Categorized | Suffolk Close-up

Data Dragnet

Posted on 08 August 2013

By Karl Grossman

The recent vote in the House of Representatives on reining in the National Security Agency’s dragnet approach to collecting data was extremely close­205-to-217­with the three congressmen representing Suffolk in the narrow majority voting against the measure.

In the battle over the bill, “Conservative Republicans leery of what they see as Obama administration abuses of power teamed up with liberal Democrats long opposed to intrusive intelligence programs,” reported The New York Times. “The Obama administration made common cause with the House Republican leadership to try to block it.”

For Suffolk, however, the vote joined relatively liberal Democrats, Representatives Tim Bishop and Steve Israel, with a conservative Republican, Peter King. Mr. Bishop’s district includes Brookhaven and the five East End towns among them Southampton and East Hampton. Mr. Israel’s takes in northwest Suffolk and northern Nassau County into Queens. Mr. King’s covers southwest Suffolk and southern Nassau.

The bill was written by Representative Justin Amash, described by The Times as a “libertarian Republican” from Michigan, and John Conyers, Jr., a “veteran liberal Democrat” also from Michigan. Its main focus was on blocking the NSA from its collecting of vast amounts of phone records. Only phone surveillance of specific investigative targets would be allowed.

It was triggered by the revelations of NSA leaker Edward Snowden. In the debate on the bill, Representative Jerry Nadler of Manhattan spoke about the NSA gathering “megadata.” Mr. Amash held the NSA surveillance flies in the face of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. NSA defenders, meanwhile, said its program is necessary to counter terrorism.

Investigative journalist James Bamford who has long probed the NSA, authoring three best-sellers about it, “The Puzzle Palace,” “Body of Secrets” and “The Shadow Factory,”  compares­as do many others­NSA activities with the surveillance portrayed by George Orwell in his book “1984.” It “described a fictitious totalitarian society where a shadowy leader known as ‘Big Brother’ controls his population through invasive surveillance…Today, as the Snowden documents make clear, it is the NSA that keeps track of phone calls, monitors communications, and analyzes people’s thoughts through data mining of Google searches and other online activity” wrote Mr. Bamford last month in the New York Review of Books.

With a secret yearly budget estimated at now $10 billion, the NSA “is a huge agency, very, very large, about three times the size of the CIA,” says Mr. Bamford.

A wrinkle to this is that much of the NSA’s budget­some 70 percent of it, according to the non-partisan group MapLight­goes to private defense contractors that work for it. MapLight ( ) has analyzed the recent vote on the basis of political contributions to members of Congress and found “representatives voting to continue the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programs received, on average, 122 percent more money from defense interests” than those who voted against it.

Brian Beedenbender, district director for Congressman Bishop, said that Mr. Bishop voted against the bill because it “would have suspended data collection from places like Yemen and Afghanistan and other countries known to harbor anti-American and terrorist elements.”  The vote of Mr. Bishop, of Southampton, was “in the interests of national security.”

Congressman Israel, of Huntington, although saying he favors “an open debate and review of our policies,” stresses that the NSA “system worked” in averting terrorist plots.

Congressman King, of Seaford, calls the NSA surveillance program “absolutely essential” and says Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Snowden story at The Guardian, should be prosecuted for reporting on leaks. Mr. King would thus challenge the Constitution’s First Amendment providing for freedom of our press.

Forty years ago another Suffolk congressman, Otis G. Pike of Riverhead, investigated the U.S. intelligence establishment as chairman of a special House committee. It was a frustrating experience. The House refused to allow his committee’s report to be released. The report, detailing all sorts of outrageous activities by the U.S. government, finally did get out —The Village Voice got hold of a copy from CBS journalist Daniel Schorr. But the intelligence empire held sway. Soon after, Mr. Pike after 18 years left the House rather disgusted. Four decades later, will things be different?

Maybe. The Times, in a front page story last week, reported on the “movement” in Congress “to crack down” on the NSA’s widespread surveillance and said “what began on the political fringes…has built a momentum that even critics say may be unstoppable.”


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