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June 06, 2013 12:14 PM Glenn Greenwald Strikes Gold

By Ed Kilgore

For many casual readers of the news, today’s Verizon data-mining-for-the-NSA story is probably just another blast of noise in the ongoing cacophony about government threats to privacy justified vaguely by a Global War on Terror we thought had been sort of dialed down. For scandal-hungry conservatives—most of whom hotly defended George W. Bush for pursuing exactly the same policies—it’s another log on the bonfire of Scandalmania ‘13.

But for the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, a civil libertarian who has been fighting a long war against national security surveillance practices, it has to be a peak moment to be the public conduit for leaked documents establishing what he had long suspected:

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk - regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

Leading members of the Senate Intelligence Committee confirm this is very old news (per a report from Politico’s Josh Gerstein and Tim Mak):

The top two leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday that the widespread monitoring of Verizon phone calls made in the United States has been going on for years, and that Congress is regularly briefed on it.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) also defended the National Security Agency’s request to the company for all the metadata about phone calls made within and from the United States.
“As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years,” Feinstein said. “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.”

But their colleagues don’t all agree, according to Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski:

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was among those quick to criticize the scope of the program.
“This bulk data collection is being done under interpretations of the law that have been kept secret from the public,” Merkley said in a statement. “Significant FISA court opinions that determine the scope of our laws should be declassified. Can the FBI or the NSA really claim that they need data scooped up on tens of millions of Americans?”

Meanwhile, this development could rapidly converge with the recently red-hot issue of press leaks of sensitive national security information, or so one reporter on MSNBC’s Morning Joe claimed:

The U.S. Department of Justice may try seeking out the source of a bombshell article that revealed National Security Agency surveillance of millions of Americans, according to NBC News Justice correspondent Pete Williams….
“I was told last night: definitely there will be a leak investigation,” he said.
However, a senior administration official told The Huffington Post Thursday morning that it’s premature to suggest an investigation is certain to take place.
“There’s been no referral yet from the intelligence community,” the official said.

Historians of ancient times will undoubtedly remember that Obama’s support for the existing FISA regime caused a sharp if temporary rupture of support for him in large segments of the left blogosphere back during the 2008 presidential campaign.

So you’ve got the makings here of a combined attack from left and right on the Obama administration over a murky issue so technical that it almost makes the IRS scrutiny of 501(c) seem easy to understand. And as with the IRS “scandal,” the significance of the revelations will vary enormously to observers depending on their level of trust or mistrust in federal authorities.

For the White House, this has to look like still more incredibly bad timing and bad luck. For Glenn Greenwald, however, it has to look like pure vindication and a chance to make his case to a much broader audience.

UPDATE: Didn’t notice initially that Spencer Ackerman also contributed to Greenwald’s story in the Guardian. As some of you know, Ackerman is a highly regarded national security reporter who cannot be accused of being on any sort of long-term crusade on this issue. It’s to Greenwald’s—and the Guardian’s—credit that they enlisted him to work on this piece, since it inherently involves the balancing of privacy and national security concerns.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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