WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency’s giant database of Americans’ phone and e-mail records remains at the forefront of a national conversation for everyday citizens, government leaders and think tank experts alike.
At least three of these experts, who have been on the inside and outside of intelligence operations, agree that recently proposed changes to the NSA’s database are necessary to increase transparency and reassure Americans that their constitutional rights will not be violated.
The Senate Intelligence Committee had planned to meet behind closed doors on Tuesday to discuss Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to impose limits on the NSA’s ability to keep tabs on citizens. The bill would also create a “special counsel” for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court oversight.
But the hearing has been rescheduled for Thursday in the aftermath of the federal government shutdown.
Away from Capitol Hill, experts like Jason Healey of the Atlantic Council remain open to sharing thoughts and opinions.
Healey, in a phone interview on Monday, was critical of NSA Director Keith Alexander’s defense of the surveillance program. Gen. Alexander is a main advocate of the metadata program.
“Alexander is a great evangelist for his case. The system has gotten so militarized. So many of these decisions are made behind locked doors,” Healey said. “The outside viewpoints are very difficult to get. Senators and congressmen have said this, the CIA has said Alexander gets what he wants.”
Alexander, as an Army officer himself, has over-militarized and exaggerated the system’s protective qualities, according to Healey.
Healy said Alexander overstates the “lightning speed” urgency of the cyberattacks that Healy says often unfold over weeks, months and even years.
Crisis in public confidence
Experts Timothy Edgar and Benjamin Wittes offered alternative perspectives to Alexander’s viewpoint last week. Alexander argued that NSA’s existing programs have “helped connect the dots” in preventing numerous terrorist attacks.
Alexander, Edgar and Wittes’ testimony came during the Senate Intelligence Committee’s open meeting last week, the first public hearing since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s document leaks in June.
Edgar, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies and formerly of the American Civil Liberties Union, said unless Feinstein’s bill or similar legislation passes, the system risks a transformation “from shield to sword.”
Edgar said the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court — often called the FISA court — has been used as a “sword” by proponents of the data collection system. But he doesn’t favor doing away with laws such as the post-9/11 Patriot Act. Instead, Edgar hopes Congress can ensure that necessary oversight is provided so that the FISA court acts as a “shield” protecting Americans.
Edgar has called the current breach of public confidence perhaps the most serious since the era of the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.
Transparency: friend or foe?
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes echoed similar claims of a confidence breach, speaking of the public’s newfound awareness of the database system NSA is using to collect phone records. The database was revealed this summer through a massive leak of classified government documents by Snowden.
Wittes said this awareness has also led to a weakening of trust in government within the general population as well as a greater need for systematic transparency of the data collection program.
In a statement, Wittes said the degree of transparency required — in terms of government oversight — is in dispute. He said leaders need to decide how secrecy and transparency can be balanced in the future.
“Ironically, the involuntary transparency foisted on the intelligence community by someone like Snowden will tend to create opportunities for official transparency,” he said in his statement.