THE twin revelations that telecom carriers have been secretly giving the National Security Agency information about Americans’ phone calls, and that the N.S.A. has been capturing e-mail and other private communications from Internet companies as part of a secret program called Prism, have not enraged most Americans. Lulled, perhaps, by the Obama administration’s claims that these “modest encroachments on privacy” were approved by Congress and by federal judges, public opinion quickly migrated from shock to “meh.”
It didn’t help that Congressional watchdogs — with a few exceptions, like Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky — have accepted the White House’s claims of legality. The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, have called the surveillance legal. So have liberal-leaning commentators like Hendrik Hertzberg and David Ignatius.
This view is wrong — and not only, or even mainly, because of the privacy issues raised by the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics. The two programs violate both the letter and the spirit of federal law. No statute explicitly authorizes mass surveillance. Through a series of legal contortions, the Obama administration has argued that Congress, since 9/11, intended to implicitly authorize mass surveillance. But this strategy mostly consists of wordplay, fear-mongering and a highly selective reading of the law. Americans deserve better from the White House — and from President Obama, who has seemingly forgotten the constitutional law he once taught.