For a brief moment last week, it seemed as though both the Left and the Right were going to unite in opposition to the National Security Agency’s “domestic surveillance” program. That very destructive outcome was averted when first the Director of National Intelligence and then the President firmly defended the effort, convincingly arguing that safeguards prevented intelligence-gathering within U.S. borders from compromising the rights of citizens. The phone surveillance program is mainly about collecting metadata on traffic patterns rather than eavesdropping, while the Internet surveillance program is mainly about searching overseas traffic passing through the U.S. Multi-layered protections of U.S. citizens are built into both programs.
It looks like the main way these revelations might hurt national security is if the political system over-reacts by clamping tight restrictions on how surveillance efforts can be conducted in the future. With the Internet surveillance program generating an average of four items per day for the President’s daily intelligence briefing, it shouldn’t be hard to explain why such restrictions are undesirable. As we learn more about the vetting process for NSA surveillance, it seems increasingly clear that President Obama was accurate in saying the program successfully balances security with privacy. That shouldn’t come as a big surprise, given his own track record as a determined protector of people’s privacy.
Nonetheless, the White House and the intelligence community should learn from this experience. First, they should recognize 9-11 is now so distant in the popular memory that they can’t count on politicians or the public feeling a great sense of urgency about keeping tabs on terrorists. Second, they should recognize that when worry about foreign threats recedes, the vacuum is filled by domestic concerns — including fears that the federal government is becoming too powerful. If there is one thing that the Left and the Right both share, it’s the fear that Big Brother is waiting just around the corner to take away their rights. Programs like PRISM thus become easy fodder for conspiracy theorists.
There’s nothing the White House can do now to prevent all sorts of nonsense about government eavesdropping from filling the Internet. That stuff has been out there for years, in the form of overblown rumors about efforts like Echelon, and coverage of PRISM will give it new life. The intelligence community may want to consider some preemptive declassification of information about its surveillance to reduce the likelihood of having to endure another Manning/Snowden-style controversy. The notion that outsourcing has led to these leaks is a canard — both leakers worked for the government during much of their careers — but the reality that many Americans no longer trust Washington needs to be taken into account. Being a little more forthcoming about surveillance programs might buy the intelligence community some trust with the public at a time when trust is in short supply.
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