Want to see how secrecy is corrosive to democracy? Look no further than a series of explosive investigations by various news organizations this week that show the government hiding surveillance programs purely to prevent a giant public backlash.
USA Today’s Brad Heath published a blockbuster story on Monday about the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) running a massive domestic spying operation parallel to the NSA’s that was tracking billions of international calls made by Americans. They kept it secret for more than two decades. According to the USA Today report, the spying program was not only used against alleged terrorist activity, but countless supposed drug crimes, as well as “to identify US suspects in a wide range of other investigations”. And they collected information on millions of completely innocent Americans along the way.
Heath’s story is awash with incredible detail and should be read in full, but one of the most interesting parts was buried near the end: the program was shut down by the Justice Department after the Snowden leaks, not because Snowden exposed the program, but because they knew that when the program eventually would leak, the government would have no arguments to defend it.
The justification they were using for the NSA’s program – that it was only being used against dangerous terrorists, not ordinary criminals – just wasn’t true with the DEA. The public would clearly be outraged by the twisted legal justification that radically re-interpreted US law in complete secrecy. “They couldn’t defend both programs”, a former Justice Department official told Heath. The piece also reveals that Attorney General Eric Holder “didn’t think we should have that information” in the first place, which is interesting because Holder was one of the first Justice Department officials to approve the program during the Clinton administration. It’s nice he came to his senses, but if the program never risked going public, would he have felt the same?
Read the full story here.