VIDEO: Experts Debate Secrecy, Oversight, and Liberties in NSA Surveillance Issue

On June 5, the anniversary of the first disclosures by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Governance Studies at Brookings held a debate on the future of U.S. intelligence collection authorities. The resolution was “U.S. surveillance authorities require fundamental reform.” Arguing in favor were Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU and Julian Sanchez of the CATO Institute. Arguing in opposition were John “Chris” Inglis, former NSA deputy director, and Carrie Cordero, director of national security studies at Georgetown Law. Brookings Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes moderated the event.

You can get full event video and audio from the event’s page.

Jaffer began the debate on the pro side with the notion that U.S government surveillance activities are more extensive and intrusive than imagined. He portrayed government surveillance as having the motive to “collect it all, process it all, and know it all.” Later he wondered whether “there’s a certain amount of talking past each other” in the compliance discussion happening in the debate. The “larger scandal is what Congress has legalized,” he said:

Cordero opened for the side opposing the resolution with a concern about the scope of proposed surveillance and intelligence reform. She stressed that some proposed reforms could degrade national intelligence and instead championed more specific reforms that could improve public opinion of and confidence in government surveillance. Citing the apparent lack of evidence for misuse of collected information, she lauded the oversight mechanisms present within the NSA and explained that transparency was perhaps the most important aspect in this debate.

Cordero countered Jaffer’s advocacy of having civil liberties advocates participate in FISA Court decisions. Watch as she explains why a public advocate in the FISA court would be “unnecessary and unproductive”:

Sanchez pointed to the lack of institutions and bodies that could appropriately check government surveillance. He argued that intelligence activities must be conducted in a thoughtful manner and that a smaller system of surveillance is necessary because it is impossible to monitor abuse or misuse of power in a very large system, a “panopticon” as he called it.

In response to points made by Inglis and Cordero on FISA Court operations, Sanchez remarked that “secrecy changes everything about those systems and radically dilutes the functioning of the checks that are in place.” But Cordero countered that “If we want to change that whole system, then that’s a new debate that needs to occur, but we can’t blame the NSA for operating within the system the government had set up for it for the last 30 years.”

Inglis emphasized aspects of the U.S. Constitution, namely the government’s responsibility to provide common defense and to defend civil liberties as well as the Tenth Amendment, as both authorizations of and checks on government power. He argued that, as the U.S. is not “at the end of history,” it must continue to respond appropriately to new threats that emerge every day. While that doesn’t justify overcollection, he argued that the main problem in this debate is transparency. There are still many myths and misconceptions of what the NSA does and does not collect, he explained.

Inglis and Jaffer debated existing NSA oversight mechanisms. Inglis said existing accountability controls have “actually worked quite well for us over the last dozen years and across my 25 years.” Jaffer asked “if its worked so well then why is it that only after the programs were disclosed did we learn that the programs were unnecessary?”

Inglis and Sanchez also exchanged their views on the premise of secrecy. “I do challenge the premise that this is a system operating in secrecy,” Inglis asserted. But Sanchez countered that “if we can’t be confident that the oversight is functioning, then it’s too dangerous for it to be there.”

The event was part of a Brookings series tied to the one-year anniversary of Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency revelations, and an ongoing research agenda that examines the domestic and international dimensions of how new technology, security and privacy intersect. Learn about Part One: International Implications.

Elina Saxena contributed to this post.