"'Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,' President Obama assured the American people on Friday. Well, probably nobody. And, if they are, it’s under an entirely different part of the program.
"Let’s start with the real basics. Does the N.S.A. really need all the stuff it’s collecting? Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, the agency has been exploding. It has an enormous operation outside of Washington, and it is building another million-square-foot complex in the Utah desert. It collects an estimated 1.7 billion pieces of communication a day. 'When you have the ability to get more and more data, the natural inclination is to get as much as possible,' said Representative Henry Waxman, the former chairman of the House oversight committee.
"...[W] e do seem to have an ominous combination: an agency with a bad record on thriftiness, and practically everything it spends money on is secret. 'It’s a tough balancing act,' an Obama administration official told me. 'It’s incumbent on us and Congress to do the job of scrutinizing the budget, both in terms of cost and efficacy.'
"Yeah, what about Congress? The president keeps saying that “Congress is continually briefed” about security issues. In reality, the briefing is pretty much confined to the members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who are sworn to secrecy. Many of them also have a longstanding record of being in the pocket of the intelligence community. A few of the others had been desperately trying to warn their colleagues about the telephone-call program without breaking their vow of silence. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon did everything but tap dance the information in Morse code.
"I wouldn’t rely on Congress to keep things under control. It’s really up to the president. As a candidate, Obama looked as if he would be great at riding herd on the N.S.A.’s excesses. But if he has ever seriously pushed back on the spy set, it’s been kept a secret. Meanwhile, the administration scarfs up reporters’ e-mails and phone records in its obsessive war against leaks.
"“I welcome this debate,” Obama said Friday. “I think it’s healthy for our democracy.” Under further questioning, he said that he definitely didn’t welcome the leaks. Without which, of course, there would be no debate.
"Do you remember how enthusiastic people were about having a president who once taught constitutional law? I guess we’ve learned a lesson."
This is an interesting and important technical discussion of how PRISM could work (and enable NSA to read, e.g., your e-mail messages) without the knowledge or consent of ISPs such as Google and Microsoft:
"The scale of America's surveillance state was laid bare on Wednesday as senior politicians revealed that the US counter-terrorism effort had swept up swaths of personal data from the phone calls of millions of citizens for years.
"After the revelation by the Guardian of a sweeping secret court order that authorised the FBI to seize all call records from a subsidiary of Verizon, the Obama administration sought to defuse mounting anger over what critics described as the broadest surveillance ruling ever issued.
"Intelligence committee member Mark Udall, who has previously warned in broad terms about the scale of government snooping, said: "This sort of widescale surveillance should concern all of us and is the kind of government overreach I've said Americans would find shocking." Former vice-president Al Gore described the "secret blanket surveillance" as "obscenely outrageous".
"The Verizon order was made under the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) as amended by the Patriot Act of 2001, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But one of the authors of the Patriot Act, Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, said he was troubled by the Guardian revelations. He said that he had written to the attorney general, Eric Holder, questioning whether 'US constitutional rights were secure'.
"He said: 'I do not believe the broadly drafted Fisa order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American.'...
"[White House spokesman Josh Earnest said] the [FISA] order only relates to the so-called metadata surrounding phone calls rather than the content of the calls themselves. 'The order reprinted overnight does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls,' Earnest said.
"'The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to call details, such as a telephone number or the length of a telephone call.'
"But such metadata can provide authorities with vast knowledge about a caller's identity. Particularly when cross-checked against other public records, the metadata can reveal someone's name, address, driver's licence, credit history, social security number and more. Government analysts would be able to work out whether the relationship between two people was ongoing, occasional or a one-off."
"As the scope of the government’s collection of logs of Americans’ domestic communications started to come into greater focus on Thursday, privacy groups erupted. Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union said that group — a client of Verizon’s business unit — was considering filing a lawsuit to challenge the 'dragnet' surveillance, and said liberals would be furious had such a program been disclosed under a Republican administration.
"'A pox on all the three houses of government,' he said. 'On Congress, for legislating such powers, on the FISA court for being such a paper tiger and rubber stamp, and on the Obama administration for not being true to its values.