Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Government Surveillance and Expanded Presidential Power

     Two scandals reported this week have raised new questions and concerns over the role of our government and the power of the president.  On June 5, 2013 the British news outlet The Guardian reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been collecting phone records from Verizon customers.  This collection was ordered by the secretive FISA court or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.  According to the order, Verizon was ordered to provide the NSA and FBI information on an "ongoing daily basis."  The FISA court order did not just apply to domestic calls but also included calls abroad.
     The second story reported by The Washington Post and The Guardian on June 6, uncovered a classified government surveillance program code named PRISM which tapped into the servers of seven different internet providers.  The providers affected include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, Youtube, and Apple.  According to the report, the United States government has been using PRISM for the past seven years and gained the authorization to do so through another FISA court ruling and some congressional approval.  However those in congress who knew about the report were sworn to secrecy.  According to the Post's report, PRISM focused on foreign communications which came directly into the servers of these American companies despite being sent from foreign locations.
     In a statement on Saturday by Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper Jr., PRISM is "an internal government computer system used to facilitate the government's statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers under court supervision."  He adds, "PRISM is not an undisclosed collection or data mining program."  PRISM is not just conducting random searches of Americans but rather, the government must have "reasonable belief" of at minimum 51 percent that they are targeting someone or some organization as a foreign national.   
     These two surveillance programs are unprecedented and have many Americans worried about their freedom and security.  The Verizon scandal is the first time, under the Obama Administration, that Americans have been domestically spied upon.  President Bush signed the Patriot Act after the terror attacks on September 11 authorizing unwarrented wiretaps into the phone lines of Americans suspected of terror activity.  President Obama signed an extension to the Patriot Act in 2011 but this is the first time his administration has been a part of something on this scale.
     One of the chief differences between the two programs, as pointed out by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, is content.  While the FISA court order authorizes Verizon to hand over "metadata" on an "ongoing daily basis," government officials were not listening to phone calls.  They were simply analyzing where calls were coming from and where they were going.  However, under PRISM, government officials are looking directly at content.  They are examining emails and other forms of online communication.  This is vastly different from just simply looking at addresses because they are concerned with the contextual material being shared or posted.
      Two Democratic Senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, have expressed their disdain for the government oversight and even wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.  An excerpt of the letter reads,  "We believe that most Americans would be stunned to learn the detail of how these secret court opinions have interpreted business records."  However, some Senators such as Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein disagree.  Feinstein states she has known about PRISM for the past seven years and the program has statutory authority.
      President Obama has come out and defended the program linking it to terror prevention.  The leaker of the PRISM program has also come out.  He identified himself as Edward Snowden and chose to leak the story out of shear disagreement with the program.  He felt the American people had a right to know.  In an article in The Washington Post Snowden states he feels Obama "failed to live up to his pledges of transparency."  While some are calling Snowden a hero, others are calling him a felon for disclosing classified information.  The question is legality and weather or not Snowden knowingly shared classified information.
     There are many possible policy questions yet to be answered by all of this.  Politico published an article under the title "Bush's Fourth Term," insinuating that President Obama has adopted many of President Bush's policies regarding military (drone strikes) and terrorist prevention (unwarrented wiretaps).  President Obama issued a very liberal and progressive agenda in his second term inaugural address and State of the Union.  He called for even more government.  When is more government too much?  The Tea Party took The Hill by storm in 2010 by championing much less government.  The President and his administration retain that these programs have kept Americans safe and are working to keep terrorists at bay by thwarting plots.  However, what does the Constitution have to say about government surveillance on Americans?  The reason these stories are unprecedented is because this is the age of technology with Google and Facebook.
     The Supreme Court recently decided not to hear a case on government surveillance because the plaintiffs could not directly indicate they were being targeted.  So now this begs the question, how can a program or programs of this magnitude be challenged?  Rand Paul is considering filing a class action law suit against the government.  However, many aspects of these programs still remain classified and it is difficult to prove one is being targeted by the government.  
     Another point to consider is the power of the executive.  Is the power of the president becoming too great and is the president abusing that power?  Let's not forget that congress should be partly to blame here.  Shortly after 9/11, congress hastily passed the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) which allows the President (Bush at the time) to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against those who he though responsible for the attacks and any other organization who collaborated.  AUMF was a huge delegation of power from the legislative to the executive branch basically giving the president a golden ticket to do what ever he wanted militarily.  According to the Constitution, congress issues declarations of war, not the president.  With the passage of AUMF, that role is transferred to the president and is now out of the hands of congress.
     Congress also passed the Patriot Act allowing for unwarranted wire taps on Americans.  Some of those in congress who voted for the Patriot Act's passage recently expressed their negative views toward PRISM and the Verizon ruling by FISA. 
     September 11, 2001 has completely changed the dynamic of government.  It has allowed presidents to ask for more power and allowed them to initiate programs which stretch the Constitution to its limits in the name of national security.  PRISM is no exception.  President Obama campaigned in 2008 on issues of privacy and rights of combatants but in the recent years of his presidency, he has stretchered those ideas to fit a broader agenda.  Some believe he has adopted even more aggressive policies than Bush with the recent drone debates and rights of "combatants" as defined by a DOJ White Paper.  Do these surveillance programs violate Americans' rights or is it a matter of keeping America safe?  Has the executive grown too powerful and is it too late to rescind?  What, if any, legal remorse do Americans have against broad government programs?  I am sure this is not the last program of its kind that exists currently with this administration but the overarching questions each American should be asking are do these programs keep us safe and is that worth my freedom?               


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