It was, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again. Fielding calls last week from journalists about reports the NSA had been engaged in massive and secret data mining of phone records and Internet traffic, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone was surprised by the so-called revelations.
Not only had the surveillance been going on for years, the activity had been reported all along—at least outside the mainstream media. The programs involved have been the subject of longstanding concern and vocal criticism by advocacy groups on both the right and the left.
For those of us who had been following the story for a decade, this was no “bombshell.” No “leak” was required. There was no need for an “expose” of what had long since been exposed.
As the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez and others reminded us, the NSA’s surveillance activities, and many of the details breathlessly reported last week, weren’t even secret. They come up regularly in Congress, during hearings, for example, about renewal of the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the principal laws that govern the activity.
In those hearings, civil libertarians (Republicans and Democrats) show up to complain about the scope of the law and its secret enforcement, and are shot down as being soft on terrorism. The laws are renewed and even extended, and the story goes back to sleep.
But for whatever reason, the mainstream media, like the corrupt Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” collectively found itself last week “shocked, shocked” to discover widespread, warrantless electronic surveillance by the U.S. government. Surveillance they’ve known about for years.
Let me be clear. As one of the long-standing critics of these programs, and especially their lack of oversight and transparency, I have no objection to renewed interest in the story, even if the drama with which it is being reported smells more than a little sensational with a healthy whiff of opportunism. Continue reading →