U.S. needs to provide more clarity on use of widespread surveillance

This month's news about government surveillance programs has raised serious questions about the scope of such programs and what they mean.

What citizens deserve from their government is greater accountability and transparency regarding such programs — in essence, clarity.

The U.S. government is not going to end its phone-tracking program just because a whistle-blower revealed the secret practice to the public, which in turn rightly became infuriated. It, and certainly other programs already in existence or future ones currently being incubated, will continue, and that is not inherently wrong.

On June 5, the U.K. Guardian reported that the National Security Agency was given clearance in April to collect millions of Verizon customer phone records for a three-month period in the interest of thwarting terrorist plots.

A day later, the Guardian and the Washington Post both reported that the NSA had access to citizens' Internet activity through the servers of major tech companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook — all of which denied any knowledge of the so-called PRISM program.

Predictably, this raised serious questions about government surveillance of regular Americans. In reality, the fear of government peering over everyone's shoulder is largely an exaggerated fear — the feds don't care who your favorite contestant is on “The Bachelorette.”

What the government does care about is stopping actual threats to the public.

On Monday, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said U.S. intelligence was instrumental in thwarting a large-scale plot in 2007 to attack American soldiers and citizens in her country. Merkel did admit that she was “surprised” to learn of the scope of the programs, but her country depends on cooperation with U.S. spy services.

Earlier, however, the Obama administration declassified details of a successful use of PRISM to unravel a 2009 terrorist plot in New York — although they bumbled through the story. The incident involved a plot to bomb the New York subway system in the most serious al-Qaida plot inside the U.S. since 9/11, and a man named Najibullah Zazi has already pleaded guilty to the plot.

That's all well and good — certainly laudable — except that, as The Associated Press reported, the email that disrupted the plan could easily have been intercepted without PRISM.

Before the 2007 and 2008 Patriot Act laws that allowed the government to monitor, without specific warrants, emails believed to belong to foreigners, the FBI had the authority to do that for accounts linked to terrorists — provided it had a warrant. Zazi, an Afghan-American cabdriver living in Colorado, was known to the U.S. as an al-Qaida-trained bomber, making him fair game for warrantless wiretapping.

What are we left with? Confusion, thanks to government officials — such as San Francisco's own U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein — misstating key details about the thwarted plot.

This instance shows a greater need for our elected officials to stop treating us like children — “It's called protecting America,” as Feinstein sternly reprimanded — and start obeying the intent of the vast powers granted to them under the Patriot Act.

There is an argument to be made about keeping the details of surveillance secret, but revealing the broader tools the government is using would go far in assuring citizens that the methods are being used to catch terrorists and not to spy on the rest of America.

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