The United States collects vast troves of private information on American citizens and foreigners, much of it through covert surveillance by intelligence agencies. How much of that data should be shared with allied democracies like Canada or France? How about repressive, illiberal allies like Saudi Arabia? Or adversaries like Russia or Venezuela?
Answers will vary depending on how respondents adjudicate tradeoffs among goods and values including the privacy of Americans, the utility of bilateral intelligence sharing, and the morality of sharing information that could abet abuses.
Reasonable people will differ in their judgments.
Insofar as their varying preferences are consistent with the Constitution, legislators ought to decide among them via the democratic process, weighing legislation with input from constituents, who can hold them accountable for their votes in future elections, or lobby for changes as events or new data suggest the prudence of a given reform.
Alas, that isn’t how information-sharing presently works.
Whether the U.S. government shares data with foreign officials or intelligence agencies, including private information about Americans, is determined largely by unaccountable bureaucrats. And more often than not, their conclusions are closely held secrets, further severing policy from the democratic checks designed by the Framers.
Edward Snowden’s leaks shed some light on these policies.
But much remains unknown. For that reason, the ACLU has joined a new effort to ferret out information-sharing policies and restore government by the people to its rightful role.
Its just-released Freedom of Information Request seeks “all agreements, memoranda of understanding, or other arrangements with foreign countries concerning the sharing between the United States and any other country of foreign-intelligence surveillance data.” If it succeeds, it will almost certainly reveal policies unknown not just to the public, but to at least one elected representative of most Americans.
The ACLU notes:
Our concerns with these arrangements are not academic.
American intelligence agencies reportedly played a role in surveilling Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in the 1960s. More recently, in exchange for providing the CIA with information about Libyans suspected of ties to international terrorism, the U.S. allowed Libya to interrogate prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. And American intelligence agencies reportedly work closely with their Ethiopian counterparts on counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa, despite the Ethiopian government’s documented abuses against political opponents, the press, and detainees.
It adds that “along with a request we filed today under the Freedom of Information Act, our seven partners filed similar requests in their own countries, in Argentina, Canada, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Ireland, Russia, and South Africa.” The text of the information requests filed abroad by the ACLU’s partners can be found here.
Since intelligence professionals from different nations conspire with one another in secret to share information about their fellow citizens with foreigners, it is fitting that civil-society groups will assist one another in truth-seeking, with revelations in one nation helping to inform the citizens of other nations. In this way, they are helping to ensure that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish.
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