The New York Times reports today that the leaders of France and Germany have decided they want talks with the United States over the “spying” that they imagine the United States has been doing on them. The problem is, even the estimable reporters at the Times don’t seem to understand how this story has played out over the years, and no one seems to care to discover what this is all about. The key phrase that demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of this issue comes in this paragraph from the story:
Those worries could intensify with the publication in The Guardian on Friday of a report that as long ago as October 2006, the National Security Agency, the American agency Mr. Snowden once worked for, had monitored the telephone conversations of 35 world leaders. The assertion emerged in what the newspaper described as a classified document he had leaked. (Link to article in the original.)
The phrase “as long ago as October 2006” betrays a complete misunderstanding of this issue. The only way that something that happened in 2006 could be if it was still happening. For anyone to assume that anything that happened in 2006 was relevant to what is going on in 2013 means they are not aware of the history of NSA surveillance system, and the fact that it has changed completely since 2006.
PRISM, which is the computer system that collects and stores the data that so many are complaining about, didn’t even exist in 2006. That would have occurred under the “President’s Surveillance Program,” which was conducted by the Bush Administration without oversight by anyone, and without any legal constructs. It was discovered in 2005, which led to years of discussions and finally ended in early 2007, when the then-Democratic Congress let the authorization for that program expire. They then crafted the Protect America Act and passed it in August of that year, with the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 passing 11 months later. Both of those laws served to kill the old, secret Bush illegal surveillance program with something with many more controls and a lot more oversight. I remember a lot of press reports and liberal activism at the time, fighting to make sure that any surveillance program had very strict rules, and very strict oversight, to protect people.
Put simply , the program that was in effect on October 27, 2006 was killed for good on February 1, 2007, and has been replaced by a completely different program. Does that mean the revelations that the NSA engaged in some shady activities back them are untrue? No, of course not. Why would anyone assume that any sureillance activity engaged in by the Bush Administration would be clean and neat and break no laws?
The problem is, neither the Guardian nor the Times stories include that context. In fact, both stories are written in a voice that seems to imply that the NSA might still be engaging in the same sort of behavior. And they may be, but nothing in any of the documents Edward Snowden has provided thus far indicate such a thing. Both of them compare
The story told by these documents is that 35 world leaders were being “spied” upon by the United States. But if the actual surveillance was stopped in 2007, why would anyone compare it to activities that were apparently undertaken earlier this year, such as the French phone call data mining, if they were interested in accuracy? Activities pre-2007 and activities now are completely different, and should be treated as such.