"She's listening in to the Venus line," Elvis Costello sang in 1979. "She's picking out names — I hope none of them are mine."
The kind of governmental telephonic snooping the British crooner referred to over three decades ago was in a different, analog age. Reports had surfaced about intelligence agencies in both the UK and the United States tapping in to trans-Atlantic cables that carried telephone calls in order to spy on conversations between both Soviet espionage agents as well as Irish Republican Army separatists. But they also sometimes just listened in for names.
The scope of the telephonic domestic surveillance being carried out by the Obama administration that was revealed this week is of an entirely different order of magnitude. For those of us concerned about holding on to even the most elemental kinds of civil liberties, the sweeping program is scary, big-time. It's scary, Big Brother-time. It's just wrong, on a fundamental level. And the leak to England's The Guardian newspaper of the formerly highly classified court order allowing it doesn't weaken our national security; it strengthens it by exposing the dark deeds to the sunshine of public discourse.
The formerly secret order directs a Verizon subsidiary to turn over to the National Security Agency "on an ongoing daily basis" all call logs "between the United States and abroad" plus those calls "wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."
That would mean every single call made by these Verizon customers. And there is no reason to believe that Verizon is being singled out here. There's more reason to believe all other carriers have been served with the order. The NSA, the most secretive and powerful of our government's security outfits, doesn't dispute the report. But it and backers of the program in Congress note that it's simply call logs that are being turned over to the agency, not call content. It merely sees that a call was made between one number and another, along with its duration.
Even if that is the case, as ACLU of Southern California privacy expert Peter Bibring told KPCC's "Air Talk" on Thursday, it's not as if it's tough to connect a number with a name. "Just enter your own number into a search engine," he said. (One newsroom staffer did just that, and the information provided was not more than could be found in the phone book, plus the number's ZIP code was incorrect. Presumably the federal government has search engines more powerful than Google.)
For years, some members of Congress have been warning that a program like this was out there, without giving away the specifics. "We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions" have interpreted the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado wrote Attorney General Eric Holder last year. There "now is a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows."
This blanket assault on Americans' privacy is outrageous. We won't give away our liberties in the supposed quest to save them.