It’s been over a year since former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden began leaking classified information about the United States government. Among the numerous leaks, Snowden revealed the U.S. government’s massive domestic spying program, which included, but wasn’t limited to, the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata. While the cat is out of the bag now, it’s important to dig deeper into the past to see how the NSA actually began, and how it affects people today.
It was in March of 2013 when Snowden flew to Hong Kong to meet with investigative journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. Less than a month later, Edward Snowden was a household name in Washington, as his leaks became public. Since this time, Snowden has been seeking asylum in Russia, avoiding arrest if he steps back onto U.S. soil. According to the International Business Times on November 29, the Centre for International Governance Innovation released a new study that showed that 60 percent of the over 20,000 that participated in the survey had heard of Edward Snowden and his government leaks.
Following the attacks on 9/11, many point to the Patriot Act, signed by then President George W. Bush, as the birth of NSA spying. Despite campaigning on reigning in the law, President Obama has not only reneged on his promise, but has expanded the Bush polices in many areas. However, as reported by the Intercept in September, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained legal papers in regards to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that dealt with current NSA operations. The documents point to an executive order issued over 30 years ago as the “primary source” of NSA spying. The Hill details Executive Order 12333 and Reagan’s plan moving forward.
“The order, known as Executive Order 12333, allows the NSA to collect Internet communications about foreigners, including their email messages and online chats. The agency is not allowed to target people in the U.S., though Americans’ communications can be “incidentally” picked up in the course of a foreign investigation, which critics have said poses grave risks to privacy.”
Reagan signed the order in 1981, and was amended by George W. Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Earlier this month, the Senate failed to pass “The Freedom Act,” which would have begun reigning in the NSA’s mass collection of U.S. phone data. The bill actually had bipartisan support, as it was sponsored by Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Others voted against the bill, such as Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who thought the bill didn’t go far enough, and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who thought it went too far. Riding the political line, the Obama administration supported the bill, which, while baring the government from retaining metadata, would have also required phone companies to keep those records until the government was given the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Reagan’s executive order is the origins of the NSA’s mass collection of domestic phone data, something that the majority of Americans see as a problem. According to a Pew Research Center survey released in early November, over 70 percent of Americans said they were concerned that the NSA could be obtaining private information of its citizens. The Centre for International Governance Innovation survey also confirms those suspicions, as nearly 40 percent of those who have heard of the Snowden leaks have taken major steps to guard against the NSA.
Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama deserve varying degrees of blame for the continuing policies of NSA spying and bulk data collection. While blame can be placed at the door step of the current and previous administrations, it was Ronald Reagan who signed the executive order that got the ball rolling for the NSA to lurk into the private lives of the American people.