WASHINGTON, October 26, 2013 — The National Security Administration exists to gather information. It does this mostly by electronic means. This does not mean it has any justification for hacking Angela Merkel’s cell phone or looking through the bank data of European citizens.
Documents released by Edward Snowen show an NSA acting without restraint. It goes far beyond anything that should have been authorized and seems to include extensive monitoring of millions of phone calls and emails every month in friendly countries.
Almost every day another story breaks about outrage in other countries over the extent of the NSA’s intrusion into the communications privacy of their citizens, businesses and political leaders. The level of outrage generated by these practices is still growing, but has already resulted in formal complaints from key American allies like Germany, France, Mexico and Brazil. The European Parliament has held a hearing on NSA spying and has threatened to withdraw support for the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program if it was a factor in NSA intrusion into European bank records.
While wiretaps and data surveillance of United States citizens are theoretically limited by FISA, it places no restrictions on U.S. intelligence gathering operations overseas. We have already seen the NSA ignore these restrictions within our own borders, and with even fewer limits on their operations in Europe, it has apparently been unrestrained even by common sense in its intelligence gathering.
Common sense suggests that the NSA at least respect the privacy rights guaranteed to citizens of allied countries as they would those of U.S. citizens. The rights described in the Bill of Rights are not exclusive to American citizens. They are just a codification of universal rights which are recognized by the United Nations, the European Union, and most civilized countries.
Foreign citizens who are outraged about the NSA’s snooping in their communications are justifiably angry, and more so in the case of their political leaders whose communications are sensitive and should be granted appropriate respect. The German chancellor, members of the European Parliament and the President of France are not terrorist or criminal suspects, yet their communications have been monitored just like those of more common citizens of their countries.
The NSA has apparently hacked former Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s email, as well as emails of other elected officials in that country. Mexico is lodging a formal protest with the United States government.
France’s interior minister, Manuel Vallas, described the revelations as “shocking” and said that “such practices, if proven, do not have their place between allies and partners.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said that “Spying among friends is never acceptable.” She called President Obama personally after hearing that her cell phone may have been targeted and hacked by the NSA.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault asked for the issue to be added to the agenda of the meeting of the European Commission. EC Vice President Vivianne Reding expressed the opinion that “Data protection must apply to everyone — whether we are talking about citizens’ e-mails or Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.” She is pushing for the adoption of Europe-wide legislation to protect the rights of all citizens from unwarranted surveillance by any government.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte characterized the NSA surveillance of European citizens as “not acceptable.”
Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen asked the United States to provide “a guarantee that this will never happen again.”
Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota expressed “deep concern at the report that electronic and telephone communications of Brazilian citizens are being the object of espionage by organs of American intelligence,” and said that Brazil would seek U.N. intervention to protect the privacy rights of citizens. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled an official visit to Washington because of the scandal.
Some anger has also been directed at countries like Sweden and Great Britain, which have cooperated with the NSA or provided locations for their communications monitoring facilities.
The NSA was established in an earlier era when mass communication was much more primitive and limited. When it invaded someone’s privacy, it was almost always with a clear objective and usually with specific accountability and oversight. As technology has become more advanced and more integrated, the NSA’s ability to acquire information has grown beyond anything that could have been imagined a generation ago, and the agency seems to have developed the ethos that if something can be done, then they should do it.
We have a Constitution and laws because sometimes people don’t know where to draw sensible limits on their actions. The prohibitions in the Bill of Rights are broad and inclusive. They ought to be enough, but sometimes when new crimes or abuses of power are invented, we need new laws to apply the general ideas of the Bill of Rights to a specific situation.
If there were ever a time to write a specific law protecting privacy rights from government intrusion, this is it. This administration and Congress have paid little attention to the protests of citizens within the United States. A huge rally is scheduled for Saturday on the national mall, organized by over 100 public interest groups to draw attention to this issue. Yet the only member of Congress speaking is Republican Representative Justin Amash, who has become well known as a champion of privacy rights. Where is Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, whose hearings on the NSA this summer seem to have been designed to brush this issue under the rug?
Alienating friendly nations around the world because we have violated the rights of their citizens and their leaders and threatened their own national security could rapidly become a serious problem. Maybe if our government will not listen to the complaints of our own citizens, it will respond to pressure from our unhappy friends and allies overseas.
No one likes what the NSA has become. It has exceeded its mandate. It has violated the Bill of Rights. It has violated international law. It needs to be bound with strict restrictions on its activities and be made subject to due process of law. It is a genie which must be stuffed back into its bottle for the good of the Republic.
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