Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Don't underestimate risks of government spying

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 6:34 AM EST, Tue November 5, 2013
Former intelligence worker <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/10/politics/edward-snowden-profile/index.html'>Edward Snowden</a> revealed himself as the source of documents outlining a massive effort by the NSA to track cell phone calls and monitor the e-mail and Internet traffic of virtually all Americans. He says he just wanted the public to know what the government was doing. "Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded," he said. Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia after initially fleeing to Hong Kong. He has been charged with three felony counts, including violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, over the leaks. Former intelligence worker Edward Snowden revealed himself as the source of documents outlining a massive effort by the NSA to track cell phone calls and monitor the e-mail and Internet traffic of virtually all Americans. He says he just wanted the public to know what the government was doing. "Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded," he said. Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia after initially fleeing to Hong Kong. He has been charged with three felony counts, including violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, over the leaks.
HIDE CAPTION
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some officials dismiss the impact of NSA revelations, saying every country spies
  • Julian Zelizer: It's dangerous to ignore the risk that spying will become too intrusive
  • In the 1960s, 1970s, activists were illegally targeted by government agencies in the U.S.
  • Zelizer: It's crucial to set limits for government agencies such as NSA

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- As the story about the National Security Agency surveillance continued to unfold last week, some of President Obama's supporters, as well as some of his Republican critics, were quick to jump to his defense.

Chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers warned that the allegations about the NSA were wrong. "They are seeing three or four pieces of a thousand-piece puzzle and trying to come to a conclusion."

Speaking before a congressional committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the monitoring of calls by 35 world leaders was just about spying, something that every country did and so there was nothing to be worked up about. "Some of this reminds me of the classic movie 'Casablanca': 'My God, there's gambling going on here,'" Clapper said.

In a period of crippling partisan warfare that continually brings Washington to a standstill, the leadership of both parties seem to have easily reached bipartisan agreement that the existing national security programs should be left alone.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

But these arguments miss the importance of accountability in our national security operations. The notion that citizens should just trust the government to do the right thing on national security poses too many dangers.

The United States has a long history of national security agencies, sometimes with presidential concurrence, misusing their authority and power to harass American citizens. This was the case in the 1960s, when Democrats and Republicans used government institutions to intimidate and harass social activists who were fighting for causes such as civil rights and to protest the war in Vietnam.

With the approval of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the FBI obsessively wiretapped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with the goal of finding evidence of the role of communism in the civil rights movement. What it found instead was information about his personal life as well as the background of top advisers that could be used against the movement if its demands caused too many problems. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover leaked information to the press and to King's opponents.

Stone: 'We've bugged the whole world'
Snowden: I did world a public service

A congressional report later found that the program sought to "discredit Dr. King and to 'neutralize' him as the leader of the civil rights movement." Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon agreed to have authorities bug and infiltrate anti-war activists. The administration spread damaging allegations and information to the media and to supporters of the war with the goal of rendering the activists illegitimate, and nurtured distrust and animosity within the movement so members would turn against each other.

In 1975 and 1976, Idaho Sen. Frank Church conducted shocking hearings into the operations of the CIA and published a detailed report that revealed the agency had been secretly engaged in activities such as the attempted assassination of foreign leaders and illegal intelligence gathering of American citizens. Congress imposed new regulations and created a court to monitor their activities. In the end the regulations proved to be weak and since 9/11 they have essentially been rendered useless.

After the reforms undertaken in light of the abuses of the 1960s and 1970s, intelligence agencies continued their expansion, part of the permanent national security apparatus the United States had established. "The vast secrecy system shows no signs of receding," Sen. Patrick Moynihan wrote in the late 1990s. Then, after 9/11, the power of the government to conduct surveillance greatly expanded beyond anything the senator from New York could have anticipated.

The United States is not alone in facing these risks. One of the reasons Germans have been so sensitive to the recent revelations is their own history of how surveillance has been used aggressively, and violently, to target their own citizens.

Even if the NSA officials play by the rules and regulate themselves, their ability to contain information that could be enormously damaging to the United States and to individual citizens is greatly diminishing in the current era. They no longer are in full control, whatever their intentions might be.

The stories about WikiLeaks as well as the impact of Edward Snowden have shown that the control of classified information is becoming extraordinarily difficult. It is foolhardy to assume that government officials will be able to contain all the data they gather and we must expect that more leaks will occur. When those leaks occur it is also remarkably easy for the information to quickly reach the public via the Internet.

Given that the risks of leaks will continue to remain great, the most effective measures that Congress can take will be to work on regulatory checks at the point of gathering to make sure that national intelligence agents don't sweep up innocent civilians and important allied leaders in their sweeps.

The worst outcome of the NSA revelations would be for Congress and the media to descend into a media-frenzy focusing primarily on the President's statements about what he knew. What would be much more useful to the nation would be for the executive and legislative branches to conduct a thorough review of how the NSA conducts its business and to put into place measures that will prevent unneeded activities that cause more harm than good, and which unnecessarily infringe the civil liberties of innocent people.

In June, when the revelations first broke, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "Everyone should just calm down and understand this isn't anything that is brand new." Whether or not this is brand new, the time has come for Congress to take a serious look at what the NSA is doing and how to impose needed regulations on what the agency can do. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have started the debate with a bill with sweeping reforms, including a special court to monitor intelligence gathering. Reid and Speaker Boehner have offered cautious support for a review of the program.

In the long run, such steps would have the potential to strengthen trust and confidence in the NSA, and allow it to do the work that is needed to secure the nation and our allies against the threats the United States continually faces.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT