By Herb Van Fleet
Special to The Globe
“The (National Security Agency’s) capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left. Such is the capability to monitor everything — telephone conversations, telegrams — it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”
— Sen. Frank Church
Sen. Church made that statement 38 years ago. He chaired a committee that was formed to develop legislation to rein in the CIA, FBI, NSA and other intelligence agencies, which had been operating outside the bounds of the law, including the Constitution.
Congress passed the Church Committee’s recommendation, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The operative word here is “foreign.” Also established was the FISA Court, which can authorize warrentless wiretaps. From 1979 to 2012, FISA received 33,949 wiretap requests and denied seven of them. That’s a 99.98 percent approval rate.
Beginning in 2004, FISA started approving “national security letters.” These give the FBI the power to compel disclosure of customer records held by banks, telephone companies, Internet Service Providers and others. There have been hundreds of thousands of NSLs issued that directly involve U.S. citizens.
In 2006, Qwest Communications refused to cooperate with the FBI. When the matter went to court, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled that the government’s domestic eavesdropping program is unconstitutional and ordered it ended immediately. The decision was reversed on appeal.
Recently, we learned of a program called PRISM. It seems that the NSA has been doing exactly what Sen. Church warned against all those years ago; collecting telecom and Internet information, including audio and video chats, photographs, emails and documents on virtually all Americans — it’s being called “telephony metadata.”
With these secret spying programs outed, President Obama tried to calm fears: “We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards. But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.” Obama went on to say that despite “the modest encroachments on the privacy that are involved, it was worth us doing.”
Modest encroachments? You mean by playing fast and loose with the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and 14th amendments to the Constitution? You want to protect our liberty by suppressing our liberty? What?
Some important questions to ask are: How well these programs are working? How much they are helping us prevent terrorist attacks? And what happened to the limitation of keeping these programs focused on “foreign Intelligence,” as they were intended?
Since 9/11, there have been 53 planned terrorist attacks on U.S. soil or on planes headed to the U.S. Of these, 29 were “foiled Islamic terrorist plots.” Five successful attacks have yielded a total of 19 fatalities: two in a shooting at the Los Angeles airport in 2002; one at a Little Rock military recruitment center in 2009; 13 in Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009; and three in the recent Boston Marathon bombings.
Let’s put this in perspective: There have been 19 deaths in the U.S. from terrorism after 9/11. During that same period, there have been 418,340 people killed in motor vehicles; 119,000 homicides with firearms; and 27,960 deaths from home fires. In 2012 alone, there were 28 deaths from lightning strikes and none from terrorist attacks.
Therefore, it would be accurate to say there is no existential threat of a terrorist attack in the United States. And even if there were, the programs we have in place are grossly inefficient at detecting and stopping such threats. Exhibit 1: the Boston Marathon bombers — we had to rely on Russia for intelligence on the two brothers, and even that was after the fact.
It’s clear that the threat of Islamic terrorism in this country is way overblown. The fearmongers have won the day. They have facilitated hysteria and fabricated paranoia. It seems to me that the sizable commitment of resources to these counterterrorism programs is like trying to put out a candle with a firehose — and still missing the candle!
Terrorism will never end, just as crime will never end. But with the strategy we have in place to deal with it, my concern is that our country will devolve into an Orwellian dystopia where Big Brother is always watching and listening.
Herb Van Fleet, a former Joplin resident, lives in Tulsa, Okla.