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Issue Guide: The Domestic Surveillance Debate

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
June 7, 2013


Media reports of the Obama administration's domestic surveillance activities have provided new grist for the debate over privacy and national security. The White House and many lawmakers from both parties have defended the counterterrorism programs--many of which were greatly enhanced after the September 11, 2001 attacks--as effective, legal, and limited. Opponents have decried some of the activities, like the National Security Agency's so-called PRISM program that mines troves of data related to U.S. citizens, as government overreach. The following materials provide background and analysis on the debate.

The National Security Agency headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Photo: NSA/Courtesy Reuters)
Supporting Arguments

Foreign Policy: Why the NSA Needs Your Phone Calls
The federal government's access to massive amounts of U.S. citizens' communication data, with reasonable restrictions on who is actually monitored, is likely necessary to thwart "terrorists who use halfway decent tradecraft," writes Stewart Baker.

Wall Street Journal: Thank You for Data-Mining
Public concerns over the NSA's vast data-mining enterprise arise from a misunderstanding of how the program works, says this editorial. The government collects troves of information because the effectiveness of data-mining is a function of the sample size.

Commentary: 'Top Secret' Should Mean Just That
The White House should be commended for carrying forward with these surveillance programs, while those who leaked information about them to the press should be "ferreted out and prosecuted," writes CFR's Max Boot.

Slate: Stop Freaking Out About the NSA
There is a reasonable debate to be had over the government's phone surveillance program, "but it isn't Orwellian. It's limited, and it's controlled by checks and balances," writes William Saletan.

Opposing Arguments

New York Times: President Obama's Dragnet
The Obama administration, which took office championing greater transparency and accountability in U.S. counterterrorism, has "lost all credibility" on the issue, write the editors. "Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it."

Wall Street Journal: The Spying on Americans Never Ended
The question of whether the NSA's controversial surveillance measures are effective enough in preventing terrorism as to justify the potential invasion of Americans' privacy is a debate to be had by the public, not "a handful of intelligence officials," writes Elizabeth Goitein.

ACLU: The NSA Surveillance Order Explained
In this blog post, ACLU attorneys provide an annotated copy of the leaked Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order to Verizon, highlighting what the documents say about the powers the government claims.

New Yorker: What's the Matter With Metadata
The government's sweeping collection of phone call "metadata" is "much more intrusive" than the gathering of actual phone content, writes Jane Mayer.

General Background

New York Times: Timeline: Electronic Surveillance Under Bush and Obama
This interactive timeline puts the domestic surveillance programs of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations into historical context.

Atlantic: Most Countries Are Spying on Their Citizens
According to a new UN report on freedom and expression, the United States is far from unique in the extent to which it monitors domestic communications, writes Olga Khazan.

CFR Report: War About Terror
There is a significant opportunity to build a more comprehensive framework embedded in statute to address the civil liberties challenges posed by the use of commercial data for counterterrorism purposes, says this CFR working paper by Daniel B. Prieto.

Legal and Legislative Background

ProPublica: How the Government Can Get Your Digital Data
The federal government can't legally wiretap U.S. citizens without a warrant from a judge, but "there are plenty of legal ways for law enforcement, from the local sheriff to the FBI to the Internal Revenue Service, to snoop on the digital trails you create every day," explain Theodoric Meyer and Peter Maass.

Bloomberg: The Secret Law Behind NSA's Verizon Snooping
The legal interpretation of the 2001 Patriot Act that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seems to have used in issuing its order for Verizon to provide all call records should be made public, writes Noah Feldman.

CRS: Government Collection of Private Info: Issues Related to the USA PATRIOT Act Reauthorization
This report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service discusses the history of constitutional interpretations and legislative responses relevant to the collection of private information for criminal investigation, foreign intelligence gathering, and national security purposes.

CRS: Reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act
This report from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service examines the December 2012 reauthorization of Title VII of FISA, which created new procedures for targeting non-U.S. persons and U.S. persons for surveillance.

Primary Sources

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Order to Verizon
This leaked "top secret" FISC court order required Verizon, one of the largest telecommunications firms, to hand over to the National Security Agency phone records of millions of U.S. citizens.

DNI: Statement on Recent Unauthorized Disclosures of Classified Information
The recent leaks regarding U.S. intelligence collection "threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation," says Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper.

DOJ: Review of the FBI's Use of Section 215 Orders for Business Records
"Section 215 of the Patriot Act significantly expanded the scope of the FBI's investigative authority pursuant to the business records provision of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] and lowered the standard of proof required," says this March 2007 report from the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General.

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