J. KARL MILLER: How the shadow of Big Brother looms over Washington

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Yet another possible calamity appeared to blindside the Obama administration with the revelation that the National Security Agency is collecting and evaluating virtually every electronic communication we generate through its surveillance programs.

This massive data mining by NSA was outed by "whistle blower" Edward Snowden, a former CIA technical assistant who has worked at NSA for the last four years with various defense contractors.

This disclosure has aroused condemnation at both ends of the political spectrum. The far right and the far left alike have criticized this as an invasion of privacy.

As expected, the criticisms have raised the specter of "Big Brother" from George Orwell's "1984" and the compiling of information on ordinary citizens in violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment.

In reality, much if not all of the protestations are misdirected, inasmuch as the data amassed merely discloses the fact that it was collected, but the content of the electronic communications was not calculated.

One may rest assured that NSA has no interest in Aunt Myrtle's secret recipe for dumplings, Grandpa's secret fishing hole, or your brother's frequenting the raunchy 900 telephone numbers.

It may surprise some readers to learn that the NSA's mission is the interception and analysis of electronic/telephonic transmission. The amended Patriot Act authorizes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to permit access to all and any information that may disclose terrorist or other enemy activities that portend grave danger to the U.S.

While those of both the Libertarian and the far left persuasions decry the Patriot Act as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Fourth Amendment's applicable clauses are not violated in that the first of them bars "unreasonable searches and seizures" and the second requires that "probable cause" warrants establish exactly what is to be seized from whom and from where.

The individual right to privacy is protected further by the sheer volume of the information collected by NSA. The collection of "metadata" — or "Big Data" as it is colloquially known — amounts to about 161 exabytes per year, an amount roughly equal to that stored in 37,000 Libraries of Congress.

So huge is the amount of data amassed that only algorithm codes can process the raw information and sort out what is pertinent.

Two former Bush administration officials, Michael Mukasey, attorney general from 2007 to 2009, and U.S. Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, NSA director from 1999 to 2005 and CIA director from 2006 to 2009, have given the program a thumbs up.

Both point out that there is sufficient congressional and judicial oversight to keep the program on the straight and narrow — an opinion shared by Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and a majority of the Congress.

That Sen. Feinstein, a Democrat, and Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican, agree on this controversial issue is rare enough in this divided Congress to conclude that the mini-furor over the data mining of the public's communications is but a tempest in a teapot. Except for the left/right unrest, there is little interest in revising/repealing the law.

The contrived controversy raises two salient issues, however: the leaking of classified information by self-anointed "do-gooder" whistleblowers and the befuddled efforts of the administration to keep its stories on the same page of late.

From Daniel Ellsburg's release of the Pentagon Papers, to PFC Bradley Manning's handing over hundreds of thousands of sensitive documents to Wikileaks, to Snowden's giving NSA files to the Guardian and Washington Post, they add up to criminal activity, exacerbated by their breaking of a trust.

Although hailed as heroes by the misguided, the misinformed and the anarchists, the three belong in prison for breaching our national security and for causing the deaths of covert agents and foreign nationals who are pro-American.

As for the Obama administration, when the Internal Revenue Service has admitted targeting assorted conservative organizations and Attorney Gen. Eric Holder is complicit in the targeting of, not only Associated Press journalists with wiretaps, but also not being truthful about his involvement in accusing FOX News reporter James Rosen of "criminal conspiracy" for acting as a journalist, it is difficult not to harbor suspicions.

And, when the  president reports he was kept in the dark about these shenanigans, it is becoming more reminiscent of the Keystone Kops than a well-run organization with checks and balances intact.

We were promised the "most transparent administration in history." When can we expect that window to be opened?

J Karl Miller is a retired colonel in the U.S. Marines Corps living in Columbia.

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Ellis Smith June 12, 2013 | 12:34 p.m.

Considering all federal administrations from Truman to Obama (1945-present) we can say it is far easier to promise "transparency" for your administration BEFORE you have one than it is if you achieve one. This observation applies to both political parties.

I recently read a book concerning events from the first terrorist attempt to destroy the World Trade Center (the truck bomb in the parking garage) to the second, successful attempt. Part of that government snafu was that warning information was there but seriously buried in the huge amount of information gathered. Is present information gathering and evaluation any improvement? That's something that should be addressed, regardless of Constitutional considerations.

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John Schultz June 12, 2013 | 2:45 p.m.

I'm sorry, but if the government needs to know whom calls whom, they already have a system (albeit not well-designed) that allows the administration to go before a FISA judge, as the Colonel alluded to, and request surveillance of targets be allowed in a legal manner. I'm not surprised that such monitoring is occurring, but the citizens of this nation have been lied to about it for years, if not decades.

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hank ottinger June 13, 2013 | 10:04 a.m.

Another thought-provoking column from the Colonel that raises any number of issues. First, I'd say that it's wrong to lump Snowden in with Ellsberg and Manning, the latter of whom indiscriminately moved hundreds of thousands of documents into the public eye via Wikileaks. Snowden alleges he's trying to stimulate a conversation/debate about government secrecy, a debate the President keeps saying he wants to have but shows little willingness to get going.
That aside, more seriously, it seems to me, is that all this data gathering is being done mostly (70%) by private contractors who (and correct me if I'm wrong) are under no obligation to abide by the Fourth Amendment, thus shielding the government from any wrongdoing. Moreover, congressional oversight of private contractors would seem more problematic than oversight of government agencies doing the same work.

Last, while national security is undoubtedly a vital issue that the majority of Americans regards as more important than meta-data collection, where might all this go in the future? I'm dubious that any administration will always have the best interests of the citizenry in mind. Information is power, and power begets more power, and so on.

It's time to have that national conversation

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