U-T San Diego op-ed – July 31, 2013

This op-ed appeared in U-T San Diego on July 31, 2013

San Diego delegation unites in favor of mass surveillance

By Dave Maass

Seven votes. Had seven members of Congress voted differently last week on an amendment put forth by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., the House would have passed the first major effort to curtail a controversial National Security Agency (NSA) program that collects American telephone records.

San Diego County has five votes in Congress, but the entire delegation voted against this attempt to strike funding for the program from the Department of Defense Appropriations Act. Constituents should be outraged.

In a Washington Post-ABC poll released the same day of the vote, 74 percent of Americans said this surveillance program, which was revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, intruded on the public’s right to privacy. A majority also said these intrusions were not justified by the country’s national security needs.

While the poll did not drill down by metropolitan area, it is a reasonable assumption that San Diego mirrors the rest of the country in having mixed feelings about the program. There is no way 100 percent of San Diegans support the spying program, so why did 100 percent of their congressional votes reject the amendment?

Any analysis of the 205-217 vote breakdown suggests that a coalition of progressive and conservative members banded together to back the amendment. San Diego itself has a rich tradition of both progressive and libertarian views, whether it is the fierce labor unions or the vociferous Tea Party groups. It is no coincidence that the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is based in San Diego, as is the United States Justice Foundation, a conservative civil-liberties organization. Yet privacy interests were ignored by the delegation.

The program in question involves the NSA collecting Americans’ telephone “metadata,” which means who you called, who called you, when you called, how long you talked.

The administration claims that because the government supposedly does not listen to the content of calls, it’s a minuscule infringement on privacy. We beg to differ — metadata can create a detailed portrait of your life and can reveal details that even your closest friends and family don’t know. As Vice President Joe Biden said as a senator in 2006: “I don’t have to listen to your phone calls to know what you’re doing. If I know every single phone call you made, I’m able to determine every single person you talked to, I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive.”

On July 20, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued the NSA on behalf of 19 organizations. The list runs the spectrum, from gun-rights organizations to environmentalists, from Unitarian churches to Islamic groups, from marijuana-legalization advocates to open-source technology innovators.

EFF argues that by collecting the call data of these groups, the government is not only violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, but also the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech and association.

The NSA program, part of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, is not only unconstitutional, but threatens the core principles of our democracy.

Even the original author of the Patriot Act, Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, supported the Amash amendment, arguing the NSA has abused the law, and its domestic surveillance is far outside the scope of the bill’s original intent.

A majority of Democrats supported the amendment, yet all three of San Diego’s Democratic members — Reps. Susan Davis, Scott Peters and Juan Vargas — broke from their party to oppose the measure. Almost two-thirds of the House Oversight Committee, which North County’s Rep. Darrell Issa chairs, voted for the amendment. The aye votes included a large majority of the committee’s Republicans, which raises the question of whether Issa is fully committed to the watchdog role he was assigned to fulfill. One has to wonder why he failed to oppose a domestic-surveillance program about which the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has admitted to misleading Congress.

To EFF, the amendment wasn’t just an attempt to defund the program, but a symbolic measure designed to send a clear message to the president that this program, as currently implemented, is unacceptable. By voting against it, members of San Diego’s delegation sent a clear message that they are unwilling to stand up for their constituents or the Constitution.

Maass, a former San Diego journalist, is media relations coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit defending civil liberties in the digital world.