Whistleblowers like former National Security Agency (NSA) officials William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe, and Thomas Drake have repeatedly warned us about a burgeoning surveillance state. At great personal risk considering Binney, Wiebe, and Drake were all targeted with a criminal investigation and Drake was prosecuted under the Espionage Act, Binney has publicly revealed massive domestic surveillance, which began under President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, and is continuing rampantly under President Obama. All three have written extensively and spoken out against NSA's domestic spying.
Nonetheless, yesterday, an apparently hard-of-hearing Senate panel reauthorized the constitutionally problematic FISA Amendments Act, which gutted long-standing safeguards for Americans' privacy in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Considering how badly NSA has abused its surveillance powers since 9/11, it is infuriating that any Senator claiming to represent his or her citizenry would consider giving NSA more surveillance authority.
In fact, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) - the same Senators who warned us about the Justice Department secret interpretation of another surveillance power: Section 215 of the (un)PATRIOT Act - objected to the re-authorization because NSA refused to give them a clear answer to a simple question: "How many innocent Americans is the NSA monitoring?" WaPo reported:
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) opposed the extension on civil liberties grounds. Wyden, concerned that the provision allows innocent Americans’ e-mails and phone calls to be monitored without a warrant, has asked the administration to disclose how many Americans have had their communications monitored under the law.
The whistleblowers on the other had, have cringe-inducing estimates about just how much data NSA is collecting:
. . . Binney says. Instead they continued to haul in data on a grand scale. Asked how many communications—”transactions,” in NSA’s lingo—the agency has intercepted since 9/11, Binney estimates the number at “between 15 and 20 trillion, the aggregate over 11 years.”
The rest of Congress sits idly by while whistleblowers bravely go public to explain the continuing erosion of rights and liberties through dragnet electronic surveillance:
(One of two Democracy Now! segments)
Despite the fact that government secrecy and surveillance are continuing to expand, the channels for whistleblowers, which we need now more than ever, remain closed. Not only are intelligence community whistleblowers exempted from the protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act, but far too many Inspector General positions remain vacant. Even the conservative Washington Post editorial board criticized the number of long-standing Inspector General vacancies:
INSPECTORS GENERAL serve an invaluable purpose in government, ferreting out waste and corruption and exposing internal wrongdoing. According to a September report by the Government Accountability Office, audits by inspectors general saved $43.3 billion in public funds in 2009. But 10 of the 73 federal inspectors’ posts are vacant — eight at Cabinet-level departments, including State and Interior. Four of the positions have been vacant for the entirety of the Obama administration.
The responsibility lies both with Congress and the President, neither of which - judging from the quick approval of expanded NSA spy powers - have been keen on oversight. WaPo writes:
These vacancies are the result of presidential lassitude in filling the spots and, to a significantly lesser extent, of congressional failure to act on the few nominees that have been sent to the Senate for confirmation. . . . The president has a responsibility, which he has not fulfilled, to nominate candidates for those inspector general jobs that require Senate confirmation and to ensure that the posts are filled in agencies whose inspectors general do not have to go through the confirmation process. The Senate has a responsibility, on which it too has fallen short, to swiftly act on those nominees that are sent its way. The current morass does not serve the public well.
While Inspectors General can be problematic options of intelligence community whistleblowers, - just ask Binney, Drake, and Wiebe who were targeted for criminal investigation after bringing concerns to the IG - the IGs are an existing channel where intelligence whistleblowers can report waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, illegality, or dangers to health and public safety. Without Inspectors General, the only other place intelligence whistleblowers can go is Congress, and as we can see from yesterday's approval of the FAA re-authorization, most of Congress is deaf.
Since Congress is deaf, you can contact your Congressperson and yell at them. The ACLU has a form for writing to Congress about the FAA re-authorization here.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.