Ted Rall: The NSA Manifesto and How We Get Our Privacy Back

In his NSA Manifesto, Ted Rall explains what the NSA is after and how exactly the U.S. can go about returning our privacy — and regaining global trust.

aNewDomain.net — Consider. The National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting our “telephony metadata,” the when, from-who, to-whom and location information about our phone calls.

The agency is recording and storing the calls themselves. It’s all part of the NSA manifesto.

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is scanning, tracking and storing our snail mail on behalf of law enforcement and federal spy agencies. That government-owned corporation is intercepting, collecting and storing our email, both metadata and body text.

It’s clear the NSA wants every bit of data it can get, from our bank and credit card transactions to our library borrowing information to the content of old-fashioned faxes.

Yet only the NSA’s telephony metadata program has received ongoing attention by U.S. media. With the notable exception of libertarian Republican Senator Rand Paul, American politicians have suggested no changes whatsoever to the remainder of the agency’s myriad of domestic surveillance activities.

The political class has so far offered three possible reforms to the telephony metadata program.

All three proposals, by President Obama, the House Intelligence Committee’s “FISA Transparency and Modernization Act” and the Senate and House Judiciary Committees’ “USA Freedom Act,” would continue to allow the NSA to collect metadata under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act passed in late 2001. Under Jim Sensenbrenner’s Freedom Act, the bill with the strongest privacy protections, telephony metadata would be legally accessible to the NSA only when deemed relevant to an ongoing terrorism investigation. Rather than being held at the NSA’s data farm in Utah, it would be held by the telecom companies.

Under the Freedom Act (which appears to have little chance of passage), the FISA Court would determine the relevance of metadata to a terror investigation.

Clearly, politicians don’t get it.

The American people are overwhelmingly opposed to the NSA domestic surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden. Even after Obama promised reforms in a high-profile speech in January, polls showed that most Americans still don’t want the NSA spying on them. Not under any circumstance — not even as part of a terrorism investigation.

Hey Washington! Want to restore our trust? Here, from basic to best, is what you’re going to need to do:

First, eliminate the FISA Court 

When the NSA wants to start a new spy program, it goes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for permission. Though its administration by federal judges coats FISC with a thin veneer of legality, between 2001 and 2012, it only rejected 10 out of 20,909 government spying requests. Basically, it has no credibility whatsoever. Proposals to let a privacy advocate speak and declassify some decisions can’t erase the court’s infamously long record of lapdoggery. FISC must be abolished. If the NSA or any other government entity wants to spy on people, let them apply to a real judge at a real court, with adversarial arguments, for a warrant.

Return the NSA to its core mission: signals intelligence against foreigners

Harry Truman’s 1952 charter created the NSA in order “to provide an effective, unified organization and control of the communications intelligence activities of the United States conducted against foreign  governments.”

Accidents happen — the NSA can’t help it if one of its foreign targets contacts someone here in the U.S. — but the NSA should be prohibited from intentionally spying on Americans within U.S. borders. Violations should be severely punished.

Full disclosure. The NSA should issue a comprehensive report to the public detailing its domestic surveillance activities to date. Congress should authorize the issuance of formal apologies and financial compensation to any American who can prove that he or she has had their privacy violated by the NSA, especially if they have suffered (from a job loss, for example) as a result. Then it should shut them down.

Next, clean house

It is clear that the top echelon (no pun intended) of the NSA intentionally broke the law, engaging in illegal domestic surveillance against innocent Americans, punished NSA whistleblowers, and even lied under oath to Congress.

Top managers of the NSA, scoundrels one and all, ought to be dismissed.

Ideally, of course, the NSA would be shut down. The agency has violated our trust, squandered billions in taxpayer money and broken countless laws in the United States and around the world. But I’m an idealist — not naïve. Some things are too good to be true, and thus too much to ask.

The United States was founded on the principle that legitimate government requires the consent of the governed. It follows that a government that ignores the will of the people, acting of its own volition to pursue interests that run counter to citizens on important issues, is illegitimate. The NSA is turning the U.S. into a police state; we don’t want to live in fear of the authorities when we choose to be ourselves. Call off your out-of-control NSA, or you will be finished.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.

Based in New York, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.