The scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance efforts is, to put it mildly, expansive. As the Snowden leaks made clear, the NSA maintains records of practically every domestic phone call made by everyone, ostensibly in the name of national security.
It led Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to ask an interesting question last week: “Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other elected officials?”
As Brian Fung explained, Sanders carefully defined “spy” to indicate “the collection of phone records from personal as well as official telephones, ‘content from Web sites visited or e-mails sent,’ and data that companies collect but don’t release to the public.”
The NSA didn’t exactly say no, telling the Washington Post, “Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons.” Which is to say, when Americans’ communications are monitored by the intelligence agency, lawmakers are subjected to the same surveillance.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) defended the intelligence gathering on Fox News yesterday.
“If a member of Congress is talking to an Al Qaeda leader in Iraq or Afghanistan, why should that member of Congress be any different from any person on the street?”
He added that Sanders was attempting to imply that the NSA is “spying” on Congress. “They’re not spying on anyone,” he added.
This seems to capture much of the debate quite nicely. King believes elected federal lawmakers talking to al Qaeda leaders should have their communications monitored, which certainly seems like a credible argument. But it also helps summarize the fantastical nature of King’s point – is there any evidence to suggest members of Congress are talking to terrorists? Well, no, but King would have you believe all lawmakers should be monitored anyway, just in case.
The equality of treatment is reassuring, I suppose, though it underscores why the surveillance is problematic in the first place. If there’s no evidence of wrongdoing, no suspicious behavior, and no probable cause, why would the NSA feel the need to monitor the communications of members of Congress – or anyone else?
For King, the point seems to be that if lawmakers aren’t in communication with terrorists, they have nothing to worry about. It’s a familiar refrain, but it’s not the way the game is supposed to be played.