Here’s why ‘trust us’ isn’t working for the NSA any more

July 30, 2013

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A few weeks ago, it looked like efforts to curtail the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance programs were running out of steam. The members of Congress with the most direct power over the NSA, including the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), and his Senate counterpart Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), were publicly defending the agency. Activists organized nationwide protests on July 4, but the events drew only modest crowds.

But the movement to rein in the NSA is getting a second wind. Last week, the Obama administration barely defeated a House proposal, sponsored by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), to defund the NSA's phone records program. While technically a defeat for NSA critics, Pema Levy notes that the surprisingly close result has emboldened opponents, who have vowed to bring the issue up again after Congress returns from its August recess.

"This debate is definitely going to continue," said Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the Senate's leading NSA critics, on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program. He said that discussions in the Senate "accelerated since that extraordinary House vote."

Shifting public opinion has put the wind at the back of Wyden and his allies. A Pew poll released on Friday found a majority of Americans believe there are not "adequate limits" on the NSA's spying activities.

Wyden began raising the alarm about domestic surveillance long before Ed Snowden began leaking classified NSA documents last month. But Wyden has a lot more allies now than he did a few months ago. The most surprising new ally might be Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the author of the Patriot Act.

Sensenbrenner has not traditionally been a strong advocate for civil liberties. But the government's creative interpretation of the Patriot Act to permit the collection of every American's phone records seems to have radicalized him. The Patriot Act provision the government invokes to justify its phone records program is due to expire in 2015, and Sensenbrenner recently warned the government that the provision wouldn't be renewed unless the NSA changed its policies.

The NSA's penchant for secrecy initially sheltered its activities from public scrutiny, but it now seems to be working against the agency. NSA officials have repeatedly insisted that its domestic surveillance programs only collects metadata about Americans' calls, but not the contents of calls and e-mails. But the Pew poll suggests that most Americans don't believe the agency's claims. Only 18 percent of Americans believe the government's collection activities are limited to metadata, while 63 percent believe the government is collecting the contents of phone calls or e-mails.

For the last decade, the NSA's argument has been, "trust us." But recent events have put that trust under strain. Particularly damaging was Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's March statement to Congress denying that the government was collecting information about millions of Americans. We now know Clapper's statement was untrue, and that has made many people skeptical about the NSA's other assurances about its secret surveillance programs.

To allay the fears of Congress and the public, the NSA has been forced to release more and more information about its spying program. But each disclosure seems to raise as many questions as it answers. Last month, the NSA claimed that its programs had thwarted more than 50 terrorist attacks. But reporters have been asking tough questions about that claim; noting that, in most of the cases, the NSA's domestic spying programs played a tangential role at best.

The government will have another opportunity to allay public fears at a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Four senior Obama administration officials will speak on the first panel, while the second panel will include Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union. But the spy agency will have an uphill fight to regain the trust of Congress and the public.

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Brian Fung · July 30, 2013