With regard to the government surveillance stories that have breaking, the above is the main question I have: Who is watching the people who watch us? Or, to take it just a bit further, Who is watching the people who watch the people who watch us? The titled question is age-old, as suggested by the Latin quote coming from the satirist Juvenal a couple millennia ago.
First, a few stipulations:
1) The Patriot Act has legally authorized these intrusions on privacy, and the courts have supported them, as well;
2) Anything out on the Internet is available, basically to any snoop, whether the providers share the information or not;
3) Ultimately, the government will do whatever it needs to do to fight terrorism, putting up some sort of flimsy legal shield or plausible deniability when it goes beyond what is legally authorized;
4) No self-respecting organized terrorist outfit is going to put any information on commercial cellphones or the Internet which will point to themselves--the only folks this stuff is going to implicate are the newbies who are going to get themselves stung by double agents before they get anything done. *
Somewhere, some snoop cringes when he/she hears the President say, "We are not listening to your phone calls; we are not reading your emails." President Obama probably doesn't think so, but I am willing to bet that someone is doing it, somewhere, for some group of Americans, and they are doing it with some set of officials' knowledge. One of these spooks probably is the individual who, aware of all the stipulations and cringing about what had been said and not said about the program recently revealed, decided that this was one that could be let go, considering the interests of truth, the protection of the endangered right of privacy, and because the program is not really all that valuable.
That being said, the leak is illegal, and it's the sort of thing that will be used as justification for more secret subpoenas of reporters' records (as was disclosed recently to have happened) and more pressure upon freedom of press.
With the exception of this last qualm, I would say that it's all good: People should now know better what is, and what is not, private and protected by law. We can have a more public discussion about what we want the spooks to be seeing (whether they will obey the rules or not is another question); and the total ineffectiveness of our Congressional committees and the FISA courts tasked with balancing privacy against the war on terror has been exposed.
In my preliminary endorsement of President Obama's candidacy way back in 2006, I proposed a 10-point program for his administration, one of which was "7. Establish clearly the political dimensions of privacy and of permissible government intrusions into it." (This was actually before the phone/Internet programs were established in 2007 during the Bushite Administration.) To be honest, Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder have not been willing to challenge the Bushite norms of full attack on any limitations to government expansion of the security-intelligence regime. Perhaps, before Holder takes his leave, as reports have suggested he will do shortly, he will do a big favor for the American people and for President Obama's legacy and push the envelope inward a little bit.
*Here's a good test of these programs' effectiveness:: Let's look at what information was available about Tamerlane and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's contacts, whether the data would have helped if we were paying attention, and what could we learn from it. I suspect that, even in retrospect with the benefit of hindsight, it wouldn't have been all that much except a couple of possible leads about who helped put them up to it.