Last night, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists James Risen and Eric Lichtblau reported in the New York Times that “the National Security Agency intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year.” According to intelligence officials, the problems grew “out of changes enacted by Congress last July in the law that regulates the government’s wiretapping powers.”
In July 2008, as Congress — including then-Sen. Barack Obama — moved towards approving the re-write of surveillance law, progressives mobilized against the legislation. As Glenn Greenwald points out, many of the concerns held by progressives at the time are proven by the NYT report. Here’s how Greenwald summarized the opposition in June 2008:
The ACLU specifically identifies the ways in which this bill destroys meaningful limits on the President’s power to spy on our international calls and emails. Sen. Russ Feingold condemned the bill on the ground that it “fails to protect the privacy of law-abiding Americans at home” because “the government can still sweep up and keep the international communications of innocent Americans in the U.S. with no connection to suspected terrorists, with very few safeguards to protect against abuse of this power.” Rep. Rush Holt — who was actually denied time to speak by bill-supporter Silvestre Reyes only to be given time by bill-opponent John Conyers — condemned the bill because it vests the power to decide who are the “bad guys” in the very people who do the spying.
On July 3rd, Obama explained his support for the “improved yet imperfect bill” by saying that as president he would have his Attorney General “conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs” in order to make further recommendations on protecting civil liberties. According to the Lichtblau and Risen, the “overcollection” of domestic collection was “detected” during a “periodic review” of the NSA’s activities:
As part of a periodic review of the agency’s activities, the department “detected issues that raised concerns,” it said. Justice Department officials then “took comprehensive steps to correct the situation and bring the program into compliance” with the law and court orders, the statement said. It added that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. went to the national security court to seek a renewal of the surveillance program only after new safeguards were put in place.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), who opposed the 2008 FISA Amendment Act, issued a statement today calling on Congress to “get to work fixing these laws that have eroded the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens.” Feingold also called on the Obama administration to “declassify certain aspects of how these authorities have been used so that the American people can better understand their scope and impact.”
MyDD’s Josh Orton notes that during the FISA debate last year, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) claimed that surveillance critics “wear tin foil hats” and laughed off “onerous” oversight provisions for the FISA bill