Stop Freaking Out About the NSA Surveillance Program

How you look at things.
June 6 2013 3:52 PM

Stop Freaking Out About the NSA

The government’s phone surveillance isn’t Orwellian. It’s limited and supervised.

170033750
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, explain the National Security Agency phone surveillance program on June 6, 2013

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

You don’t need a wiretap to hear what people are saying about the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program. The program’s details, disclosed in a secret court order leaked to the Guardian, show that at least one major company, Verizon, has been legally required to give the government information about its subscribers’ communications. “An astounding assault on the Constitution,” says Rand Paul. “Obscenely outrageous,” says Al Gore. “Beyond Orwellian,” says the ACLU.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Chill. You can quarrel with this program, but it isn’t Orwellian. It’s limited, and it’s controlled by checks and balances.

The program’s purpose, according to administration officials and knowledgeable members of Congress, is to find out who’s been calling or receiving calls from phone numbers linked to known or suspected terrorists. If Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been in contact with somebody flagged as a possible jihadist operative, this is the kind of surveillance that would have brought him to the attention of counterterrorism investigators, even without Russian assistance.

Advertisement

The leaked order is certainly worth discussing. It confirms that previous lines have been crossed. It’s now clear that the surveillance program, which was known to have been conducted under President Bush, has continued under President Obama. Moreover, there’s no requirement that at least one party to the call must be foreign. The order includes calls “wholly within the United States.” Nor is there any requirement that the government show probable cause to justify its demand for any particular record. It only has to offer “reasonable grounds to believe” that the records being sought are “relevant to an authorized investigation.”

But the program is also restrained in several ways. Here’s a list.

1. It isn’t wiretapping. The order authorizes the transfer of “telephony metadata” such as the date and length of each call and which phone numbers were involved. It doesn’t include the content of calls—which is more tightly protected by the Fourth Amendment—or the identity of the callers. The targeted data are mathematical, not verbal. They’re the kind of information you’d request if you were mapping possible extensions of a terrorist or criminal network.

2. It’s judicially supervised. The leaked document is a court order. It was issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance [FISA] Court. To get the Verizon data, the FBI had to ask the court for permission. The Bush administration used to extract this kind of metadata unilaterally. The Obama administration has changed the rules to bring in the court as an overseer.

3. It’s congressionally supervised. Any senator who’s expressing shock about the program is a liar or a fool. The Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees have been briefed on it many times. Committee members have had access to the relevant FISA court orders and opinions. The intelligence committee has also informed all senators in writing about the program, twice, with invitations to review classified documents about it prior to reauthorization. If they didn’t know about it, they weren’t paying attention.

4. It expires quickly unless it’s reauthorized. The leaked order was issued on April 25 and expires on July 19. That’s the way these orders have worked for years: The court has to review and reapprove the surveillance request, or the authority to transfer the records expires.

5. Wiretaps would require further court orders. The reason the leaked order is so broad is that it applies only to metadata. If, after looking at its map of phone numbers, the government decides that yours might belong to a potential terrorist, it can seek further information, including the content of your calls. But in that case, it has to ask the court for a separate order, which in turn would require enough evidence to override your Fourth Amendment rights.

Is government surveillance worth worrying about? Sure. But even broad surveillance, per se, isn’t outrageous. What’s important is that the surveillance be warranted by real threats, appropriately limited, and supervised by competing branches of government. In this case, those standards have been met.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:


Watch Verizon's lost "Can you hear me now?" NSA ad:

TODAY IN SLATE

The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

This Scene From All The President’s Men Captures Ben Bradlee’s Genius

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.