Privacy SOS

Surveillance, lies, and the advancing transparency wave that can’t be stopped

Each time congress has debated reauthorization of NSA's incredible surveillance powers, Spencer Ackerman tells Amy Goodman in the video embedded above, the nation's top spies have worked overtime to convince our elected officials that the secret programs they've (unwittingly?) authorized have stopped major terrorist attacks and saved American lives. The spies have submitted secret documents to intelligence committees. They've whispered in secure rooms. And every single time, they've secured the continuation of their Draconian and Orweillian powers for another five or so years, kicking the can of democratic debate further down the road.

'You must reauthorize these programs because they are vital to our national security, and to protecting Americans in the homeland,' the spies repeat ad nauseam.

But are the programs vital to our national security? The short answer is no.

Something remarkable happened yesterday. It's perhaps the most poignant example yet of how the light Edward Snowden shined at the putrid core of the surveillance state has brought into full relief the extent to which government secrecy serves primarily not public safety, but rather the sanctity of a power hungry intelligence regime built on a foundation of lies.

In other words, what happened yesterday in congress clearly shows that state secrecy protects the state's lies, which protect its programs, which enable its consolidation of power. Public safety doesn't have much if anything to do with it.

Here's what happened:

When pressed, deputy director of the NSA John Inglis admitted to congress that the bulk domestic metadata collection program, which he says is authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, has really only stopped one terrorist attack…maybe, sorta. Kinda.

This incredible admission came about during Senator Leahy's questioning. Leahy clearly wanted to get to the heart of the matter: Has the government stopped a terrorism plot that would not have been interrupted without the Section 215 metadata program?

The NSA's response is truly marvelous to watch.

Inglis begins to answer the question by talking about 54 plots that the metadata program helped to stop. Upon further interrogation the number magically dwindles to twelve. But by the end of the exchange, Inglis essentially admits that, as Ackerman tells it, the 215 program has "maybe, in one case" stopped one attack. Maybe one. "At most."

So there you go. The government can't give us details about how the 215 program has saved our lives countless times, but that isn't because disclosing this information would harm our security. It's because it's yet another lie.

Numerous polls have shown that people in the United States are substantially more likely to support privacy-invasive surveillance programs if they work to stop terrorist attacks. But, as even the NSA now admits, these programs don't do that. They are unnecessary, they are violative, they are undemocratic, and they should end immediately.

A recent Washington Post poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe the metadata program keeps us safe, 47 percent think it doesn't do much to keep us safe, and 5 percent think it actually harms our national security. Let's hope that Inglis' breathtaking confession gets picked up by the national media; the forty-two percent of people polled who thought the NSA's invasive domestic spying was a necessary evil might appreciate hearing the facts. 

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, which might be why the government is so hell-bent on sending a message to whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

But it's too late to put this particular cat back in the bag. When the NSA essentially admits to congress that it has tricked and deceived them into authorizing mass domestic surveillance that it cannot prove has done much of anything to promote public safety, it's past time to shut it down.

Tell congress to repeal Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

UPDATE: ProPublica has put together this excellent video illustrating some of the government's greatest hits on its poorly performing LP, Lying About Our Spying.

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long term cookie on your computer.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.