The Guardian’s report that Verizon has been forced to share customer metadata with the National Security Agency illustrates leaks’ vital role as safeguards of individual liberty. By definition public disclosure of classified material violates the law, but at its best it serves an important whistleblowing function in the tradition of civil disobedience. Sometimes those holding power abuse it, and sometimes those abuses are classified, kept from public view under a pretense of serving the public interest.
Initially anonymous sources within the administration stridently defended the NSA’s behavior while refusing to confirm it, saying it is vital to monitoring terrorist suspects. Never mind that all data were demanded, without concern for probable cause. Reuters managed to gain an admission from a White House official this morning that, yes, this is actually happening (its story has been updated since). And journalists’ access to classified documents made it all possible.
The Verizon case is troubling for a few reasons. It is unclear whether other major carriers like AT&T are subject to the same requirements, but that is the implication of this breaking email news bulletin from Politico (full article here). Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) confirmed the practice has been happening for seven years, and they knew about it:
“As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years,” Feinstein asid [sic]. “This renewal is carried out by the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] under the business records section of the Patriot Act. Therefore it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress.”
Added Chambliss: “This is nothing new. This has been going on for seven years … every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this. To my knowledge there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint. It has proved meritorious because we have collected significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.”
Chambliss apparently thinks every Verizon customer is a bad guy. To clarify, this is not wiretapping: conversations are not recorded or archived — at least to the best of our knowledge. But the metadata include cell tower locations that could allow any Verizon customer’s movements to be tracked. Although further warrants may be required to do so, the phone numbers and handset identification numbers could be cross-referenced with individual names and identities. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the NSA would not want to. Tying names to phone numbers is a basic practice of marketing communication.
Telecommunication data mining under the PATRIOT Act began weeks after 9/11 and caused massive controversy when it was revealed during Bush’s second term. Yesterday’s news is the first confirmation that “the most transparent administration in history” is doing it too. The Obama Justice Department has prosecuted six cases against leakers, twice as many as all previous administrations combined. Defending leakers became une cause célèbre when news of the Associated Press and James Rosen cases came to light, but mere months ago senators from both parties demanded that CIA nominee John Brennan address national security leaks — leaks of the precise sort that brought the Verizon case to light.
Leaks had legitimate bearing on the public interest then, they do now, and they will continue to, however the politics surrounding them evolve.