Spying on American citizens is not how democracy works

President barack Obama should disabuse himself of the belief that the top secret National Security Agency spying programs are “transparent.”

When a secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorizes the programs, it does not meet the definition of transparent.

Therein lies the problem with gathering about a billion U.S. phone records a day and tracking the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism.

This action by the NSA is troubling on many fronts. The invasion of privacy, the spying on American citizens without just cause, the lack of a security system to prevent easy access to the information all point to a legally questionable approach to the war on terrorism.

Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Obama administration on the grounds that the collection of telephone records of millions of Americans is unconstitutional. The ACLU wants the government to halt the phone-tracking program.

“The practice is akin to snatching every American’s address book — with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long, and from where,” the lawsuit says. “It gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious, and intimate associations.”

The lawsuit — which names as defendants the heads of national intelligence as well as the agencies they lead, including the National Security Agency, the FBI, the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice — also asks the court to purge phone records collected under the program, claiming the government action violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution.

President Obama, who stoutly defends the information-gathering and surveillance programs that grew out of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America’s mainland, has said he would welcome a public discussion about the importance and legality of such programs.

Well, the administration will get its chance in court, which is why it should oppose any attempt to kill the ACLU lawsuit.

Two newspapers, The Guardian of Britain, and The Washington Post, revealed the existence of the two programs. The information came from Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, who said that NSA analysts routinely obtain emails and other Internet communications of Americans as part of the cyberspying agency’s surveillance of global telecommunications and Internet traffic.

Writing in a chat on the website of The Guardian, Snowden said U.S. communications are “collected and viewed on a daily basis” by NSA analysts operating without a specific warrant.

“They excuse this as ‘incidental’ collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications.”

Low-level analyst

It is ironic that Snowden was a low-level analyst who still had access to all the classified information.

Defenders of the surveillance programs say the NSA follows strict procedures to keep confidential any names of Americans caught up in monitoring efforts aimed at foreign terrorists, and sharply limit who can see the data.

Snowden, who is in hiding in Hong Kong, is being portrayed as a traitor, and if recent polls are to be believed, a majority of the American people would agree with that assessment. The American people appear to be less concerned about abridgement of their constitutional rights than they are about keeping the country safe from a terrorist attack.

And, indeed, FBI Director Robert Mueller cautioned Congress to be careful about changing NSA surveillance programs, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that there are 10 or 12 cases in which the phone-records program contributed to breaking up terrorist plots.

Still, government intrusion in the daily lives of American citizens should not be taken lightly. Which makes congressional hearings and the ACLU lawsuit timely and necessary.

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