04/07/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

Pay No Attention to What They Tell You, They Are Listening In


Cross-posted with

Here's what the president said back in June 2013, while reassuring the American people about the National Security Agency's collection of their phone metadata: "When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program's about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content."

And indeed, the NSA was analyzing the metadata it was collecting from all of us. Only one small problem (shades of the Bush era): it was also listening in and reading, too. To be exact, without warrants and using a "backdoor loophole" in the law, the agency repeatedly plunged into massive databases that, while gathering emails and phone calls from "foreign targets," swept up prodigious numbers of American ones in the process. (Evidently, the CIA and the FBI were using similar backdoors to similar ends.) It's true that, strictly speaking, those calls and emails were being collected by a different program than the one the president was referring to; so, if you're a stickler for details, he didn't exactly, officially lie. In any case, it's nothing you or I should really worry our little heads about, not when it turns out that whatever was done was perfectly "legal."

We know this thanks to a legal expert of the first order, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who communicated as much to Senator Ron Wyden by letter recently. Who, after all, should know better than Clapper, the man in charge of overseeing a secret world that has its own "parallel supreme court" renowned for only listening to one side of any case? Here's his statement on the subject of those warrantless searches of our phone conversations and emails: "There have been queries, using U.S. person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence targeting non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States. These queries were performed pursuant to minimization procedures approved by the FISA court and consistent with the statute and the Fourth Amendment."

If you don't understand that, consider yourself English-challenged. In fact, you should just stop fretting about government surveillance entirely and, while you're at it, cut back on the overblown paranoia, too. Americans, it's time to go back to full-scale online shopping and banking, and to stop telling pollsters you're doing less of it because of the NSA!

Really, there's no point in making such a fuss about perfectly legal operations. Isn't it simpler just to stop paying attention to what the president, his top officials, and the guardians of our secret world tell us about what they're doing? After all, in the end, by hook, crook, or secret "law," they will find a convenient justification for doing just what they want to do anyway. Right now, we have a partial picture of what one agency in the U.S. intelligence community, the NSA, has been doing in these years, thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden. Someday, perhaps, we'll have a fuller picture of what the other 16 agencies have been doing and it will surely take your breath away.

In the meantime, it's rare that we ever get a glimpse of how our expanding secret state really works. But every now and then, a single case can suddenly illuminate an otherwise dark landscape. Such is Rahinah Ibrahim's case, carefully laid out by former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren in his new piece, "How Many Watch Lists Fit on the Head of a Pin?" It should chill you to the bone.