A turning point in the political debate over surveillance

August 16, 2013

There has been lots of reporting on the National Security Agency's surveillance programs in recent months.

But the most politically significant moment might well have been Barton Gellman's revelation late Thursday that the NSA in recent years has committed thousands of privacy violations — per year.


U.S. Army Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, speaks at a security convention in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

No longer is this issue about the potential for abuse and the scope of the government's powers; it's now about actual violations of those powers and how far it went.

Gellman's story is sure to put wind in the sails of privacy advocates and libertarian-leaning members of Congress. It also poses a significant problem for the Obama administration, which as recently as last week maintained that Americans' privacy was being protected, even as the president admitted the potential for abuse was evident.

Obama said a week ago Friday that "I am comfortable that the program currently is not being abused."

Here's more of what Obama said:

If you look at the reports, even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden’s put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s e-mails.

What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now part of the reason they’re not abused is because they’re — these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court].

As The Switch notes, Gellman's reporting pretty directly contradicts what Obama said just one week ago. Not only have there been numerous violations, but a companion story by The Post's Carol D. Leonnig quotes the chief judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court saying it is limited in its ability to keep these programs in check.

Suddenly, an administration which just announced new safeguards against hypothetical and potential abuses must respond to a report about actual violations. And it must answer questions about why it has long maintained that such abuses were not happening.

(Worth noting: The line between "abuse" of the programs -- the word Obama used -- and violations that may not have been deliberate is a fine one, and it will likely be the crux of the debate going forward.)

On the congressional side, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has already announced that the reported violations will be the subject of a hearing, and given that the House nearly voted last month to defund the NSA's phone record collection program, it seems likely we'll see similar efforts in the weeks and months ahead -- perhaps with more momentum behind them.

Outside the administration, the revelation could very well shape the debate in the Republican Party, where Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have effectively declared themselves the leaders of the privacy and national security wings of the party, respectively.

While Christie has taken a hard line against the "esoteric" arguments being made by libertarian-leaning members of Congress, Thursday's revelations start to make those arguments sound a whole lot less esoteric.

The big question from here is whether these violations will be written off as minor mistakes in a vast and vital national security apparatus or as the smoking gun for an apparatus that routinely goes too far.

If you had asked us last week whether the Christies of the world or the Pauls of the world had the upper hand in this debate, we would have said the Christies.

This Friday morning, it's a whole lot less clear that that's the case.

Updated at 12:45 p.m.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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