By Len Lazarick
“Who will guard the guards themselves?” is a Roman saying at least 1,800 years old.
Who will protect us from those who are supposed to protect us? That is the question that lingers after the disclosure of two programs that monitor the phone records and Internet use of millions of Americans by the National Security Agency, based at Maryland’s Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County.
Here is what Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, told the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce on April 25.
“Our people take pride in protecting our civil liberties and our privacy,” Alexander said. “We can’t tell you how we do that.”
In other words, trust us.
On Thursday, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and the ranking Democrat, Maryland’s own Dutch Ruppersberger, issued a joint statement. (Rogers was the speaker at the Montgomery County Republican Lincoln-Reagan dinner in April.)
“It is important that the American people understand that this information does not include the content of anyone’s conversations and does not reveal any individual or organization names,” said the statement. “This important collection tool does not allow the government to eavesdrop on the phone calls of the American people. When these authorities are used, they are governed by court-approved processes and procedures. Moreover, the use of these authorities is reviewed and approved by federal judges every 90 days. Additionally, the [Intelligence] Committee routinely reviews all FISA activities.”
The committee reviews activities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act behind closed doors. Trust us.
The FISA court that oversees these activities meets in secret, and the only side of the case it hears is the government’s. Trust us.
‘False myths’ about NSA
The general counsel of the National Security Agency, Rajeesh De, gave a lengthy speech at the Georgetown University Law School in February where he detailed the protection of civil liberties and privacy.
In it, he tries to deflate “false myths” about the NSA. One is that “NSA is spying on Americans at home and abroad with questionable or no legal basis” and another is that “NSA operates in the shadows free from external scrutiny or any true accountability.”
De describes extensive oversight of NSA by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Almost all of it happens behind closed doors. Trust us.
There is even a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, but that board has had a troubled history. The chairman was just confirmed last month, after a year and half of delay.
After 9/11, Maryland has profited handsomely from the expansion of NSA and its private contractors. They occupy the entire National Business Park in Annapolis Junction, and have a major footprint in Columbia and Howard County. Several years ago, the outsourcing contracts to local companies were estimated to be over $4 billion, but we don’t know how much it really is. It is part of the classified “black budget” for the intelligence agencies. Trust us.
When whistleblowers came forward to protest what they see as abuse of the law, privacy and civil liberties, they are prosecuted and not praised.
With the recent disclosures, it is difficult again — as usual — to trust the government. Who will guard the guards themselves?