Government Accountability and National Security Not a Trade-Off

FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, January 20, 2010

"FBI agents seeking phone records used ‘startling’ methods," a recent Washington Post article said.

FBI agents seeking telephone records demanded information from phone companies in a variety of "startling" and illicit methods, including e-mail and post-it notes, in an "egregious breakdown" of safeguards and oversight, the Justice Department’s inspector general reported Wednesday.

The long-awaited investigative report describes numerous lapses by FBI agents seeking material through more than 700 emergency letters to phone service providers between 2002 and 2006, many of which did not involve real urgency, officials said.


"This report examines in detail the flawed practices that the FBI used to obtain thousands of telephone records, and the accountability of FBI employees for these troubling practices," Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said. "While the FBI has taken action to end the use of exigent letters and other informal requests for telephone records, we believe that the FBI and the Department need to examine this report carefully and take additional corrective action to ensure that the FBI obtains such records in accord with the law and Department of Justice policies."

One of my major sources of frustration with debates over domestic surveillance is that we often conflate quite different issues together in a way that confuses rather than enlightens debate.  This is one of those cases, where anger at the FBI actions will be taken by some to be opposition to any domestic surveillance and a lack of seriousness regarding the threat posed by terrorist groups.

The reality is quite different.  It is possible to oppose warrantless wiretaps and insist upon strict safeguards on surveillance programs without being opposed to surveillance if justified.  The problem is that we tend to see it as all or nothing — take the gloves off and let the executive branch do whatever it wants, or do nothing.

The rule of law is important.  And transparency and oversight are key elements of democratic accountability.  We may have to surrender some measure of privacy in response to the nature of national security threats and development on the information technology side of things, but there is no reason that should also require giving up the core value of accountable government.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project.  This article was previously published at ASP’s Flash Point blog.  AP Photo.

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