. The White House has signalled its intent to place some new restrictions on the NSA’s megadata trawling. Obama has appointed a high level external review committee that will report back in a few weeks with suggestions on how to curb the activities of NSA.

And, on Monday, Democrat senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, who had previously been one of the most dogged defenders of the NSA in Congress, dramatically changed positions and is now calling for greater legislative oversight.

Overall, there does seem to be a slight change in the air in Washington. However, don’t expect radical change. Unfortunately, some aspects of a dystopian future (as forecast by George Orwell) are here to stay. Current technology makes the costs associated with data collection so low that few governments will be able to resist spying on their own people.

But, perhaps with appropriate democratic controls, the worst aspects of this dystopia can still be avoided.