Jim Lee: Spy programs need accountability

With trust in government at all-time lows, is it any wonder that many of our elected leaders continue to preach that we should just trust them and not ask questions about intrusive government spying programs?

Perhaps I'm missing something, but I wonder what House Speaker John Boehner was using as criteria when he called Edward Snowden a "traitor." Snowden is the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked that the government was collecting mounds of information on everyday Americans from cellphone companies, social media site hosts and Internet companies.

"The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk," Boehner said on an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America." "It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are."

That's false.

Our adversaries have known what our capabilities are since at least 2001 when the Patriot Act was enacted and people complained about the far-reaching government snooping and intrusion into private lives that would come with it. At the time, however, we were all assured that the programs would only be used to target suspected terrorists. The government would not be collecting information on American citizens, we were told. On top of that, there would still be checks and balances because government operatives would have to get court orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. We just weren't allowed to know who the government was seeking court orders to track or why they wanted to track those people.

Yeah, like that won't lead to any abuses of power.

Tea party groups across the nation are up in arms after it was revealed that the Internal Revenue Service had singled them out for special scrutiny, spawning comparisons to Richard M. Nixon's White House years where he maintained an enemies list and used government agencies to go after anyone he didn't like. In a 2010 case, The Huffington Post reported on an Iowa woman convicted in federal court for illegally accessing President Barack Obama's student loan records.

In fact, instances of political operatives or their cronies illegally accessing information maintained in databases as a way to discredit their opponents is commonplace. So while government officials may claim that their monitoring programs aren't targeting specific individuals, there really is no guarantee that someone working within one of those surveillance operations isn't doing a little freelance snooping.

It is startling that a majority of Republicans and Democrats, the two parties who for the past five years have seemingly been able to agree on nothing, pretty much all say government should have a right to look at where you are going on the Internet or see who you have been calling on your cellphone. And you have no right to complain or to even know that they are doing it.

But it is promising that last week major tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, called upon the federal government to lift the gag orders that prevent them from telling their customers that the government is requesting information about them, and that they would like to see more transparency concerning what is being collected and how it is being used.

More promising still is that a small group of Republicans and Democrats is also calling for more transparency. It has introduced a bill that would declassify the opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that allowed for the gathering of the information under these programs in the first place.

National security is sometimes a valid reason to keep things from the general public. But since 9/11 and the enactment of the Patriot Act, lawmakers and those in power have been using the national security excuse far too often in their efforts to keep secrets. A good test to see if there are legitimate concerns or if we are merely being played can be found in whether any of this secret information ever becomes available.

Presumably, if the government has to seek out records to avoid a specific threat, at some point before too long that threat will diminish or pass, or those planning harm will be apprehended.

The fact that these spy programs against Americans have no specific threat tied to them, that information regarding why they are being used is never declassified and that they are apparently unending should set off alarm bells for just about everyone. On top of that, when those in power are so afraid of losing this tool that they call the person who exposed it a traitor with no justification to back that up, we should all be concerned.

I have no problem with government surveillance programs in efforts to fight terrorism. I do have a problem with continuous government fishing expeditions which accumulate vast amounts of personal information on everyday Americans for no specific purpose, especially when there is no accountability and a high potential for abuse.