An empty debate? Why little will happen to change how we snoop

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Story highlights

  • Lawmakers aren't politically compelled to change surveillance tactics
  • Polls, public support, and laws all seem to back support of current surveillance methods
  • 9/11 changed the way many Americans and those in government think about national security

President Barack Obama and several high profile members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have said they welcome a robust debate on balancing civil liberties and national security.

However, a different reality is emerging: Between strong existing law, a unified consensus among many in the three branches of government and mixed public outrage, there appears to be little political incentive to drastically change the nation's intelligence gathering methods, say national security experts.

"I'm not sure how much motivation there is there," said Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director and CNN contributor. "Saying it 'may be time' is not saying 'we are going to review.' The 'may' part will be resolved by how big of a political backlash there is over all of this."

Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and founder of the organization's Center for Technology Innovation, goes farther.

"I would be surprised if there was much new legislation in this area because there doesn't seem to be a strong consensus to change this in meaningful ways," he said. "The president has defended many of these practices, and in the past a number of Republicans and Democrats have defended these practices on national security grounds."

From the government's perspective, such tactics as collecting information on phone calls, e-mails and Internet use for national security reasons are legally sanctioned, supported by all three branches of government and have proven to be highly effective.

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This week, National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander, pointed publicly to four plots the government believes were thwarted by the controversial telephone and e-mail surveillance techniques -- including one to bomb the New York Stock Exchange -- and told a congressional hearing there were at least 50 other examples he would share with them behind closed doors.

    Officials cite thwarted plots, oversight in defending surveillance

    Key portions of the Patriot Act, which passed just after 9/11, sanctioned many of the electronic surveillance techniques questioned by civil libertarians and highlighted by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's admitted leaking of classified documents, were just re-authorized in 2011.

    "In the abstract, you can complain about 'Big Brother' or how this is a potential program run amok. But when you actually look at the details, then I think we've struck the right balance," Obama said recently.

    Leaders of intelligence committees in the House and Senate have publicly backed the secret programs, saying they helped authorities prevent terrorist attacks.

    Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in declassifying some information about the phone tracking program, suggested that "discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions."

    And according to polls, including a recent CNN/ORC International survey, a little more than half of Americans support the NSA's anti-terrorism program to gather phone records, though they are less comfortable with the idea of the methods being used on U.S. citizens.

    Fifty-one percent say the current NSA program to gather phone records is the right thing to do. Back in 2006, 54% felt similarly about the Bush-era program. Two thirds say they feel that the current NSA program on Internet usage is right.

    Six in 10 disapprove of how Obama is handling government surveillance of U.S. citizens. By comparison, 52% disapproved of George W. Bush on the same issue in 2006, when government surveillance was also a controversial issue.

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    Since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington shook the nation's confidence in national security, presidential administrations and Congress have been able to advocate for and pass stricter national security measures.

    In 2001, Congress easily passed the Patriot Act sought by the Bush administration to expand domestic spying despite opposition by civil liberties groups.

    Congress reauthorized a revised version five years later and as president in 2011, Obama signed another reauthorization of some Patriot Act provisions that allow the clandestine operations recently made public.

    Even if the political will were there, there aren't many avenues for change on the executive end, national security experts say.

    The 1978 law that created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, better known as the FISA Court, a panel of judges charged with reviewing and authorizing government surveillance warrants, isn't due to be renewed for another five years.

    And late last year, on a largely bipartisan basis, the Senate rejected amendments that called for greater transparency or limiting surveillance programs.

    Obama "can't change the underlying law," said William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University. "He can direct the agencies to add more transparency to the process so that Americans who are interested can learn more about the programs that are being run."

    That's already happening. Businesses have been recently allowed to share more information about the requests for information received by the government.

    Still, national security experts say, in order for any debate on surveillance to have momentum the public would have to consider the possible consequences.

    "The American people pushed the government here," Fuentes said. "After 9/11 the message was 'we will not tolerate a single American dying of a terrorist act.' And that has been the mandate. Why wouldn't the government push the Patriot Act, FISA and other laws (as far as they can), given the extreme pressure?"