NSA Chief Recommends Severely Curtailing Spying. Obama Won’t.

The worldwide heat map from the NSA’s data visualisation tool BOUNDLESSINFORMANT, showing that during a 30-day period, 97 billion internet data records (DNI) and 124 billion telephony data records (DNR) were collected: largely on Americans in America.


A few weeks ago, Obama triumphantly announced NSA spying “reforms” that got lots of front page coverage, but amounted to: Absolutely No Change.

Further, his speech carried his full endorsement of the sweeping collection and storage in bulk of private phone calls, emails, email address books, online transaction information, location data, and more, on millions of Americans neither guilty nor even suspected of anything.

More recently, NSA’s outgoing director, General Keith Alexander, testified quite differently before the Senate:

The remarks by NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander were striking because the government’s justification for the data-collection program has been that the NSA needs the full database of Americans’ call records to uncover otherwise unknown terrorist connections.

But Gen. Alexander instead signaled that the information the NSA needs about terrorist connections might be obtainable without first collecting what officials have termed “the whole haystack” of U.S. phone data.

Explaining the option, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that intelligence agencies could “look at what data you actually need and get only that data.”

What a concept! Don’t tap everyone’s cell phones, email accounts, computers, capture and store every personal tidbit, to be perused when and if you might like to. Only gather information on those suspected of wrong-doing (and, hey, if you’re feeling really generous: get a warrant)!

Interestingly, the General’s testimony didn’t make the front page, and President Obama hasn’t acknowledged the recommendation.

Instead, as observed by the New Yorker:

Obama won’t dismantle a single N.S.A. program, not even those that have been involved in spying on the leaders of America’s allies and hacking into the databases of companies like Google and Facebook without any court approval. He won’t end the practice by which the N.S.A and other government agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, can obtain access to Americans’ data records simply by issuing a so-called National Security Letter, which doesn’t require the rubber stamp of the FISA court.

… Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times, “the President will go down in history for having retained and defended George W. Bush’s surveillance programs rather than reformed them.”

He ought more accurately to have said, “and expanded” Bush’s surveillance programs.

So why won’t the President pay any attention to the recommendations of the General put in charge of the NSA—wouldn’t Obama expect Gen. Alexander to know whereof he speaks?

Because, as has been known since time immemorial, and as our Founders sought to guard this republic against: power corrupts and no politician vested with power will willingly surrender one jot or one tittle of it.

Which is why it won’t help to elect a “good guy” (or gal) next time. The ring, once held, enchants.

We must wrest it from their grasp, throw it into the fire, and never allow it to be so accrued again.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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