Transcript: John Podesta’s remarks on domestic surveillance programs at the Center for American Progress on July 23, 2013

Partial transcript of remarks by John Podesta, Chair of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, on domestic data collection and privacy rights on July 23, 2013:

…In 2006, Sen. [Ron] Wyden was one of only 10 Senators who voted against reauthorizing the Patriot Act. This year, of course, he pressed Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a Senate hearing about whether the government collects any kind of data on Americans online activity. That hearing, of course, was just a few months before the recent revelations that resulted from the Snowden leaks about the extent of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance capabilities and practices. I think it’s fair to say that Gen. Clapper wasn’t particularly forthcoming the morning that Senator asked him that question…

I want to first offer a few brief reflections on my own on surveillance and privacy – a topic which I’ve been working on for quite a long time. In 1984 – the real year, not the book – when I was working for Pat Leahy, we sent a letter to the Attorney General asking whether the 1968 Wiretap Act Title III in the omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act applies to electronic mail and other forms of electronic communications. We heard back shortly thereafter from the Deputy Attorney General who said the answer to that question was neither clear nor obvious.

That response and Sen. Leahy’s dedication to the issue led to the passage of the Electronics Communications Privacy Act, which updated the wiretap act in light of the new technology.

Today, of course, we once again face by rapid technological change to simply swamp our existing legal regime.

The media’s focus in recent weeks has circled almost exclusively around Edward Snowden’s attempt to earn the world’s record for longest airport layover. But the individual focus on Snowden, I think, distracts from what is most problematic about the information he provided to the media – that is, unlike the last time we had a national conversation about the NSA and domestic surveillance during the days of warrantless wiretapping in 2005, a legal framework exists today to support PRISM and the other programs recently brought into public view.

This time, the challenge isn’t rooted in NSA’s overstepping its legal boundaries. Instead, new products and services, increasing processing power, and the decreasing cost of storing huge amounts of data means that surveillance of an unprecedented scale is now not just technologically possible but it’s financially feasible for the first time. I sometime think of this as the dark side of Moore’s law.

It’s past time for us to begin a new national debate about what we want our surveillance laws to permit, particularly in light of how rapidly technology and society are changing.

It’s also time, I think, to revisit the issue of intelligence privatization. Since Sept. 11, the intelligence community has outsourced a great deal of work that a great many Americans just assume the government does itself. It’s mind-boggling that we have over a million contractors with security clearances, nearly a half a million with top secret clearances. These contractors are often paid significantly more than public employees. They supplement their screen with significantly less rigor and have access to the government’s most sensitive secrets.

Snowden is a spectacular failure in a system engineered to malfunction.

Congress should work to ensure that critical intelligence activities are performed by appropriate personnel.

These last weeks and months have also made clear that we need better oversight of our surveillance agencies and that we need increased transparency at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The American people have the right to know and understand the laws they live under. We all have the right to be treated as citizens by our government and to be respected as customers by the companies we buy products and services from.

Surely we can meet our national security needs without sacrificing the respect for personal privacy that has long been a hallmark of American life.

Finally, because these issues are so technologically complex and go to the heart of constitutional protections that we most cherish, we’re recommending today that President Obama establish a national commission to examine these challenges in full. Presidential commissions, of course, have a long history of thoroughly and impartially investigating many major national security issues, from Pearl Harbor to 9/11. The commission should be tasked with recommendations for a flexible legal framework that can easily accommodate technological advances while maintaining respect for civil liberties.

But the commission should not only examine NSA surveillance activities and the laws governing but also private sector activities and telecommunications technologies more generally.

The NSA programs that came to light in June rest in large part on a foundation of personal data collected by private corporations and governed by those lengthy terms and conditions agreements that you click “OK” to without a second thought.

Smart phones with built-in GPS technologies track their users’ locations. Social networks use personal information to sell ads. And phone companies collect metadata in every call made in the United States.

What was once thought of as transactional data and not content can today be used to develop penetrating profile of many Americans.

This won’t be an easy debate to have but the difficulty of the conversation, I think, is just one more reason why we need to begin today, and it’s one more reason why I’m glad we have Sen. Wyden’s leadership on this very important subject…

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2 Comments on “Transcript: John Podesta’s remarks on domestic surveillance programs at the Center for American Progress on July 23, 2013

  1. Pingback: Transcript: Q&A with Sen. Ron Wyden on the NSA's domestic surveillance programs at the Center for American Progress on July 23, 2013 | What The Folly?!

  2. Pingback: Transcript: Sen. Ron Wyden's remarks on the NSA's domestic surveillance programs at the Center for American Progress on July 23, 2013 | What The Folly?!

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