EDITORIAL: Intel agencies stonewall on surveillance measures

When Rockwell raced up the charts in 1984 by fretting “I always feel like somebody’s watching me,” the song reflected a comic sense of delusional suspicion. But given the advancement of electronic devices, along with the nearly 20-year-old war on terror, such an observation no longer seems a hallmark of paranoia.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit seeking information on the extent of the federal government’s surveillance web used against its own citizens. The legal effort alleges, among other things, that intelligence agencies have refused to comply with requests for details about a government program that allows the collection of data on Americans.

The issue dates to the early 1980s and came to a head during the Obama administration when whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked papers showing the National Security Agency had collected so-called metadata on millions of private phone conversations in the name of identifying potential terrorists. Congress responded with a law that imposed restraints on the practice and demanded the intelligence community present lawmakers with annual reports on such activities.

One might argue that the Fourth Amendment should be enough to discourage warrantless intrusions, but that’s an issue for another day. Instead, the ACLU notes it is being stonewalled by intelligence officials who have refused to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests involving the controversial practice. The legal action seeks “the release of secret memos written by government lawyers that provided the foundation for the warrantless surveillance of international communications,” the group noted.

The snooping continues at a massive rate. The ACLU’s lawsuit reveals that, while the congressional reforms were intended to rein in domestic spying, the government “collected more than 534 million call detail records in 2017 even though it reported having only 40 surveillance targets,” The Associated Press reported this week.

The ACLU makes an important point. The law in question expires next year. By refusing to provide information on their activities, government officials hamper legitimate political debate over the program and its effectiveness and constitutionality. When this issue comes before Congress next year, how, when the details are shrouded in secrecy, are Americans supposed to judge whether their representatives are acting appropriately?

Nobody is asking that spy agencies jeopardize national security. Only that they comply with federal law regarding government records and transparency. The lawsuit “relates to sweeping surveillance activities that implicate the core privacy and free speech rights of Americans,” the AP noted. That’s reason enough for a federal judge to order the agencies in question to be more forthcoming.

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