The Government’s Phone, Text, and Email Spying, Explained

So this is just like what President Bush was doing with wiretaps of phone calls, right?

Not exactly. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush started a still-mysterious National Security Agency program to eavesdrop on phone calls, texts, and emails by U.S. citizens who were communicating with people overseas. But he never sought any warrants or other permissions from the courts or Congress to conduct those wiretaps.

By contrast, the Verizon records only cover phone-call meta data, and the Obama administration got permission from a US court to access those records, which theoretically means that there were some checks and balances placed on the executive branch's Constitutional power to spy on Americans.

Wait -- so is this legal, or what?

Yes, the Verizon program is technically legal. But it's still controversial. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 set up the court that gave Obama FBI permission to seize the phone records. That court employs 11 judges to review the government's sensitive spying plans. However, the FISA court has often been accused of operating as a rubber-stamp for government spies. In 2010, for example, it approved every single request from the government for a spying warrant -- 1,506 warrants in all.

Furthermore, the legal status of the PRISM operation is unclear. The Post's initially reporting stated that the NSA got cooperation from companies like Google and Apple to share information on their customers, which means the government wouldn't have needed a court's permission. But now that those companies deny working with US officials, no one can say for sure right now whether all of that surveillance is legal.

This is outrageous! Why doesn't Congress do something?

It is outrageous to many liberals and conservatives alike, who have expressed their displeasure at the government's ability to secretly gather so much information on US citizens. But it turns out that most members of Congress have known about these programs for a long time.

"This is nothing new. This has been going on for 7 years," Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) told reporters Thursday. "Every member of the US Senate has been advised of this."

In fact, Congress has blown at least four chances since 2001 to put limits on the executive branch's domestic-snooping power, and in 2008 they even gave the government immunity from lawsuits by angry phone users who were targeted for surveillance according to Joshua Foust, a former U.S. military intelligence analyst.

"All of the opprobrium you should feel at the government's ridiculously broad surveillance powers needs to be directed at CONGRESS, which keeps approving them," he wrote Thursday.

What happens next?

It's possible that public outrage could spur changes in how the government blanketly collects info from phone and computer users. But that's not likely. Despite the outrage on Capitol Hill today, members of Congress have spurned virtually every opportunity to protect the privacy of average Americans when national security interests are involved.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a powerful politician who is both a trained military lawyer and a Verizon customer, said Thursday he was happy that the government has such sweeping power to spy on its own citizens. "We are under attack" from Islamic terrorists, he told Fox News. "It is happening in our own backyard, and I am glad that NSA is trying to find out what terrorists are up to overseas and inside the country."

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