BY DIANE DIMOND
OK, now I’m mad.
I know we live in a hyper-vigilant time. I know there are terrorists who would like to kill as many Americans as possible, and some are living right here in the United States, actively plotting murder and mayhem. But I have had just about enough of our government snooping and conducting surveillance on innocent Americans. And so many Americans!
Look, I’ve worked in the area of crime and justice for a long time. I get the need to conduct undercover and clandestine operations — but the sheer scope of what’s been going on is absolutely chilling.
Think of it this way: You go to the airport to catch a flight, and every single passenger is treated as a suspicious character, right? The grip of political correctness forbids airport security from singling out those who history has shown would be most likely to perpetrate a terrorist act on a plane — i.e., young men of Middle Eastern Muslim heritage, bent on conducting acts of jihad against non-believers. At the airport everyone — from tiny babies to old people in wheelchairs — gets treated like a potential criminal.
It is clear now that our own government considers the whole of American citizenry in the same light as the lemmings at the airport. We are all suspect. Why else would such widespread and intrusive surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies be today’s norm?
The scope of domestic spying programs takes your breath away. And it has occurred under both Republican (George W. Bush) and Democratic (Barack Obama) administrations. While there has been some citizen outcry at recent revelations about the wide-ranging nature of the surveillance, I’ve been stunned that the outrage came and went pretty quickly.
I don’t want to get into the motivations of secrets-leaker Edward Snowden (I’m pretty convinced he has committed treason), but let’s be honest. His actions broke open the dam of silence about what America’s intelligence agencies have been doing — to us, the chumps whose taxes pay the freight. The domino-like waves of revelation make it clear: We don’t have near the level of privacy we thought we had.
We now know the National Security Agency has collected trillions of “metadata” bits of information on our Internet communications. Among the captured data: who was contacted, the date, time, the subject line and the private IP address of the sender.
Under a separate program, the NSA has kept logs of all telephone calls dialed by and received by Americans. Aiding in this once-clandestine scrutiny were the Internet and phone companies, with their apparent across-the-board compliance with each government request for customer information. I’m not sure if they could have successfully fought the government on behalf of their customers’ privacy, but I haven’t heard of even one case in which they tried.
We have been given to believe that it is only the dialed digits of the phone calls that have been kept for analysis, but there is evidence that Big Brother has gone beyond just keeping a list of phone numbers.
Weeks before the Snowden revelations, a former FBI counterterrorism agent named Tim Clemente said during a nationally televised interview that U.S. intelligence agents do more than simply run numbers through a computer to see if they match those used by suspected terrorists. Right after the Boston Marathon bombing, Clemente twice appeared on CNN and openly spoke of the capability of U.S. intelligence agencies to “go back and find out what was said” during phone calls between bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his wife.
“We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said,” Clemente said firmly. “No digital communication is secure.”
Oh, really? That would mean our government is capturing CONTENT of phone calls, not just numbers dialed. The FBI declined to specifically deny its former agent’s statement.
But hold on to your hats, because your Internet activity and phone calls aren’t the only things under surveillance. The NSA keeps track of each and every credit card purchase, ostensibly to watch out for those who buy bomb-making materials.
In addition, the mail in your mailbox has been scrutinized. It was reported recently that a longtime surveillance system called the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking Program photographs the outside of every piece of paper mail processed in the United States. That’s about 160 billion pieces every year!
The idea is to capture the return address, time stamp and post office place of origin in case law enforcement ever needs it. (To be fair, this program is credited with helping to pinpoint the culprit who recently sent letters tainted with poisonous ricin to the president and to New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg).
Again, I’m all for keeping America safe from crime and would-be terrorists — but keeping track of every phone call? All of that Internet activity? Each credit card purchase, and every single piece of mail? It feels just like the misdirected overkill we see at each of the nation’s airports. And can you imagine the total manpower hours expended on these surveillance programs? Can you fathom how much we are paying to gather up what turns out to be mostly superfluous information? There’s got to be a better way.
The U.S. Constitution does not specifically guarantee our right to privacy, but who among us does not believe Americans are supposed to enjoy such a right? The Fourth Amendment says we should feel secure in our “persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel as though I have any expectation of privacy at all anymore.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email [email protected]
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