NSA Controversy Reveals Need for Greater Public Discourse to Prevent Future Abuses

Recent revelations concerning the National Security Agency's controversial mass surveillance programs -- and the government contractor who leaked classified documents about those programs -- have sparked a renewed dialogue: How much individual freedom are U.S. citizens willing to sacrifice for the sake of national security? Like many Americans, I appreciate a zone of privacy around my personal matters. I don't like it when that zone is invaded. At the same time, there are legitimate reasons for our government to monitor cyberspace, where the threats and vulnerabilities to American safety are real and need to be taken seriously. Still, my own ambivalence toward the privacy vs. security discussion does not diminish my disappointment in the disclosure that the U.S. government has for several years been mining the private data of millions of Americans and, in effect, spying on our allies as well as our adversaries. Equally bothersome is that this new, massive extension of government power has occurred with very little debate or public discussion and on the watch of the president, Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, better known as the FISA court.
  • The NSA's controversial activities raise some important questions:

  • How do we have an informed debate when we don't know what our government is doing?
  • Can the scope of intrusions into people's lives be minimized or narrowed?
  • Why is this data so critical to our government?
  • How do we better limit the access of contractors to the nation's most sensitive secrets?
  • The Obama administration has said that it welcomes a debate on these issues. But it has not enabled that debate: the discussion has been thrust upon the administration because of the recent leaks. In fact, the administration has contributed to misinformation about the surveillance programs exposed this month. When asked whether the government had been collecting data on millions of Americans, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper flatly said "no," which was a gross misstatement. President Obama suggests that the oversight of these surveillance programs was transparent, which also is not correct. The secrecy and passivity with which Congress has approached these programs is also confounding. I find it astounding that so many members of Congress could be informed about the specifics of these programs, subsequently give them their blessing and fail to see the urgent need for public discussion. I could say the same about the FISA court, which has continually demonstrated an unwillingness to reject almost all NSA surveillance requests. Remarkably, at a time when cynicism and suspicion toward government is rampant, our government institutions are engaged in a massive play for power. Even the less cynical among us know that once the government has power, that power will not easily be relinquished. While I'd like to give the benefit of the doubt to those charged with carrying out these surveillance programs -- individuals who are undoubtedly decent and patriotic -- I worry about the potential for abuse of this considerable power 10 or 15 or 20 years from now. So what can Americans do to prevent a future abuse of power? Clearly, there is a need for more public disclosure and debate. Concerns over national security will continue to be paramount. Yet I believe that far more information than has currently been released about these surveillance programs can be made available to the American public without compromising sensitive intelligence. We must call upon Congress to robustly scrutinize these programs, press the administration for maximum transparency and ensure that it better explain both why these programs are important and what safeguards are included in the process of gathering data that protect Americans' right to privacy. Additionally, the FISA court must provide more rigorous examination and oversight of future surveillance requests. To do so, its judges will need to become more familiar with the complexities contained in the surveillance requests they receive and better equipped to ask critical questions of intelligence personnel making those requests. Finally, we need to support the work of an active, engaged and energetic Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which, despite being a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission nearly 10 years ago, only became fully operational in May. Members of the board have been given a congressional mandate to dutifully analyze and review the actions that the administration takes to protect the nation from terrorism, ensuring that concerns with respect to privacy and civil liberties are appropriately considered. The board should be given robust power so that it can provide forceful pushback -- which, up until now, has been largely nonexistent -- against arguments for national security programs that do not properly safeguard the privacy of our citizens. In case you were wondering, the recently exposed NSA programs will not be repealed. The president, the courts, the Congress and the national security community strongly support them, and, according to recent polls, the American people also approve increased surveillance. Nor do I think these programs should be repealed. But that doesn't mean they cannot be improved and brought within our constitutional system of checks and balances. What I hope to see instead is more rigorous scrutiny and oversight of our surveillance programs -- and more forthcoming answers from our government. We must remain vigilant against the threat of attacks while also guarding our personal freedoms.
    Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.