No Excuse for Surveillance Blackout

Thursday, 20 Feb 2014 02:18 PM

By Doug Schoen

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“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I will,” National Intelligence Director James Clapper said in an exclusive Daily Beast interview on government surveillance.
 
He continued: “Had we been transparent about this from the outset right after 9/11 — which is the genesis of the 215 program [part of the Patriot Act] — and said both to the American people and to their elected representatives, we need to cover this gap, we need to make sure this never happens to us again, so here is what we are going to set up, here is how it’s going to work, and why we have to do it, and here are the safeguards . . . We wouldn’t have had the problem we had [with the Snowden revelations].”
 
Clapper is right. If the government had been open with the American electorate about surveillance of phone records in the wake of 9/11, majorities may well have been in favor of the 215 program.
 
It could’ve been just another element of the government’s anti-terror program. It could’ve been “one more thing we have to do as citizens for the common good, just like we have to go to airports two hours early and take our shoes off, all the other things we do for the common good, this is one more thing,” Clapper said.
 
Clapper’s apology is a significant departure from his initial, spirited defense of the programs NSA leaker Snowden exposed. Clapper wrote Senator Ron Wyden that the leak of the 215 program, amongst others, “will do significant damage to the Intelligence Community’s ability to protect the nation.”
 
Even in late January, Clapper testified at a Senate hearing on worldwide threats to the U.S. national security, that surveillance-related changes President Obama has ordered in the wake of Snowden’s leak will make it more difficult to detect terrorist plots, thereby increasing risk to the American people.
 
But taking this all into account, Clapper is still saying that the government was wrong to track our calls and not tell us. He’s acknowledging that our outrage is justified and, crucially, that it could’ve been avoided — easily.
 
I’m fairly certain that we were all taught growing up that it’s better to tell the truth than to lie. That even if it makes things worse or more complicated right away, the long-term payoff will make it all worth it.
 
To be sure, the government deals in many more complicated scenarios than the average person. But that doesn’t mean that it was ever excusable or justified to keep the American electorate — include many in Congress — in the dark about the extent of government surveillance programs.  
 
I don’t think that Clapper’s about-face on this issue will make much of a difference to the public. The damage has been done.
 
What’s more, Obama’s proposed changes to surveillance programs fall short in many respects, even if they may hurt the country’s ability to counter terror threats as Clapper alleges.
 
For instance, the president did not address cutting the number of years records are retained. He didn’t make specific mention of the need for court permission to search databases of an American’s emails or phone calls. And he did not speak to the way judges are selected for service on the FISA court, lessening or ending dependence on private companies to conduct personnel investigations and restricting access to classified systems or weakening commercial encryption standards so the government can more easily crack secure systems.
 
Indeed, the president’s proposed reforms were only a first step.
 
We need to hear that the executive branch will not conduct mass surveillance, not just somewhat tackle surveillance of telephone meta data; that the government will respect the privacy rights of foreigners, not just foreign leaders; that our encryption software will keep us safe from the government and, most crucially, that we will see real alterations to the government’s secrecy shields and reform to the practice of classifying many documents that do not actually need to be classified.
 
That said, I’m not sure that anything the president could’ve said would have been able to repair the broken trust this whole ordeal has created. Or that Clapper’s comments will solve anything, either.
 
There needs to be a new standard in openness and transparency in our government — a promise that Obama made when he took office, in fact. 
 
It follows that it’s never too late to say you’re sorry, but it is increasingly becoming too late to make these kinds of mistakes in the first place. Our patience is wearing thin, and with good reason.
 
Better to put all the cards on the table from the start — it will make mea culpas a lot easier to stomach.
 
Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist, Fox News contributor, and author of several books including "Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics and What It Means for 2012 and Beyond" and the recently released "The End of Authority: How a Loss of Legitimacy and Broken Trust Are Endangering Our Future"(Rowman and Littlefield). Read more reports from Doug Schoen — Click Here Now.
 
 

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