Privacy, Security, and the NSA
By Congressman Mike Simpson
By Congressman Mike Simpson
“I'm certain that when you heard about the National Security Administration’s program to collect and save phone call data, you were concerned. You likely felt that your privacy had been disregarded or your trust had been violated. I imagine you wanted this program stopped—and stopped now. I know there is a legitimate distrust of government, especially in the wake of the IRS scandal.
“I can imagine how you felt, because this is how I felt when I learned of the NSA program, now known as the "metadata" program. I understand wanting to squash this program at the first opportunity. And when that opportunity came through an amendment offered by Rep. Amash to an appropriations bill that would have wiped out the metadata program altogether, I gave it thoughtful consideration. However, in the years since the 9-11 attacks on our country, I have realized the importance of separating fears from facts. Terrorism in the 21st century raises hard questions and difficult challenges, and chief among them is a struggle to balance personal privacy with public security. If we want to protect our way of life, we must be willing to wade into this struggle and grapple for real solutions.
“Unfortunately, the Amash amendment did not do that. Rather than carefully examining the metadata program and engaging in thoughtful debate, the amendment was a rash response in the heat of the moment and failed to recognize the unintended consequences of simply shutting down the program. Many who supported the Amash amendment claimed to be protecting the Constitution by supporting it. But in reality, supporting bad policy, even with good intentions, is not protecting our Constitution. This is why I joined a number of my other conservative colleagues, like Majority Leader Eric Cantor, former Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan, Representative Steve King, and Representative Michelle Bachmann, in opposing this amendment.
“We don’t need a thoughtless, visceral reaction that hurts our national security without protecting civil liberties. What we do need is good government oversight that leads to effective reforms that protect American lives and liberties. In order to do that, we have to understand what the metatdata program is…and what it isn’t. The metadata program is a tool intended to connect the dots when it comes to terrorist networks. Being able to connect these dots—knowing WHO the terrorists are—is one of the major challenges in the war on terror. If we can’t figure out who our enemy is, we can do little to protect ourselves against him. The metadata program connects known terrorists with those they are working with. It is like the information on the outside of an envelope that tells us who sent the letter and where it is going. It connects the dots.
“What the metadata program is not is the government listening in on your phone conversations. It does not collect the contents of phone calls or record conversations. It does not allow content to be collected from a phone number unless a judge rules that it is linked to a terrorist. In the metaphor of the letter, the program collects the information on the outside of the envelope, which is reasonably expected to be public, but keeps the contents of the letter private. A similar rule applies to phone calls and the metadata program.
“One other thing we know is that the intelligence community has used this tool to thwart attacks that would have killed hundreds of Americans. In 2009, the NSA intercepted a message from a suspected terrorist in Pakistan who was discussing bomb making with someone in the United States. That someone, Afghan-born Najibulaah Zazi, who was living in Colorado, is now in prison, and the FBI broke up his plot to bomb the New York subway. In another case, the NSA was watching a “known extremist” in Yemen who contacted someone in the US. With that information, the NSA and the FBI foiled their plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange. Without the NSA metadata program, it is highly likely that both of these plots, and as many as 50 others planned across the world, would have been successful.
“Pre-9/11, our intelligence laws were intended to prevent attacks from other nations. Today, we are up against threats from terrorists who work in the shadows—and sometimes from within our own borders. The metadata program links known terrorists with those we don’t yet know are involved in terrorism but who are living in the US. In doing so, it tries to close the gap between laws that allow us to go after terrorists who are still overseas and laws that protect terrorists who are already on our soil. And while this program may not be the right solution, there is no arguing that this dangerous gap is real and that terrorists will take advantage of it in attempts to kill Americans.
“This issue raises hard questions. Does the proven potential for saving lives outweigh the risk to the personal liberties on which this country was founded? Asking the hard questions is one of the most important jobs of Congress, and unfortunately it is a job that Congress does not always do well. If there had been this much scrutiny over the IRS, there would never have been a scandal over who it unfairly targets.
“With that in mind, it is important to point out that those of us who opposed the Amash amendment don't oppose the prospect of any new restrictions. Rather, we did so because we believe the experts in Congress on this matter, the members of the House Intelligence Committee, should be given the time to properly investigate the actions of the NSA, debate the merits of new restrictions, propose those new restrictions, and move them through Congress in a proper, open, and thoughtful process. Our nation's ability to combat terrorism and the sanctity of our Constitution are much too important to be rushed through Congress in the haphazard fashion put forward by Representative Amash and his supporters.”