A Failure of Transparency, and the Perils of Ignorance

Opinion by Nick Ahamed
Nov. 15, 2013, 7:27 a.m.

Allegations of National Security Agency oversteps have put Democrats between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, we should be upset that the USA PATRIOT Act is being invoked again for national security; on the other, we should stand by President Obama as he is berated day after day by Republicans.

On the face, no one should be too concerned about the NSA data surveillance program. Authorized under Section 215 Patriot Act, the program collects metadata or, data about data. The media has focused on the collection of telephone records. These “records” are limited to information like the dialed number and the length of call called Communications Intelligence (COMINT), a subset of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), by our intelligence community (IC).

Thirty-nine percent of Americans, in a recent poll conducted by the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC)’s Amy Zegart, believe that this program includes listening to the content of the calls surveilled. That 39 percent are wrong. While SIGINT can include data on location of the dialer and other identifiable characteristics, the Section 215 neither analyzes the content, or this more personal data.

You may, then, be confused about the purpose of this program. What good does it do with such limited information?

It simply forms a reference database. As our IC combats terror plots, it gives them the ability to see which suspected terrorists are communicating with allies inside the United States. This database can be seared after presenting reasonable suspicion that the subject is connected to a terrorist organization.

In 2012, fewer than 300 queries were approved.

While the vast majority of this information is discarded, it is nevertheless valuable. A 2009 report from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) illustrates one example where the lack of domestic SIGINT prior to the 9/11 attacks led us to believe hijacker Khalid al-Mihdnar was in Yemen. In reality, he was living in San Diego.

This is not to say that Americans should unequivocally support this program. Rather, it’s to demonstrate a total ignorance of what our IC really does. Laughably, Zegart’s poll shows that many Americans relate their view of the NSA to spy-oriented movies and television shows.

Similarly, 71 percent of Americans are okay with losing civil liberties to prevent terrorism, but significantly fewer people find the NSA program acceptable.

What we need is a real discussion about the importance of security and liberty in this country. Americans constantly see these at odds. Indeed, they often (mis)quote Ben Franklin to that end (myself included). But, it’s hard to say how liberty and security are related when we don’t know much about the program.

So, before we can have an educated discussion about security and liberty, we need transparency.

Because of their secret nature, many of the details will never publically surface. While Snowden appears to be providing these, he also has his own agenda. The Obama administration should realize its so far unfulfilled 2008 promise of transparency.

While actions speak louder than words, words wouldn’t hurt either. It is up to the president to defend or admonish the program, to frame the debate for us and offer guidance. So far, he has only washed his hands of it.

Frustratingly, this is becoming a trend in the administration. Time and time again, President Obama has initially shrunk from taking responsibility. President Truman proudly commanded, “The buck stops here.” In a lately mismanaged administration, it’s not clear where the buck stops.

The president has just over three years left. Until he gets his White House in order, others will continue to treat him as a lame duck. He can’t just sit and watch the 2014 midterms sail by, hoping the Republicans self-destruct.

More than anything right now, the Democratic Party needs a strong leader with a vision for the country. 2008 showed that Barack Obama has one; it’s about time he acknowledged that blueprint and acted on it.


Contact Nick Ahamad at [email protected]

Nick Ahamed is the Desk Editor of The Stanford Daily Editorial Board. He was Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 246 and previously served as a political columnist. He is a senior from Minneapolis, Minn. majoring in Political Science. Contact him at nahamed 'at' stanford.edu.

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