Friday June 7, 2013

The revelations about overreaching government intrusion these days never seem to end. First it was the secret investigation into the phone records of certain news outlets, then it was the IRS scandal involving conservative groups, and now we find out the National Security Agency has demanded the phone records of tens of millions of American customers of Verizon.

Although there is no official confirmation, if Verizon was ordered to hand over these records chances are all of the other telephone companies were as well.

This latest example of government intrusion was first reported Wednesday on the website of Britain’s Guardian newspaper. The NSA obtained a secret court order that allowed the government to sweep up millions of telephone records on calls by Americans who were not suspected of any wrongdoing.

The court order, obtained under a controversial interpretation of a provision in the Patriot Act, requires Verizon to hand over comprehensive communications-routing information, including but not limited to numbers dialed and received, length of calls, and customers’ name and address or financial information. The order does not tell Verizon to provide any information about the content of the calls.

Privacy advocates blasted the order as unconstitutional government surveillance and called for a review.

Terrorism financing expert Jimmy Gurulé told Reuters that although the court did not need to find probable cause under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the order goes too far.

"The question is how the phone data of tens of millions of Americans is ‘relevant’ to a terrorism investigation. This is clearly an overreach by the NSA and an apparent rubber stamp by the FISA court," said Gurulé, a former assistant U.S. attorney general and now a law professor at University of Notre Dame.

The American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups, has called on Congress to investigate the scope of the effort, which it called "alarming" and "unconstitutional."

"It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents," Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, said in a statement. "It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies."

Even Vermont’s own U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders criticized the secret domestic surveillance program.

"As one of the few members of Congress who consistently voted against the Patriot Act, I expressed concern at the time of passage that it gave the government far too much power to spy on innocent United State citizens and provided for very little oversight or disclosure. Unfortunately, what I said turned out to be exactly true," the Vermont independent said in a statement.

"The United States should not be accumulating phone records on tens of millions of innocent Americans. That is not what democracy is about. That is not what freedom is about. Congress must address this issue and protect the constitutional rights of the American people," Sanders added. "While we must aggressively pursue international terrorists and all of those who would do us harm, we must do it in a way that protects the Constitution and the civil liberties which make us proud to be Americans."

The Obama administration on Thursday defended its collection of a massive amount of telephone records as part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

"Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," a senior administration official told Reuters.

However, if intelligence agencies are interested in finding out whom these "known or suspected terrorists" have been in calling, then they should get a court order specifically targeting those phone records. Presumably they would have probable cause to obtain a warrant, and thus would not have to trample on the fourth amendment rights of millions of Americans.

Others might argue that if you have nothing to hide, then what’s the problem? But that’s not the point. This type of government overreach is ripe with the potential for abuse. And lately we’ve seen far too many examples of government abuse of powers at the expense of our Constitutional rights.

What’s next -- monitoring our phone conversations or the Internet activity of all Americans? At the risk of sounding like paranoid conspiracy theorists, for all we know this could already be happening.