Americans found out this week that intelligence agencies are tracking nearly every phone call they make. While some lawmakers and experts believe it’s necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, others worry that the country’s intelligence apparatus has grown too large.
Americans still only have a sketchy idea of how the phone surveillance program works and what it has achieved.
After a closed door meeting with the head of the National Security Agency, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, promised that details of how the phone surveillance program prevented terrorist attacks would be revealed in the coming days.
“So that the American public can see the full spectrum of successes of these programs, while protecting civil liberties and privacy,” said Rogers. "You can do both.”
Rogers said the program doesn’t monitor phone conversations, but looks for patterns in the “metadata," that is, information on time, date, and numbers called. He labeled the former government contractor who leaked the surveillance program a traitor and rebuked those who consider him a hero.
The individual, Edward Snowden, also disclosed that American Internet companies have been giving the NSA information on foreigners suspected of terrorism.
The disclosure of these programs follows reports that U.S. journalists have had their phones tapped and that the nation’s intelligence apparatus has grown to comprise around five million people with high-level security clearances.
Representative John Conyers of Michigan expressed his misgivings at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. “It’s my fear that we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state, collecting billions of electronic records on law-abiding Americans every single day,” said Conyers.
Testifying at the hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller said all surveillance is conducted in full compliance with the law and with oversight from Congress and the courts.
He said the phone data mining program could have caught the men who carried out the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, because one of them - who was believed to be in the Far East - had actually been placing calls from San Diego to an al-Qaida safe house in Yemen.
“If we had had this program in place, at the time, we would have been able to identify that particular telephone number in San Diego,” Mueller said.
The failure of intelligence agencies to pick up the trail of the hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has led to an overreach that is now being corrected, said Rudy deLeon, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress.
“So the pendulum is constantly moving and I think right now between our leaders in Congress, between the president and between the leaders on the national security side, we’re having an appropriate debate on where that pendulum rests right now,” he added.
But Steve Bucci of the Heritage Foundation worries that the outcome of the debate could weaken America’s defenses.
“That we might back off, in my opinion, too much, and therefore make ourselves more vulnerable in the long term as well by taking some of these tools out of the hands of our intelligence apparatus so that we in the long term can’t stop people we might have stopped before,” said Bucci.
On Wednesday, the NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander, said that the phone surveillance program had prevented dozens of terrorist attacks, both in the U.S. and abroad, but declined to give details.