On Friday, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court did what it does without fail — rubber-stamp the National Security Agency's bulk phone record collection program, done so it can allegedly find terrorists in haystacks. What remains stalled after two conflicting court decisions is a thorough investigation of the program and the dubious rationale for it.
The secretive spy court was supposedly designed to oversee the NSA's programs, but it has approved every request the NSA has made since the court was established in 2006. The requests have grown more outrageous, but the court keeps stamping its approval, as it did Friday.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon, who ruled last month that the NSA's collection of phone record was likely unconstitutional, described it as “almost Orwellian.” George Orwell's name is summoned too frequently in cases of government abuses, but in this case it applies in ways that the author of “1984”³ would have appreciated. Judge Leon also observed that the NSA could not document one instance in which the collecting of Americans' phone records led to the anticipation and prevention of a terrorist attack.
In another district court case last month, a judge ruled that the phone records program was lawful. Some hope for a resolution to this impasse is offered by a presidential advisory panel's recommendation that the NSA no longer be allowed to search the phone records it has piled up without obtaining court approval for each search. This would require the NSA to provide a reason for a specific search rather than go willy-nilly through the records in the hope that something analysts regard as useful will turn up.
The security of Americans is obviously important, but surrendering privacy to a government agency is too high a price to pay for that security. What's worse, there is no evidence that the NSA's phone collection program even provides security in exchange for lost privacy. Absent the placing of restraints on the NSA by President Obama and Congress, this fight must continue in the nation's courts.