It’s surprising that a member of Congress had not thought to ask until now. But Sen. Bernard Sanders, independent from Vermont, has dared to ask the question: “Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?” Members were probably afraid of the answer.
This question was contained in a letter Sanders sent to Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency. Sanders has not received an answer, but he expects one is forthcoming.
The NSA has produced some weasel words that are a clue about what that answer will be. “Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons,” it said in a release. In other words, virtually none. And that suggests the NSA will be forced to acknowledge that members of Congress, like most Americans, have been caught up in the NSA’s telecommunications dragnet.
Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, didn’t like it when she learned the NSA had zeroed in on her cellphone. Neither did the president of Brazil. There’s no reason to believe members of Congress will be pleased to learn the NSA has been gathering information about whom they have been talking with on the telephone.
Apologists for the NSA say that if you have been doing nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear if the NSA has been tracking your phone calls. Now members of Congress who have been making that argument will have to apply it to themselves. They must ask themselves if the meaning of privacy is really that the government can snoop around in your private business and you’re not supposed to mind.
As time has passed since the revelations from Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who is now stranded in Russia, public opinion has been swinging in Snowden’s favor. Initially, the fact that he was revealing classified secrets that were potentially damaging to national security caused many people to declare that he was a lawbreaker and maybe a traitor. But lately, the importance of the information he has revealed has caused many people to rally to his defense in the belief that overreach by the NSA was a greater danger to the nation than any secrets he has exposed.
The importance of Snowden’s revelations can be seen in the fact that people in all branches of government have not been able to dismiss the allegations. They have had to respond seriously, and many of those responses underscore the points that Snowden was making. A special presidential task force recommended that the president take a series of steps to curb NSA spying. A federal judge criticized not Snowden but the NSA, whose activities he called “almost Orwellian.” Another federal judge took the other side.
Meanwhile, members of Congress have introduced legislation to establish limits to the power of the NSA. They have included members from the right and the left, including Sen. Patrick Leahy. If the NSA admits to gathering information on Congress, it will be interesting to hear how Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a defender of the agency, reacts.
There are constant tensions within modern societies, such as the tension between corporate self-interest and the public good. Another tension is between the power of big government, with its modern tools of surveillance and control, and the rights of individuals to privacy and freedom of expression and association. These tensions require that the public must be in a constant state of vigilance and resistance against corporate abuse and self-dealing and against the encroaching power of government to curb the freedom of the individual.
Maintaining the public’s side of that equation means that the public must be in a continuing state of rebellion against those forces working against the public interest. That’s where whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden come in.
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