Rem Rieder is a media columnist for USA TODAY. / USA TODAY
Mark Monday, October 28, as the day that the National Security Agency surveillance scandal got very, very real.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., awoke from a deep sleep to announce that even she had finally had it with the NSA's omnivorous appetite for snooping.
Actually, Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been wide awake since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began disclosing details of the NSA's massive surveillance, including scooping up information about the phone calls and emails of huge numbers of ordinary Americans.
When the story erupted, Feinstein, a staunch ally of the intelligence community, was the poster child for the way the Washington establishment at first treated the Snowden revelations: Ignore what the NSA was doing and beat up the messenger, assailing Snowden as a treasonous slacker.0
Over time, even Feinstein got it, a little anyway, and began supporting modest reforms of surveillance.
But the recent disclosures that the United States was spying on the leaders of American allies pushed the senator to her breaking point.
"With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies - including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany - let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed," Feinstein said. "Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers."
It's clear we are at a significant turning point in the surveillance saga. There's some fog surrounding the question of whether President Obama has already decided to end the spying on allies, as Feinstein suggested he had. But the senator says her committee will embark on a "major review of all intelligence collection programs," which is a very big deal. And the administration is also reexamining its intelligence practices, Obama said in an interview on the new cable network Fusion. Sen. John McCain, R.Ariz., is calling for creation of a special Senate committee to probe the surveillance of foreign leaders.
If the Feinstein pivot is a key juncture in the surveillance affair, the abiding symbol will be the notion of the U.S. listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone. Monitoring the conversations of such a key American ally had enormous resonance in Germany, where memories of the police state tactics of the unlamented Stasi secret police in East Germany remain vivid.
Events have consequences, and covert operations don't always stay that way. We are beginning to reap the whirlwind. Germany has warned of diplomatic fallout. Spain is outraged over the U.S. spying on millions of calls by Spaniards. And the cooperation by U.S. tech companies with the NSA data collection efforts could be an impediment to foreign firms storing data with American firms.
And the tensions come closer to home. Intelligence officials are furious that the White House seems to be distancing itself from the spying on allies, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The idea that when it comes to spying, "everybody does it" may well be true. But when you got caught, the blowback can be fierce indeed, as we are witnessing.
The good news is that we seem to have reached a point where we are going to try to fix the problem. Yes, terrorism remains a potent threat, and we need good intelligence to help prevent it.
But it needs to be carried out, well, intelligently, not indiscriminately, and not in ways that hurt rather than help the country.
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