- - Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Public trust in the federal government is at a record low. All the polls and surveys show it, but we’re still expected to take it on faith that everything is done for our own good. The National Security Agency, for example, has been keeping tabs on where we go and when, listens to our telephone calls and reads our emails. If it wants, it could listen to a conversation with Granny, and let us know when we need to stop at the 7-Eleven for a quart of milk. Such all-knowing surveillance is supposed to thwart terrorism. Everyone wants to stop terrorism, so what’s wrong with a little surveillance?

Except that it’s simply not true that the NSA programs thwart crime. Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico on Tuesday filed a friend of the court brief to support a coalition of two-dozen groups suing the National Security Agency to stop the eavesdropping. All of these senators are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and have access to a great deal of privileged information.

“The evidence shows,” wrote the senators, “that the executive branch’s claims about the effectiveness of the bulk phone-records program have been vastly overstated and are, in some cases, utterly misleading.” When Edward J. Snowden, a former NSA contractor and celebrated leaker, released the top-secret court order authorizing the collection of the telephone records of millions of Americans, the administration’s spinners claimed that 54 deadly terrorist plots were thwarted by the snooping. They wrote an imaginative story line to persuade the public that so many lives had been saved that surrendering privacy was worth it.

Now we learn that the administration exaggerated the success story by counting every case in which a captured terrorist might have used a cellphone. “Of the original 54 that the government pointed to,” the senators said, “officials have only been able to describe two that involved materially useful information obtained through the bulk call-records program.” The senators think those two remaining cases could have been solved without blanket surveillance. It’s not possible to say what’s true and what’s not as long as the relevant information remains locked in the top-secret vaults at the various intelligence agencies.

The known facts do suggest that the effectiveness of dragnet surveillance is greatly exaggerated. Bulk records were being collected from telephone companies in April, yet this breathtaking invasion of privacy did nothing to thwart the Islamist extremists who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon. Instead of trust, the National Security Agency deserves closer scrutiny. The judges of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, charged with oversight of the intelligence community, are clearly not providing that scrutiny.

Newly released rulings of the court show that the judges rubber-stamped the administration’s spy requests even though they expressed misgivings about the scope of the snooping and the agency’s failure to follow the rules. Of more than 20,000 requests made since Sept. 11, 2001, only a handful have been rejected.

The Founding Fathers, who understood the nature of man, never put a lot of faith in government. They set up a system of checks and balances to prevent one branch of government from accumulating too much power. The National Security Agency now runs amok in the lives of everyone. This cannot stand.