What will it take to curb the NSA's spying? Political courage, says an expert

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. You remember that dance tune from the 80's with the chorus, "I've got this feeling somebody's watching me"? Not just a feeling these days. The entire watching business itself is being closely watched. From the National Security Agency to journalists who watch or listen in ways they're not supposed to. In a few minutes, we'll hear about the latest twist in Britain's phone hacking scandal, first though we keep the spotlight on the NSA. Embarrassing revelations about the agency snooping on friendly world leaders have caused outrage abroad and put President Obama on the defensive. Tim Weiner is the author of the book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. He formerly covered the intelligence-gathering beat for the New York Times and Weiner says we've seen this movie before in the 1970's.

Tim Weiner: After Watergate, the Senate held hearings in which we learned that the NSA had been spying on Americans. Those Americans included, had included, Martin Luther King and several United States Senators as well as political opponents of President Johnson and President Nixon. Now what we got after those very painful public hearings was a set of laws and procedures. We got the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is supposed to oversee the NSA and grant it authority to conduct wiretapping and eavesdropping operations. The technology to do this has now exceeded the policy to control it and the freedom that Bush gave the NSA with secret orders enforced by a secret court and guided by secret laws have obviously grown to the point where they're not only potentially dangerous to democracy in terms of gathering information on Americans, but ridiculous like listening in on Chancellor Merkel of Germany and when people start laughing at you in the context of foreign policy and politics, that's dangerous.

Werman: I mean, there have been a number of people in the past few days who've been talking about a new Congressional committee, a la the Church Commission, aimed at opening up the U.S. Secret Services and what they do. It almost sounds like what you're saying is that the system is so entrenched that a proper and wholly honest self-examination may not even be possible at this point.

Weiner: Well, the Senate Intelligence Committee in particular, would have to grow a spine for that to happen. It could happen. Stranger things have happened, but it would be at a cost and the cost would be that this administration, President Obama and this Congress, would have have to question the leaders of American intelligence about what they have done in our name in an open session and what they have done is, in their view, so secret and so imperative to the national security of the United States that you can not discuss it in an open democracy and there's the tug of war.

Werman: Tim, what is the mood in this whole circle that you cover these days? I mean, the FBI, CIA, NSA. What are your sources telling you? What kind of frame of mind are they in?

Weiner: Well the FBI has new leadership. There's constant churning of leadership at the NSA and the CIA's feeling pretty good about itself, frankly, in terms of its attack on foreign terrorist groups. I think that the real problem here lies in outmoded and outdated command and control systems for electronic eavesdropping. The technology to do this has outstripped the policy to control it and the policy and the laws have to get back in line. To go back to the beginnings of the NSA, it never had a charter. It has now gone beyond, I think, the rule of common sense much less the laws of the United States in its pursuit of secret information. I mean, information is power. Secret information, which is the definition of intelligence, is power squared and secret information that only you can deliver to the President, that is power cubed.

Werman: Alright, Tim, thank you so much. We'll leave it there.

Weiner: Any time.

Werman: Tim Weiner, author of the book Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA.