NSA Spying Undermines Separation of PowersPosted: February 11, 2014
The program makes it easy for the president to spy on and blackmail his enemies
Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes: Most of the worry about the National Security Agency’s bulk interception of telephone calls, e-mail and the like has centered around threats to privacy. And, in fact, the evidence suggests that if you’ve got a particularly steamy phone- or Skype-sex session going on, it just might wind up being shared by voyeuristic NSA analysts.
But most Americans figure, probably rightly, that the NSA isn’t likely to be interested in their stuff. (Anyone who hacks my e-mail is automatically punished, by having to read it.) There is, however, a class of people who can’t take that disinterest for granted: members of Congress and the judiciary. What they have to say is likely to be pretty interesting to anyone with a political ax to grind. And the ability of the executive branch to snoop on the phone calls of people in the other branches isn’t just a threat to privacy, but a threat to the separation of powers and the Constitution.
As the Framers conceived it, our system of government is divided into three branches — the executive, legislative and judicial — each of which is designed to serve as a check on the others. If the president gets out of control, Congress can defund his efforts, or impeach him, and the judiciary can declare his acts unconstitutional. If Congress passes unconstitutional laws, the president can veto them, or refuse to enforce them, and the judiciary, again, can declare them invalid. If the judiciary gets carried away, the president can appoint new judges, and Congress can change the laws, or even impeach.
But if the federal government has broad domestic-spying powers, and if those are controlled by the executive branch without significant oversight, then the president has the power to snoop on political enemies, getting an advantage in countering their plans, and gathering material that can be used to blackmail or destroy them.With such power in the executive, the traditional role of the other branches as checks would be seriously undermined, and our system of government would veer toward what James Madison in The Federalist No. 47 called “the very definition of tyranny,” that is, “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands.”
That such widespread spying power exists, of course, doesn’t prove that it has actually been abused. But the temptation to make use of such a power for self-serving political ends is likely to be very great. And, given the secrecy surrounding such programs, outsiders might never know. In fact, given the compartmentalization that goes on in the intelligence world, almost everyone at the NSA might be acting properly, completely unaware that one small section is devoted to gather political intelligence. We can hope, of course, that such abuses would leak out, but they might not…
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- CONFIRMED: Obama’s NSA is Spying on Congress (capitalisminstitute.org)
- NSA Spying On Congress (ritholtz.com)
- NSA Spying: The Three Pillars of Government Trust Have Fallen (rinf.com)
- FOCUS | Bernie Sanders Asks NSA if They Spy on Congress (readersupportednews.org)
- Government Caught Lying About Spying Again (ritholtz.com)
- Sanders to NSA: Spying on Hill? (politico.com)
- DOJ: NSA “Probably” Snoops on Congressmen’s Phone Calls (lastresistance.com)
- NSA Refuses to Answer to Congress (dailytech.com)