WH on NSA snooping: You can totally trust us

The White House admitted this morning that the Guardian story last night was accurate — the NSA has been collecting metadata on Verizon’s phone calls for the last couple of months.  Thanks to a secret court order, the phone records and location of calls by over 121 million customers now rest within the vaults of the NSA.  And according to the Associated Press’ White House source, that’s no problem, because we can totally trust them to only do nice things with them, and not be evil and rotten like the previous administration who did pretty much the same thing:

 The White House on Thursday defended the National Security Agency’s need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.”

While defending the practice, a senior Obama administration official did not confirm a newspaper report that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top secret court order. …

Under the terms of the order, the phone numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as are location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, The Guardian said.

The administration official said, “On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls.”

The AP explains the difference:

The broad, unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is unusual. FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets. NSA warrantless wiretapping during the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks was very controversial.

They’re conflating a couple of things.  First, the Bush administration did conduct massive data-mining of phone providers in the same way being done here, but the warrantless wiretapping was much more narrow.  That surveillance was conducted on specific phone numbers discovered by intelligence operations that were in use by suspected terrorists, and on calls in which at least one end was in a foreign country.  It was still controversial as the other end of the call was often inside the US and arguably comprised the forbidden practice of intel services spying domestically (the FBI has jurisdiction but has to proceed in criminal court with warrants), and eventually the Bush administration was forced to seek FISA warrants for it. But those were and are two different kinds of operations.

Hypocrisy is an unfortunately ubiquitous condition in politics, but in the case of NSA seizing Verizon’s phone records, it’s particularly widespread.  Some of the people expressing outrage for the Obama administration’s efforts at data mining had a different attitude toward it when Bush was in office.  Conversely, we’ll see some people defending Obama who considered Bush evil incarnate for the same thing.

Either way, we’re left with the situation of having the federal government seizing private records without any meaningful civil due process that engages the citizens affected, whether that includes actual wiretaps or just cataloguing our calls and movements.  Perhaps this will move this issue out of the partisan sphere and into a common ground in which we can all work to define exactly how far we’re willing to go in trading privacy for security.  In order to get there, we’d all better recognize the hypocrisy that has abounded on this issue for far too long, and start thinking about higher principles than party affiliation when it comes to national security and constitutional protections.