The Criminal N.S.A.
Even in the fearful time when the Patriot Act was enacted, in October 2001, lawmakers never contemplated that Section 215 would be used for phone metadata, or for mass surveillance of any sort. Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican and one of the architects of the Patriot Act, and a man not known as a civil libertarian, has said that “Congress intended to allow the intelligence communities to access targeted information for specific investigations.” The N.S.A.’s demand for information about every American’s phone calls isn’t “targeted” at all — it’s a dragnet. “How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?” Mr. Sensenbrenner has asked. The answer is simple: It’s not.
The government claims that under Section 215 it may seize all of our phone call information now because it might conceivably be relevant to an investigation at some later date, even if there is no particular reason to believe that any but a tiny fraction of the data collected might possibly be suspicious. That is a shockingly flimsy argument — any data might be “relevant” to an investigation eventually, if by “eventually” you mean “sometime before the end of time.” If all data is “relevant,” it makes a mockery of the already shaky concept of relevance.
The government knows that it regularly obtains Americans’ protected communications. The Washington Post reported that Prism is designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness” — as John Oliver of “The Daily Show” put it, “a coin flip plus 1 percent.” By turning a blind eye to the fact that 49-plus percent of the communications might be purely among Americans, the N.S.A. has intentionally acquired information it is not allowed to have, even under the terrifyingly broad auspices of the FISA Amendments Act.