Readers know I cannot quite summon up the ability to be shocked, shocked! that governments spy on each other. That includes allies. So what are we to make of the revelations that even the phones of foreign leaders have been monitored, deeply damaging relations with our closest European allies? I think we can conclude that the apparatus set up by Bush and Cheney in 2002 has not been dismantled by the Obama administration, with the vital exception of torture, and that Obama himself has essentially allowed the NSA to do whatever it wants. Doubtless spooked by the politics of ending such surveillance and then being accused of allowing another terror attack, Obama has been in thrall to Clapper and to Brennan – and Dianne Feinstein has hardly been a vigilant and skeptical overseer.
There is a review going forward. We don’t know what it will actually conclude – although it does seem that the president has personally ordered an end to monitoring the calls of foreign leaders. We still need the kind of surveillance that can track potential terrorism, international crime, and legitimate threats to the country. But the kind of blanket, mass screening of foreign citizens’ phone call data that we have now discovered is far beyond that. The Leahy-Sensenbrenner proposal for legislation is a start to reining all this back in.
Here’s my take-away, for what it’s worth.
As more and more details emerge, the Snowden leaks look more and more justifiable in retrospect. The NSA has behaved like many powerful surveillance bureaucracies. Give them a hammer and they will search high and low for nails. When that tangibly harms the interests of the United States, rather than advancing them, it’s time for the Congress and the White House to reform and repeal the potential for abuse. We need to spy. We don’t need the massive, damaging Dyson-level vacuuming up of so much data from so many. Obama now has political cover to do this thoroughly. We’ll soon find out whether he has been seduced by the prerogatives of power, or whether he will respond to the legitimate, and now proven, allegations of widespread abuse.
(Photo of Merkel and Bush: Jim Watson/Getty.)