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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.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Louise O'Brien

    Marketer.Communicator. Observer

    Absolutely no doubt budget cuts coming to the NSA.

  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Why aren't all these outraged allies and "leaders of the Free World" queueing up to offer Edward Snowden asylum, citizenship or at least a medal?

    Osama is winning folks - achieving exactly those results that all terrorists seek - the erosion of freedom and the rule of fear.

    What a sorry epitaph for Obama ... from "change we can believe in" to "change we won't know anything about".

  3. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.


    While I appreciate the faintly wistful optimism in your closing remarks, Mister Lockyer, I'd have to agree the genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

    There is no genuine political will in Congress to take on this new, massively-funded and powerful branch of the security-industrial complex. The NSA, and the corporations they fund, have broken net secrecy and global privacy in this entire era. The only way out of the mess is to rebuild with new net architectures, and software that isn't…

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  4. Dennis M

    Author, Philosopher, Carer.

    The furor caused by American spying seems to have brought out into the open much of the anti-American hatred which has been quietly festering world-wide for a long time.

    But how many people realize that large-scale American spying can be seen as a tacit admission that American power is waning and no longer scares even small nations (Australia excepted). American military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have not gone unnoticed.

    The American military juggernaut based upon a credit-card is little more than a paper tiger, one which is sinking America rapidly.

    The world can do much better without American imperialism.

  5. Garry Baker


    A fairly simplistic editorial - more or less following in the footsteps of the daily media. A feel the rage stance - assuming this is not the information age, where governments don't bother to gather stuff about potential threats to their own power.

    Fact is - great powers have no permanent allies, just permanent interests. And to assume Angela Merkel's crowd are free of the NSA habits, is folly. Indeed, being a German she ought to know, having years ago been approached as a recruit to the…

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  6. Dianna Arthur


    If we believe the USA is the only country spying on its allies - prepare for shock, everyone is spying on everyone else.

    World of Minority Report, here we come.

  7. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    The enabling technology may be modern, but the politicking is distinctly medieval, and the template and the objective is the totalitarian Spanish Inquisition, which as those with an interest in history will understand was all about the suppression of Muslims.
    It is not too farfetched to suppose that the organisation which set and operated the original secretive bureaucratic machinery of that original "Inquisition" might have their dirty blood stained hands all over the present sinister inquisition…

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  8. Mike Brisco

    Scientist at Flinders University of South Australia

    That's the USA . When are Australia's politicians going to act? And since this is politics, I'd better clarify that I'm writing as a private citizen (at home before heading off to work)....

    A few years ago, a friend married overseas and sponsored her husband in to Australia.

    The couple had lived apart. DIAC wanted evidence the marriage was genuine and continuing. DIAC asked for PHONE RECORDS - struck me as odd. We document our marriages and relationships in all sorts of ways (photos…

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  9. Mountain Ship

    logged in via Facebook

    What I find strange is.
    The United States of America is a powerful democratic dictatorship. Strangely enough it's clear that the only thing the American Government has control over is its military and propaganda machines.

    Given that is the case What do you expect them to do.

    The man that is in charge here is an Australian and together with ASIO Customs, the federal police and local state authorities and on behalf of the Australian Government they are quietly building Australian North Coast into a

    The American Dictators do not see this as a game, protecting themselves against the rise of Asia is a very serious business and they are not in it to come second.

    If Australia ever moves away from the US Alliance, they the United States cannot win. It's an impossible task.

    So don't play surprised when you are confronted with their covert operations.

    They are no different to any other Government.


    1. Dennis M

      Author, Philosopher, Carer.

      In reply to Mountain Ship

      I agree entirely with your comment especially with the last sentence. It's great to see that a few people have woken up to the Yanks and see them for what they are: brutal plunders and imperialists who will stop at nothing to gain control of our world!

      Yet our Government fawns all over them.

    2. Mountain Ship

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dennis M

      Foe me, its interesting to note that Australia has within its means the ability to "HOLD THE BALANCE OF POWER" by becoming a ........."NEUTRAL COUNTRY ".............with no military assets of any other nation allowed within our territorial borders.

      However at this point in time I cannot for the life of me see that the
      Australian character that is developing is mature enough, it does not have the courage if its convictions, nor the wisdom to take on such a roll.

      However you will be all well advised to put this issue on what we might call THE AUSTRALIAN "AGENDA FOR THE FUTURE " and start considering the implications of such an action.

      It may well become the one item in our history that can save us from ourselves.
      You and I will come and go but there is a long way to go before it might all end and you should all try getting your head around it as soon as possible.

  10. Pat Moore


    Thanks Adam. The personally brave and morally principled exposures of Edward Snowden, as well as putting the US government between a rock and a hard place, have also allowed awareness in the world to lift the starting premise of the grounds of this unequal debate to one more in line with reality. We can all agree categorically now that that this about the "world's greatest" plutocracy rather than 'democracy'(just a few little letters' difference guys). [ Roman philosopher Seneca..."democracies…

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