Feinstein pens love letter to NSA mass surveillance

The Senate Intelligence Committee chair defends government hoarding of call data as necessary to "connect dots"

Published October 21, 2013 1:34PM (EDT)

In a USA Today Op-Ed, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., reiterated her support for the NSA's mass surveillance of communications.

The senator, who has faced criticism from privacy advocates for her support of controversial dragnet spying programs, peddled the tired line in support of the NSA's phone records program, namely that it is defensible since it is not surveillance. She wrote:

The call-records program is not surveillance. It does not collect the content of any communication, nor do the records include names or locations. The NSA only collects the type of information found on a telephone bill: phone numbers of calls placed and received, the time of the calls and duration. The Supreme Court has held this "metadata" is not protected under the Fourth Amendment.

Feinstein's line is reminiscent of the feeble assurance offered by President Obama when leaks first revealed the vast extent of the NSA's telephonic metadata hoarding. "No one is listening to your calls," the president stressed in the summer. But as privacy and communications experts have emphasized, metadata provides an immense amount of information. Some have argued that the government's vast database of communications metadata is a greater threat to privacy than if spy agencies were targeting the content of specific individuals' calls and emails. The NSA's PRISM program, for example, collects data such as originating number, terminating number and length of call for every customer of the phone companies involved in the program -- a sprawling database of our connections is thus provided.

In her Op-Ed, Feinstein argues that the phone metadata collection enables government agencies to "connect the dots" in counterterror efforts. It's the same argument that has for some time been made by officials -- even before Snowden's leaks came to light -- to defend mass, warrantless collection of our communications data.  In a speech early this year, the CIA's chief technical officer Gus Hunt said, “The value of any piece of information is only known when you can connect it with something else that arrives at a future point in time ... Since you can’t connect dots you don’t have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.”

Feinstein's position is an untenable one. The senator is asking the public to put trust in a highly secretive government with the power to collect information on almost every communication within and going out of the U.S. She is asking the public to trust that this government (and future governments) can hoard our communications data en masse while respecting our expectations of privacy. Feinstein is at base asking that the public agree to forgo privacy (an essential liberty) to obtain temporary safety; Benjamin Franklin turned in his grave.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Dianne Feinstein Mass Surveillance Nsa Senate Intelligence Committee