Is it spying when the National Security Agency listens to your phone calls and reads your text messages? What about when a reporter leaks confidential information obtained through an informant? Should he or she be prosecuted?
Privacy is the issue. Where do we draw the line?
Our intelligence programs have become the subject of national debate. There are many misconceptions about telephone surveillance, such as the belief that the NSA is spying on innocent Americans by listening to their phone calls and reading their emails and text messages.
This simply isn’t true. In order to listen to conversations or search through emails and text messages, U.S. intelligence agencies must first have probable cause, and then obtain a court order. No one is listening to your conversations. The government is collecting “metadata,” which consists of information that would appear on an individual’s phone bill, including numbers dialed, dates, times and duration of calls.
Many Americans are outraged nonetheless, and claim that the federal government is violating their rights. According to Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, it is important to realize that information gathered by inspecting suspected terrorists’ phone activity has prevented several terrorist attacks in recent years.
To that end, in 2011 President Obama signed a four-year extension of several key elements of the Patriot Act, the bill signed in the weeks after 9/11 that allowed the government to wiretap, search business records and conduct surveillance on individuals suspected of having ties to terrorist organizations or who may be taking part in terrorist-related activities.
The program allows U.S. intelligence agencies to identify terrorist leads and helps them prevent terror plots.
In fact, Rep. Peter King has called the program “absolutely essential” and reminded us that “hundreds, maybe thousands of New Yorkers would’ve been incinerated in the subway system” if Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested in 2009 for being part of a plot to bomb the New York City subway, had not been caught.