With leaked revelations disclosing the scope of the federal government’s ability to peer into the public’s phone calls and email use, both U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Congressman John Tierney indicated the law that enabled the snooping will be up for scrutiny.
Tierney, who unlike Warren, was a federal lawmaker when the Patriot Act passed in 2001 and during its subsequent revisions, said that news of previously secret National Security Agency programs should come as no surprise. Tierney also said President Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, had little choice but to implement the security measures allowed for by the law, intended as a counter-terrorism effort.
“I don’t think anybody in the press, or anybody in Congress, or frankly most people in the public ought to be too surprised when they realized that this was taken to the end,” Tierney told reporters after an appeal for lower student loan rates at Northeastern University Monday. “If you have an executive and you tell them you want to keep them safe and here are the boundaries, then they’re probably going to go to the extent of the boundaries, because nobody wants to be asking the question the day after: ‘Why didn’t you do something to prevent whatever might have happened?’”
The Guardian and the Washington Post broke the news last week that the NSA used a secret program known as Prism to mine personal data from a range of web companies, including Google and Facebook, along with a parallel program known as Blarney, which tracks the meta-data on web users.
The news followed a Guardian scoop on a secret security court’s order permitting the NSA’s collection of meta-data from Verizon users, foreign and domestic, and controversies around the Obama administration’s tactics in investigating leaks to the news media. In a Suffolk University poll of 500 likely voters in the June 25 U.S. Senate election, 61 percent of respondents said there should be stricter limits on the federal government’s power to investigate journalists, while 25 percent disagreed with that.
Gov. Deval Patrick treated the news of secret espionage programs with caution.
“You know, I’ve been following those stories, I think like lots of people and trying to understand what’s really involved and what the truth is and to parse through the reactions to find out exactly what the facts and the explanations are,” Patrick told reporters Monday.
“Many of us objected to the Patriot Act when it was written, because we thought it was too expansive and it well could carry out to just what has happened, something that would bring in a lot more information than some of us thought – others were comfortable with it. Obviously it passed,” said Tierney, who voted against the Patriot Act.
Tierney said, “There were many of us who thought that we could have struck a better balance for privacy and civil liberties with security at the same time, and now we’re going to have that debate hopefully.”
Both Warren and Tierney indicated a belief that questions of civil liberties had been glossed during previous debates over the legislation, which was initially enacted in the weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“I’m very troubled, but I think the congressman is exactly right. We need to have a public debate about this. There’s a balance that has to be struck between our security and our freedom,” Warren said. She said, “Now it’s going to be a public conversation. It’s a conversation we’ve needed to have for 12 years now.”
The NSA programs were secretly leaked to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, by Edward Snowden, a former security contractor who came out as the source in an interview with Greenwald from a Hong Kong hotel where he was staying.
Asked whether Snowden should be investigated under the Espionage Act, Tierney said, “I suspect that he will from what I’ve heard in the administration; what I’ve heard of Peter King and others on the various relevant committees. They believe that they’re going to look into bringing him back if they could extradite, and at least have the process.”
Snowden, a 29-year-old who reportedly left behind a $200,000 salary and a girlfriend in Hawaii, told Greenwald he was unsure about his future and said he believes the CIA may try to “render” him.
“He seemed to indicate that he thought there would be consequences for his actions, and he was willing to accept them, but I’m only getting what I’m reading in the paper,” Tierney said.
After an aide to Warren indicated the close of questions from the press Monday, a reporter started to ask about their beliefs on potential changes to the Patriot Act, but Warren and Tierney did not answer, as an aide said “thank you,” and press availability drew to a close.
In an email to supporters Friday, Congressman Michael Capuano said he was “outraged” at the news of the monitoring programs, which he called an “incredible overreach.”
“It is time for those of us who support President Obama to speak up. I believe he is a good man and has been a good President. However, I think his Administration has allowed their concern for our safety to lead them down the wrong path,” Capuano wrote. “If we remain silent, those who have always wished him to fail on every point stand a better chance of winning the hearts and minds of America and we will all be worse off for it. It is possible to support President Obama and yet disagree with him on certain issues – this is one of those times.”