Published Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Recent revelations about the government’s data mining operation should have a familiar ring to people in Maine: This is exactly what privacy advocates were warning us about in 2006.

Let’s look at the history: In 2005, The New York Times and USA Today published stories about a massive warrantless wiretap program conducted by the Bush administration as part of the war on terror. Although the constitutionality of such a program was questionable, Congress did not use its oversight authority to investigate whether the government had gone too far. Five months later, 22 Maine residents filed a complaint with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which regulates telecommunications here, calling for an investigation of whether any state laws had been violated. Before the PUC could act, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state and got a restraining order.

The complaint became part of a multi-state lawsuit, which was eventually rendered moot when Congress passed an expansion of the Federal Intelligence Security Act in 2008, making telecommunications companies immune from lawsuits regarding any work they had done on behalf of the government. Since the administration wasn’t talking, Congress wasn’t asking and the courts were prevented from intervening, the collection of data apparently continued.

Fast forward to 2013, when it was “revealed” that the National Security Agency has been collecting records of phone calls and Internet activity that identify suspects based on what they read or think, not what they’ve done.

It’s time for some answers: How extensive is the data mining operation? What are its limits? How much is too much, and who decides if a line has been crossed?

These revelations have been seized upon by critics of the Obama administration as a sign of the Democratic president’s disdain of constitutional checks and balances, but neither party has clean hands here.

This activity began in a Republican administration and was protected initially by a Republican-controlled Congress. When the FISA expansion passed five years ago, the Democrats were in control of the House and Senate, but they had considerable Republican support, including both of Maine’s senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

This should be a search for the truth, not an exercise in partisan gamesmanship. There are too many ways for this kind of information to be misused to give the government such unchecked power. The critics were silenced seven years ago. None of us should let that happen again.