And, yes, often this dialogue seems to be happening in the worst way. Troubling revelations of what the government has secretly allowed itself to do are routinely mixed with misstatements and misperceptions that the government is monitoring our phone calls.
We saw the confusion last week when the House almost halted funding of the NSA’s collection of the “metadata” — a switch of just seven votes would have killed the program altogether. The House allowed itself just 15 minutes to debate this megacontroversy.
But don’t despair, because it now seems clear that even this imperfect national dialogue will produce good news: We will soon see changes for the better that will clamp common-sense limits on the NSA’s overreach that put under surveillance a piece (but, let’s be clear, only a piece) of all Americans.
The tipoff that we are headed changes came a week ago. In a commentary for Politico, former Republican New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and former Democratic Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton — two centrists who chaired the 9/11 Commission — wrote that it’s time to lift the NSA’s shroud of secrecy so we can debate reforms that will properly provide for our security and liberty.
“The NSA’s metadata program was put into place with virtually no public debate, a worrisome precedent made worse by erecting unnecessary barriers to public understanding via denials and misleading statements from senior administration officials,” Kean and Hamilton wrote.
Ever since mid-June, when low-level contractor Edward Snowden revealed that NSA collects the communications metadata of millions of Americans, governance has suffered from a gusher of distortion and hyperbole.
Democratic liberals and tea party libertarians, who battle each other on all manner of issues, have bonded on this one. But not always for the better. They blast government for snooping into citizens’ private phone calls — but that’s not what the programs Snowden revealed were doing.
NSA collected the phone numbers we called and how long the calls lasted — but not our names or what was said on those calls. U.S. officials contend that info enabled the government to prevent terrorist attacks after the government computers linked some of the phones in the United States to the phones of known terrorists overseas.
But here’s how the NSA program can be sensibly modified: Why can’t the government start by monitoring the phones of the terrorists overseas — and then subpoena the records of any U.S.-based phones that these known terrorists call?
“Is it necessary to collect and preserve this vast amount of data rather than pursue targeted individuals?” Kean and Hamilton asked. “Is the government using the least intrusive means to protect us? What are the rules for using metadata collected ostensibly for counterterrorism purposes in other contexts? Could more information about the program’s reach have been made available earlier? These and other vital questions must be debated in the open.
It is not just the NSA’s critics who have been guilty of spreading misinformation. Willful misinformation has long been a pathetic part of official explanations.
On March 12, at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper a direct question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
“No, sir,” Clapper replied. When Wyden sought clarification, Clapper added: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”
Now here’s the rest of the story: Wyden, a courteous crusader, had made sure Clapper knew in advance the question would be coming. No wonder the intelligence chief looked so uncomfortable. In a video, we see Clapper looking downward as he answers. He is scratching his balding scalp with the fingertips of his right hand and, as he says his “no, sir,” his left hand, which is on the table clenched in a fist, involuntarily twitches.
Later, Clapper admitted to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell: “I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner, by saying no.” It was, he conceded, “too cute by a half.”
President Barack Obama, who has called for a national conversation on this, would do well to call on Kean and Hamilton to serve us once more by convening a forum to channel our effort into a structured, accurate national dialogue.
Martin Schram writes for Scripps Howard News Service.