The Guardian newspaper last night disclosed a classified court order compelling U.S.-based Verizon Communications Inc. to provide data on its customers’ calls, continuing a George W. Bush administration surveillance policy that sparked a national controversy. Photographer: Ryan Anson/Bloomberg
The Guardian newspaper last night disclosed a classified court order compelling U.S.-based Verizon Communications Inc. to provide data on its customers’ calls, continuing a George W. Bush administration surveillance policy that sparked a national controversy. Photographer: Ryan Anson/Bloomberg

On May 23, President Barack Obama gave a major speech on terrorism that was intended to signal the end of an era. In his remarks at the National Defense University, Obama said the terrorist threat against the U.S. had “shifted and evolved” since the Sept. 11 attacks. It was time, he said, to ask “hard questions” about how the U.S. should adapt to new realities.

Curiously, we now learn that just one month before his speech, the Obama administration responded to new realities with the same old habits. On April 25, administration officials sought court permission under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to begin collecting telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon Business Network Services, a Verizon Communications Inc. subsidiary. A compliant national security court -- there appears to have been no other type since Sept. 11 -- authorized the collection, allowing it to continue until July 19. The order isn’t scheduled to be declassified until 2038.

Civil libertarians were outraged at the latest intrusion into American privacy, lamenting the birth of a police state in the cradle of liberty. A day later they received more ammunition. It turns out the surveillance is merely a continuation of a program that has been routinely reauthorized for seven years. Fear not, said Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia. The program, he said, “has proved meritorious because we have collected significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.”

Who knew Verizon had so many sinister accounts? We would happily pass judgment on this, and other, government claims if only we had sufficient information to do so. Requests to the surveillance court are made in secret, and it renders its rulings in secret, enabling the government to pursue its surveillance activities -- whatever they are -- in secret. As Harvard Law professor and Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman points out, even the court’s interpretation of the law is secret, making the entire process inscrutable. So was the intrusion justified? There’s no way to know.

That’s a problem. If Obama wants on one hand to move the U.S. beyond an era of overreaction, and on the other to secure legitimacy for national security investigations, the government is going to have to trust its citizens a little more. We need to know what the grounds are for these continuing surveillance requests and how they could be so sweeping as to encompass millions of Verizon customers nationwide.

Responsibility doesn’t stop with the White House. Congress, which is supposed to check instances of overreach by the executive branch, has instead gone to great lengths to abet them. Many critics dismiss the Patriot Act of 2001, which laid the groundwork for aggressive surveillance, as a product of post-Sept. 11 panic. But in the past two years Congress has twice voted down amendments to require government disclosure of the scope of such snooping, including data on whether the government had engaged in warrantless searches of communications involving American citizens.

Meanwhile, in a 2012 report to Congress, the government said the surveillance court in the prior year hadn’t denied a single application to conduct electronic surveillance -- after having received 1,676 of them. The surveillance state isn’t the product of a rogue White House; it is court-sanctioned, congressionally approved government policy.

We have long assumed the invocations of Orwell that arise to meet every terrorism investigation are hyperbolic. We are also mindful that the world is dangerous, and liberty must be balanced with security. However, the benefit of the doubt afforded to the government is wearing thin. Are we living in a police state? We’d like to know.

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