In 2008, an explicit ban prohibited the National Security Agency from searching its databases for the email and phone records of Americans without a warrant. The idea was that the ban would help protect the privacy and constitutional rights of American citizens. It has recently been revealed that in 2011, the White House secretly sought and won permission to reverse these restrictions, thereby giving the NSA broad approval to collect and search through Americans’ communications without a warrant.
The United States government has clearly lost sight of what protecting the people means. American citizens do value safety and security but not at the expense of our constitutional rights. The Fourth Amendment was drafted to stop police and government agents from searching a person or their property without probable cause to believe the person has committed a crime.
In terms of what data intelligence agencies are allowed to collect, queries simply must be “reasonably likely to yield foreign intelligence information,” according to U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2011. This is a vague definition in typical government fashion, but I imagine the threshold for “reasonably likely” is pretty low.
The reversal of the ban essentially gives the NSA free reign over our communications. They can collect data on our phone calls and emails without a court deciding whether or not there is probable cause. Any time there is a lack of government oversight on this large a scale, it makes me a bit uneasy.
The irony of the situation is that, of course, the government says it is not targeting Americans. But still, the reasoning for searching our phone and email records without a warrant, according to Robert S. Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is “we wanted to be able to do it.”
It appears that, in this day and age, wanting to be able to do it is enough reason for the government to spy on its citizens without any kind of overseeing. I am disappointed that President Barack Obama would not only deceive the people by reversing the ban secretly but also egregiously violate the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S. intelligence community is obviously trying to cast a wide net in its pursuit of terrorists, foreign powers and anything else that might threaten the U.S. Yet the Orwellian collection of citizens’ data still does not sit right with me, even if the NSA’s intentions are benevolent. The whole idea has a distinct “guilty until proven innocent” air about it.
There are obvious reasons that intelligence agencies need the authority to collect and analyze foreign communications, and it is in our best interest. Still, the reason that the Constitution requires a warrant to do so for American citizens is to protect us from government overreaching that we are seeing on display now.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall said “Our founders laid out a roadmap where Americans’ privacy rights are protected before their communications are seized or searched – not after the fact.”
It is a shame that our government does not share Udall’s point of view. Unfortunately, our government has decided that collecting data on our daily communications is a top priority, while protecting our privacy rights is secondary.