New revelations about the U.S. government’s spying program have revealed that the government may have been spying on the telephone data of tens of millions of Americans for nearly a decade prior to 9/11.
Documents leaked by Edward Snowden gave Americans their first glimpse of the massive NSA spying program. The programs were vigorously defended by government officials, citing 9/11 as the reason the programs needed to be continued. Americans heard public officials maintain that we needed the spying program to “connect the dots” and prevent future attacks. Yet an archive story at Bloomberg indicates that the NSA approached AT&T to help set up a domestic telephone surveillance program seven months before September 11, 2001.
The two agencies at the center of the controversy were the NSA and DEA and may have been in place as far back as 1992. A recent USA Today story indicates that the Justice Department and DEA tracked the international calls of tens of millions of Americans to nearly 116 countries around the world. These were not all faraway and exotic countries known for their involvement in drug trafficking but included Canada, Mexico, Europe and virtually all of South America.
The Justice Department admitted the DEA had been collecting the telephone data of millions of Americans but the sheer scope of the program has only recently come to light. While the agency was not listening in on all phone calls they were tracking what’s called the metadata, information about the time, date, number dialed and length of the conversation. The DEA program, since discontinued, served as the model for the broader program implemented after 9/11. Details of the DEA program indicate that the agency gathered records without court approval, searched them more in a single day than the surveillance court authorizes in a year and automatically correlated the data with thousands of investigative reports.
Rand Paul kicked off his presidential bid by suggesting that the phone records of law-abiding Americans should be off limits, a point that drew thunderous applause from the audience. Paul, a favorite of the Libertarian leaning electorate, vowed to end unconstitutional NSA spying on day one. Holding up his own phone, Paul declared, "The phone records of law-abiding citizens are none of their damn business." It’s a message that seems to resonate with many on both sides of the political aisle. In spite of strong opposition by the public, the spying program, in one form or another, has been approved by four different presidential administrations.
What Americans should be asking themselves is if the spying prior to 9/11 didn’t help officials connect the dots, why should we believe it’s going to work now? All the spying did nothing to stop a pair of foreign nationals from setting off bombs at the Boston Marathon and Americans are right to question the utility of the program which is not only invading the privacy of millions of Americans but is collectively costing us billions of dollars.
Most people would be tempted to trade a little of their privacy if it meant getting greater security in exchange. The recent revelations about the government’s domestic phone spying would lead reasonable people to question whether all the spying is making us any safer. The question our elected officials should be asking is if spying on the phone calls of average Americans is not working, then why are we still doing it?