Another National Security Agency spying scandal recently erupted when some of the documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. was even spying on the heads of state of American allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and usually a staunch supporter of government spying programs, threw another twist into the scandal when she adamantly condemned the spying on U.S. allies. “With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies – including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany – let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” Feinstein said in a statement. “It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community.”
Sen. Feinstein's turnabout even took the government surveillance community by surprise. “We're really screwed now,” Foreign Policy magazine quoted one NSA official as saying. “You know things are bad when the few friends you've got disappear without a trace in the dead of night and leave no forwarding address.”
But what is really behind Feinstein's newfound criticism of government snooping activities?
Through Snowden, other intelligence whistleblowers and various news reports, Americans now know that the government has for years been intercepting and monitoring e-mail, phone, text and other electronic communications, usually without probable cause or warrants. Given the alarming evidence about the extent of the encroachment by government into our private lives, tapping Chancellor Merkel's phone seems to be a strange place for Sen. Feinstein to draw the line on NSA spying.
Perhaps Feinstein's outrage stems from the unwritten rule that there are some laws for the political elite, and other laws for the rest of us. As George Orwell noted in “Animal Farm,” his dystopian novel, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Make no mistake, Feinstein still supports government snooping. She has proposed a “reform” bill called the FISA Improvements Act of 2013 that would provide some token measures of transparency and oversight by requiring the NSA to issue public reports about how often it accesses its call-records database and private reports to Congress summarizing major Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court decisions.
Unfortunately, the legislation also explicitly authorizes and codifies existing bulk communications collection and allows the NSA to keep records for up to five years. So Feinstein's bill effectively legalizes the practices most objectionable to Americans and the U.S. Constitution, and heads off more legitimate reform efforts, under the guise of fixing the system. It is no small irony that such a bill purportedly intended to increase transparency was marked up in a secret, closed-door session. The bill recently passed the Senate Intelligence Committee on an 11-4 vote.
That said, Sen. Feinstein's criticism of U.S. spying on the political leaders of allies is welcome. She would do a much greater service if only she would apply the same logic and her concern for the privacy of foreign leaders to the snooping being done on millions of innocent American and foreign citizens who are having their rights violated on a daily basis.
It is unlikely that politicians and members of the intelligence community will easily yield the status quo to meaningful reforms. Libertarians and limited government advocates on the right, privacy and civil liberties advocates on the left, and moderates will need to unite to demand that the government butt out of their private lives – and hold politicians accountable for doing so. If not, it won't be the NSA but average Americans who will continue to see their rights abridged by a government that does not respect their rights.
Adam B. Summers is a senior policy analyst at the Reason Foundation. This article was originally published in the Orange County Register on November 8, 2013.