Editorial: Spying straining trust in government


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Since its inception, the United States has tried to set a shining example for the rest of the world. The virtues of freedom and democracy were broadcast across the globe through the spread of our culture. For those coming from oppressive, dictatorial regimes, the United States promised something more: a government they could trust.

But through its recent actions, our government and its agencies have been sending a different message: Do as I say, not as I do.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes the U.S. government has, over the past few months, strained the trust of its allies and citizens, and serious efforts must be made to improve transparency.

The most prominent abuse of the public’s trust by the government is the continued misleading statements from officials regarding the extent of the NSA’s domestic and foreign surveillance programs.

On Aug. 15, a declassified internal audit surfaced that showed the NSA had frequently overstepped its legal limits in surveillance. Since 2008, the agency has broken privacy rules thousands of times every year. The organization characterized most of the violations as “unintended mistakes.”

The agency also engaged in illegal surveillance, abusing its power and the lack of oversight given to it by a trusting public. The NSA collected thousands of emails from American citizens without warrants. The email collection was found unconstitutional in a 2011 FISA court opinion.

The NSA even hacked into internal U.N. communication networks, and it operates covert eavesdropping posts in dozens of U.S. embassies and consulates across the globe, according to leaked documents obtained by the German magazine Der Spiegel. In the wake of these revelations, the United Nations will “reach out” to the United States in regards to surveillance. One U.N. spokesman cited international treaties such as the Vienna Convention that, in addition to other things, guards against the seizure of diplomatic documents and property.

One has to wonder what spying on our own allies would do to international relations, some of which are already strained in the wake of the Obama administration’s hypocritical approach to watchdogs in government, urging that foreign countries protect whistleblowers while simultaneously prosecuting twice as many leak cases under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined.

In fact, in 2008, information documents on Obama’s campaign website included a paragraph on the importance of protecting whistleblowers, saying such “acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled.”

Mysteriously, the paragraph has disappeared from Obama’s website.

The American people have given their elected officials some leeway in establishing oversight for the surveillance programs that now monitor the country’s communications. But for many, the surveillance programs have crossed a line.

Martha Hampel, the cofounder of the Iowa City based StopBigBrother.org, which successfully petitioned the Iowa City City Council to ban traffic cameras and surveillance drones this spring, says Iowans are fed up with being spied on.

“We’re definitely hearing Iowa City and Iowa citizens in general saying enough is enough,” she said. “And people in Congress are realizing that this is not what the American people want.”

On July 24, the House defeated an amendment designed to stop the NSA’s mass collection of phone records by a 217-205 vote.

Hampel said recent shifts in public opinion, as well as the close House vote, has the group feeling optimistic.

“We’re not alone,” she said. “A lot of people are becoming aware of the violations of their Fourth Amendment rights and are taking action.”

Indeed, it seems that the American public has started to turn against the idea of a government with powerful surveillance programs at the cost of privacy. In a poll of American citizens released in late July, the Pew Research Center found that “47 percent say their greater concern about government antiterrorism policies is that they have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties, while 35 percent say they are more concerned that policies have not gone far enough to protect the country … the first time in Pew Research polling that more have expressed concern over civil liberties than protection from terrorism since the question was first asked in 2004.”

Though some may argue that the NSA needs limited oversight and powerful surveillance tools in order to catch terrorists, the blatant misrepresentation of facts and repeated abuses of its legal power show that the agency cannot be trusted with its mandate unless major changes are made.

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