Watching the Watchmen, NSA Edition

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Dan Drezner has a generally good take today on the NSA surveillance programs that have dominated the news for the past week. It’s worth a read. In particular, here’s his response to Tom Friedman’s conclusion that the programs don’t “appear” to have been abused:

Friedman allows that these surveillance programs are vulnerable to abuse but says that, “so far, [it] does not appear to have happened.” Here’s my question: how the f**k would Friedman know if abuse did occur? We’re dealing with super-secret programs here. Exactly what investigative or oversight body would detect such abuse? What I worry about is that we have no idea whether national security bureaucracies abuse their privilege.

The last time I trusted intelligence bureaucracies and political leaders that the system was working was the run-up to the Iraq war. Never again.

The traditional method of oversight is via congressional committees and the court system. But even if you assume that intelligence organizations are reporting their activities honestly, those don’t really work anymore. Once a program is in place, courts end up rubber stamping virtually every application and congressional committees do pretty much the same. They simply become too accustomed to what’s going on to truly pay attention. And in the case of Congress, even if some members do have issues, they’re all but gagged from speaking out about them.

In some way, it strikes me that the answer needs to lie somewhere else. Someplace where the faces change more often and there’s less institutional pressure to automatically approve of whatever’s going on. Someplace that has, at the very least, a certain amount of authority to explain publicly the broad outlines of what the surveillance state is doing. But where?

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