Shining a Light on the NSA

For decades, the National Security Agency has sought to remain an elusive operation, working in the shadows of the nation’s growing surveillance apparatus. But recent revelations by whistleblowers are destabilizing its reign as one of the country’s most secretive agencies.

For years, whistleblowers from within the American surveillance apparatus have exposed some of the most callous attempts by government to assault civil liberties. Their leaks stand as some of the boldest and most successful efforts to provoke change. One such example is Christopher Pyle, whose 1970 revelations that the U.S. Army was surveilling protests throughout the country played a role in spawning the Church Committee, the most comprehensive intelligence activities review in American history. From the committee’s findings came numerous oversight protections including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Since FISA was enacted a long list of actions by various administrations have gutted the changes Pyle and others fought to bring about. The process of deregulating and legalizing the most egregious surveillance practices was expedited after attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in 2001. Just six weeks after the strikes, the USA Patriot Act was made law, drastically expanding surveillance abilities and eviscerating nearly all forms of accountability. In 2008, sweeping changes were made to FISA, gutting the law drafted to protect citizens from the widespread spying that Pyle warned about in the 1970s.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has suffered a similar fate. Today it is chaired by “Big Brother’s loyal sister,” Dianne Feinstein.

With the legal system no longer in its way, the NSA continued the same old practices, modernized for the digital era and more expansive than ever. William Binney, a former technical leader for the NSA, was one of the first to blow the whistle after discovering that his employer had begun conducting drag-net surveillance activities, collecting trillions of communications between U.S. citizens. Thomas Drake and J. Kirk Wiebe had similar revelations.

Despite their attempts to sound the alarm, it was not until the summer of 2013 that Americans began to take notice on a wider scale. It was then that an NSA contractor proved everything these men alleged was true, and that the actual picture inside the NSA was darker than most believed. Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old computer analyst working for the contracting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, initiated one of the most significant leaks in American history, detailing programs used to spy on people all over the world.

Despite the pendulum shift from an emphasis on personal liberty towards the post-9/11 national security state, the winds once again appear to be shifting back. The growing list of whistleblowers, including Binney, Drake, and Snowden, have put their lives on the line in an effort to provoke a new wave of reforms. It appears to be working.

Pressure has begun mounting across the political spectrum. On October 26, the 12th anniversary of the signing of the USA Patriot Act, thousands gathered in Washington DC, to join the “Stop Spying on US” protest and to deliver over 500,000 signatures gathered from individuals seeking an end to the NSA’s spy programs. Other protests have taken place in over 80 cities across the nation and several in other countries, including Germany and Hong Kong.

Legislators are taking some steps towards providing solutions that respond to the growing concerns of their constituents. Since Snowden’s revelations first hit the press more than ten bills have been introduced that seek to rein in a growing list of surveillance powers claimed by the U.S. government. But most do not go far enough. Others codify some of the practices into law. Several investigations have been announced, including those conducted by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Senate Intelligence Committee. Each, however, is riddled with holes and weaknesses. From lacking the ability to obtain NSA, FBI and Departmentof Justice files to expecting oversight from those who have been failing at it for years, the possibility that real oversight will be coming from these investigations is slim.

Just as Pyle’s information helped open the door to the Church Committee, the revelations of post-9/11 whistleblowers must inspire a grassroots push for an investigation of similar caliber. The time has come for the people to demand what is rightfully due to them: Elected representatives who will stand up for their own ability to investigate and stop these practices. It is time to bring the surveillance state out of the dark once again.