A Letter Against Dragnet Domestic Surveillance

Recently, I’ve been making an effort to persuade or pressure my representatives into curtailing the domestic surveillance and counter-terrorism programs that arose after 9/11. To put it briefly, I think these programs are an unwarranted, unconstitutional, and unprecedented invasion of privacy that pose more dangers to American than they eliminate.

Two days ago, I received a response from Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia. His letter attempted to deflect my concerns, but wound up having the opposite effect. It was apparent to me that he is not interested in stemming the tide of growing domestic surveillance and eroding liberties and privacy, much less changing the status quo.

I’ve reproduced the letter from Mr. Kaine in full below:

Dear Mr. Mcnally:

Thank you for contacting me about recent reports concerning the National Security Administration’s intelligence programs. I appreciate hearing your concerns.

On June 6, 2013 details of two National Security Administration (NSA) programs were published in the media as a result of leaked confidential documents. These articles indicated that since 2007, under provisions within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the PATRIOT Act, the NSA has legally monitored private communications in an effort to increase national security.

Many have expressed legitimate concerns about the privacy implications of this policy. I believe there needs to be an open discussion about the limits of surveillance, the need for transparency, and the protection of Americans’ privacy, while maintaining national security.

The primary mission of the U.S. intelligence community is to detect and prevent the very real threat of terrorism on our homeland. According to General Keith Alexander, Director of the NSA, and Robert Mueller, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the intelligence community has successfully used these programs to identify and thwart dozens of terrorist plots at home and abroad. Additionally, leaders from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have defended these programs stating that they are transparent, lawful, and have been instrumental in defending our homeland.

It is also important to note that these intelligence programs are limited in scope to viewing phone records and other metadata under strict court-enforced protocols. They do not allow authorities to listen to private conversations or access private e-mails, and court orders are required before any additional information to be obtained. President Obama has urged the intelligence community to review, declassify, and release information regarding these programs to the public to ensure that the programs aren’t jeopardized and more importantly, that Americans are made aware of the intelligence programs currently in place.

Please be assured I will work to ensure that efforts to improve our national security protect constitutional rights in a balanced way.

Thank you once again for contacting me on this important matter.

Sincerely,
Tim Kaine

I was quite disillusioned after reading this, particularly since I’d voted for Kaine’s Senate run just last November. So, the next day I crafted another letter in response which I’d like to share on this blog. It doesn’t go into detail as to why I disapprove of the NSA’s programs, but rather focuses on the fallacies in the arguments that Kaine (and others) use to justify them. I’ve copied the letter below, with emphasis added for this post.

This is in response to your letter on July 29, 2013 regarding my concerns over the NSA’s intelligence programs.

I was extremely disappointed with your justification of the NSA’s practices. In that letter, you made several statements to which I take exception.

  • You called for an “open discussion” about surveillance, privacy, and transparency. This is a line repeated several times by the Obama administration. While I agree that an open discussion is necessary, I see this line as more of an attempt to deflect attention away from much needed reform (as it was when the Obama administration urged Congress to vote against an amendment that would defund suspicionless, dragnet data collection on Americans). For one thing, to have a legitimate open discussion about these issues, Americans need to know the facts about what their government is and isn’t doing. Is the government monitoring which people we e-mail? Which websites we visit? Unfortunately, this information remains confidential for the foreseeable future while the government aggressively prosecutes and demonizes those who dare leak it to the public.
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  • You call the threat of terrorism in our homeland “very real.” I disagree, at least relative to countless other threats that kill or injure Americans in far greater numbers. In fact, according to numbers from the Heritage Foundation, more Americans have been killed in our misguided wars/occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq (~6700) than in all acts of terror against Americans worldwide from 1969 to 2009 (~5600). This number accounts for 9/11, which is responsible for over half of those deaths. This is but one example of how inordinate efforts to curtail terrorism can wind up doing more harm than the terrorism itself.
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  • You note that members of the House and Senate have described the NSA’s programs as “transparent.” This claim is brazenly dishonest and deceitful. Were it not for a leak by a government contractor, the NSA’s practice of collecting every American’s phone records would continue to operate in complete secrecy – even secret from Congress. Meanwhile, other parts of the program – including those we’re not even sure exist – continue to operate using secret warrants, secret FISA courts, and secret legal reasoning and justification. How is any of this even remotely transparent?

Proponents of aggressive surveillance and counter-terrorism practices often claim they are necessary to protect our freedoms and democracy. I believe that is nonsense. I believe that such practices are greater threats to freedom and democracy themselves than the threats they’re designed to eliminate. Privacy and civil liberties have been eroded drastically during the so-called “war on terror.” As for democracy, how can democracy and public discourse about counter-terrorism occur when the federal government is concealing or even lying about its surveillance programs and the innocent deaths our actions are responsible for?

Over the last 12 years, I have many times felt embarrassed to be an American. Embarrassed to have a government that recklessly kills innocents, tortures prisoners, invades the privacy of its citizens, and misleads the public – all in the name of fighting terrorism. Embarrassed to have elected officials who pay lip service to the founding principles of liberty, freedom, and due process while simultaneously trampling all over them. However, I was very proud last week to watch a group of Congressmen from various states and backgrounds speaking spiritedly on the House floor against the suspicionless surveillance of every American.

The amendment these Congressmen supported, which would end the NSA’s dragnet surveillance of Americans, failed narrowly. However, I suspect that this type of reform is just beginning. I strongly urge you to join this reform and work towards restoring the United States’ place as a worldwide leader in freedom, liberty, and human rights.

I was expecting to end this blog post here. However, the morning after I wrote that letter, new information was released outlining an NSA program that monitors nearly everything Americans do on the internet, including e-mail and visiting websites. This information, of course, wasn’t released by the Obama administration or anyone within the NSA, but rather through leaks.

How quaint, then, that Tim Kaine’s letter insisted that the NSA does not “access private e-mails.” Or that Mike Rogers said that the NSA doesn’t collect e-mails and Michelle Bachmann claimed there is more information in the phone book than in the NSA database, both statements being made on the House floor moments before they voted to continue these programs.

I am outraged, and many other Americans are as well. I urge you to contact your representatives and demand that they join the fight against dragnet domestic surveillance. If they refuse, do your country a favor and vote them out of office in the coming election year.