Congress needs to take hard look at NSA
The National Security Agency has been secretly amassing the phone records of millions of Americans.
PRESIDENT Bush assured Americans last year that the National Security Agency's domestic wiretapping program was narrowly limited to terrorists and their known affiliates, but he wasn't telling the full truth.
Though the NSA might not be eavesdropping on ordinary citizens, the revelation that for the past four or more years the agency has been secretly collecting data on phone calls made and received by tens of millions of Americans increases doubts about the administration's veracity and demands that a timid Congress step up to protect the privacy rights of law-abiding people.
The data collection has been conducted with no public discussion and no court review. A few members of Congress apparently had been informed, but because of security laws, they aren't even allowed to acknowledge that they have, much less question whether the program is effective or legally structured to safeguard privacy.
Bush would not confirm the program's existence, reiterating that all surveillance conducted by intelligence agencies is lawful. But without oversight, there is no way to be sure.
The data, as reported by USA Today, is being delivered through contracts with the nation's three largest telecommunications companies. It does not include names or addresses of individuals. However, connecting phone numbers to names isn't difficult, and the records provide enough information for the government to put together profiles of an individual's habits and affiliations with organizations and businesses.
How the data is being used is unknown, but NSA told one phone company that information might be shared with the FBI, CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Pentagon and other government agencies.
Without cause, laws prohibit authorities from access to the very information NSA has assembled, but Bush wrongly claims emergency powers permit him great latitude in ordering eavesdropping, reading e-mails and intercepting communications.
It is unclear whether the phone companies -- AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth -- broke federal laws in delivering customer information without a court order, which had been required in the past.
One phone company, Qwest, to its credit, rejected handing over data even under heavy pressure from the NSA, which at one point hinted that refusal would jeopardize chances for government contracts.
Customers of the compliant companies can protest (a lawsuit against Verizon was filed Friday), but that might not do much good. The muscle should come from Congress, whose meek members so far have failed to check the broad expansion of executive powers and the administration's intrusions on privacy.
In post-9/11 America, there is certainly a need to track terrorists through new technologies and methods, but transparency, controls and oversight must be in place.