Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
US Senator Dianne Feinstein's belief that the current revelations of the National Security Agency's (NSA) "compliance incidents," cases in which the agency violated its own standards and rules on the surveillance of Americans, are not a major issue of concern represents a dramatic case of tone deafness.
In fact, her evident satisfaction with the NSA's intelligence gathering activities provides strong evidence that the Congress is not only willing to overlook the NSA's actions, but was also fully complicit in those actions.
The first counterpoint to Feinstein's airy dismissal of public concerns is a simple one.
A violation of a US citizen's privacy is never a minor event, especially when it is carried out in the context of a program that has been kept secret from the citizens whose privacy it has infringed upon. Even an erroneous interception of an individual's communications could conceivably result in a number of serious consequences.
This is especially true when one considers that a US citizen has no way to determine if he or she has been the subject of an NSA "compliance incident" or to verify that the information gained was subsequently deleted. Because of the very secrecy of the program, even the unintentional accumulation of unlawful intelligence must be treated extremely seriously.
However, the unintended gathering of intelligence is far from the only concern that many Americans have raised. Perhaps the most damning revelation is that it appears that not only has the NSA shared intelligence with domestic agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), but it has taken action to conceal its involvement from judges and defense attorneys alike.
Not only is this unjust, in that it denies both defendants and the judicial system the ability to evaluate the source of the evidence used in these trials, but it effectively refutes Feinstein's claims that the NSA is not involved in domestic operations.
Furthermore, Feinstein is attempting to defuse a crisis at least partially of her own making. It is clear that both parties, whatever their current comments, were heavily involved in approving the NSA's actions and had no intention of informing the public until their hands were forced by Edward Snowden.
Attempting to casually dismiss public fears regarding these revelations is not only fruitless, but it also gives the impression that the government is more concerned with the fact that the American people are now aware of these operations than it is with the potential threat to its citizens' privacy.
Most Americans do not demand unlimited access to the information obtained by intelligence agencies. The people understand that many intelligence-gathering methods must be secret in order to be effective.
However, they are unwilling to tolerate a status quo that seems to be marked by a contempt for the law as it applies to domestic intelligence gathering.
To be blunt, the Congress has been caught in a lie, at least by omission, regarding its knowledge of the NSA's activities.
For this reason, Senator Feinstein and her fellow legislators will find it difficult to easily regain the trust of the people. Failing to understand this fact will only lead to the Congress becoming increasingly irrelevant in this current debate about the proper role of organizations like the NSA.
Ultimately, Feinstein and other politicians have only one option if they desire to regain the trust of the American people. They must work to create a greater sense of transparency among the domestic activities of the NSA, and develop truly independent bodies that can help protect Americans from unlawful domestic surveillance.
At the very least, Congress must act to stamp out the collusion between the NSA, DEA and IRS and ensure that any information used in legal system is lawfully obtained and its source identified.
During her comments, Feinstein stated that protecting the US was the goal of the NSA program. While this may be true, a growing number of Americans are concerned that the NSA has drastically overstepped its bounds. Because of this, restoring their faith in the legality and wisdom of the NSA's actions will take far more than empty platitudes from congressional leaders.
The author is a freelance writer based in Corona, California. firstname.lastname@example.org