Sen. Bernie Sanders asked the National Security Agency (NSA) a question that one would have thought would be easy to answer: has the NSA spied on Congress with its massive surveillance programs? The answer that came back was chilling in what it did not say. The NSA would only assure Sanders that it has “the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons.” That must be a bit unnerving for Congress since it has allowed the NSA to strip citizens of the most basic privacy protections.
Sanders did not leave much room for wiggling by defining “spying” as “gathering metadata on calls made from official or personal phones, content from websites visited or e-mails sent, or collecting any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business.”
The agency responded to Sanders with the assurance of “NSA’s authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons.”
Attorney General Eric Holder also deflected answering the same question at a congressional hearing last summer.
We could ask again how we came to this moment. There was a time when the failure to answer this question in the negative would have led to furious hearings and bipartisan investigations. However, once again, liberals and Democrats are largely silent — choosing personality over principle. It is yet another example of how Obama has divided the civil liberties movement in the United States.
In the meantime, the highly controversial secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (that is widely viewed as a rubber stamp for the intelligence community) renewed its approval of the National Security Agency’s telephone-records program on Friday — giving the government a new three-month window to collect data on all Americans’ phone calls. That is the 36th time the program has been approved by the FISA, which allows for no opposing counsel or public access to the court. Under the FISA law, the standard guarantees surveillance orders with virtually no articulated suspicion in comparison to the standards under the Fourth Amendment.