A recent debate at Georgetown University’s Law School on U. S. intelligence gathering showed some surprising divisions over current policies and practices.
The Georgetown University Law School held an event last November entitled, “Surveillance and Intelligence Gathering” featuring the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s director of the Center for Democracy, Jameel Jaffer, the Obama administration’s National Counterterrorism Center director Matthew Olson and Office of the Director of National Intelligence general counsel Robert Litt. Marc Rotenberg, who teaches privacy law at Georgetown, rounded out the discussion panel.
Jaffer drew blood first and challenged his fellow panelists to defend the Obama administration’s policy of gathering a plethora of data that everyone would use, not just terrorists. The question that Jaffer focused on was “how much privacy will we give up” with increasing focus on government surveillance of domestic and foreign nationals on American soil.
Robert Litt, the General Counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, rejected Jaffer’s claims and said, “…There are other legitimate purposes for which we collect foreign intelligence” and contended that “there are very stringent controls over what we can do with it and how to use and collect confidential data.
Litt admitted the faults and problems of the federal government, and said the program’s shortcomings are due to the fact that “complicated technology systems frequently don’t work the way you expect them to.” He gave the example of the Department of Health and Human Services, where people accuse the agency of “abusing people because the ObamaCare websites don’t work properly.” He averred that there was no evidence that “anybody was intentionally abusing these programs or intentionally trying to circumvent the rules.”
Olson, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, admitted that al-Qaeda and terrorists have “been able to use the Internet, use e-mail…to communicate with each other effectively.” And, as a result, “this communication revolution has shrunk the network for our adversaries” and makes his job tougher. Now, the Internet is “a platform for this propaganda” and allows al-Qaeda to “reach far and into the United States.”
He claimed that one of the Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was “a passive consumer of this ideology” and now, the U.S. government is “looking for ways to improve our ways to counter them.”
Rotenberg, a lecturer at Georgetown Law, said that “there has been much greater transparency” about NSA surveillance. However, he said that this openness would not have happened if it were not for The Guardian publishing Edward Snowden’s documents and story.
At the Georgetown symposium, U. S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said that the purpose of the PATRIOT Act was to “ensure the intelligence community had the proper tools to combat terror in the post-9/11 world.” However, the government has consistently abused the intent of his law, he claimed.
He said, “I stand by the original intent of the law, but it has been misinterpreted by both the Bush and Obama administrations. Congressional oversight has also fallen short and the balance between civil liberties and national security, which we think we had struck, has been tainted.” Sensenbrenner helped draft the original statute.
But, Sensenbrenner went on to champion and promote a new bill that would put more controls on surveillance and intelligence-gathering in order to help resolve the concerns left unaddressed by the PATRIOT Act. He lamented that there was too much secrecy on the Hill because they “changed the law in secret.”
“If Congress intended to allow bulk collection, it would’ve authorized bulk collection” of data, he said. Instead, the “administration collects everything and then decides for itself whether it has the authority to access these records.” And he added, “without transparency, there is no balance.”
Secret Capitol Hill briefings by the intelligence community, he argued, were “an attempt by the intelligence community to shut us up.” Too many of his colleagues, he observed, have become “cheerleaders” for such policies.