Wednesday last, The Manchester Guardian "scooped" the world with its disclosure that the National Security Agency (NSA) was "requiring phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily... Under terms of the order, the numbers of both parties on the call are handed over, as if location data and the time and duration of all calls." Last week, Huffington readers could have read that "after 9/11 NSA was listening without authorization to phone calls from one American citizen to [other] American citizens." And more than seven years before that piece The New York Times won a Pulitzer prize for reporting much the same thing in much greater detail.
Even in 2005, Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of The Times, declared that:
"The fact that the government eavesdrops on those suspected of terrorist connections is well-known. The fact that the NSA can legally monitor communications within the United States with a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is also public information.
"What is new is that the NSA has for the past three years had the authority to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the Untied States without a warrant."
I take the same position as Bill Keller. The fact that the Bush administration had been using, with Court approval, telephone companies to gather information about potential terrorist acts had been common knowledge since 2001. I had not learned about the warrantless searches until late 2005, and I did not mention it in the blog I was writing at that time. I thought it should be kept secret, but Bill Keller thought differently and The Times won a Pulitzer prize. They deserved it, it was an act of courage.
It should not surprise anyone that the US Justice Department immediately began a search for The Times "source." So far as I know, he or she has never been identified. Later, the Bush administration instituted, in the words of Wikipedia, "more safeguards and more Congressional and Judicial oversight."
Federal phone tapping didn't become an issue again until last week, when the Obama administration seemed to have ignored "more safeguards and more Congressional and Judicial oversight" and reverted to the bad old days. It has since been revealed that both AT&T and Sprint have been supplying the NSA with information similar to that demanded and supplied by Verizon. The clamor over the original Manchester Guardian piece has died down with both Republicans and Democrats recognizing the need for surveillance of telephone and internet conversations.
The Guardian piece seems to have done no harm and may even do some good, but calling it a "scoop" just emphasizes the short attention span of the world's news organizations. Seven and a half years ago, the Times told the story very well. It was a scoop, but we and the Obama administration should've remembered it before we embarked on a brief crusade against "government intrusion" in private communications. Like it or not, we are still at war with terrorists.