This week, President Obama told Charlie Rose that he would like to have a national conversation about government surveillance. Brooke explores what it means to truly have a "national conversation" with the American Library Association's Lynne Bradley, the Constitution Project's Sharon Bradford Franklin, and California Congressman Henry Waxman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
This week, President Obama sat down with Charlie Rose to discuss, among other things, NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about wide-ranging government surveillance.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: What I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs, but also about the general problem of data – these big data sets -
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: - because this is not going to be restricted to government entities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Calling for a national conversation is easy and risk free. It can be used to class up a celebrity murder trial. We’ll never forget OJ, no matter how much we’d like to.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The trial forced a national debate about race and celebrity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's great when celebrities get us talking about something worthwhile.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Angelina Jolie did what she set out to do: start a national conversation about cancer, and the risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can build a fabulous career on nothing but national conversations, if you're really good at it.
OPRAH WINFREY (2009): Today begins a national conversation on bullying, right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And sometimes national conversation can serve as both a source of solace and a springboard to action.
TOURE NEBLETT/MSNBC: Now, if Adam Lanza had walked into a black public school in this mythical South Brooklyn, we’d probably not be having a sustained national conversation about guns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What even constitutes a national conversation? Back in 2002, when hackles started to rise after the rushed passage of the Patriot Act, one hardened group of civil libertarians raised their voices in hundreds of communities across the nation, holding community meetings in their own fancy government-subsidized digs. I'm talking, of course, about librarians. Lynne Bradley is the director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations. She says that when they started that conversation, their understanding of the extent of the surveillance was at preschool levels. Now –
LYNNE BRADLEY: I'm not sure that we’re beyond junior high at this point. We still have long way to go, in terms of having a serious public debate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you have a national conversation? What did you do a dozen years ago to get it rolling?
LYNNE BRADLEY: Libraries of all types had different kinds of debates, programs, informational pieces. By the way, one of the things was to promote resolutions to be passed at the local level by cities, townships, counties, and even a small handful of states, asking for dialogue and to reform and assure that our civil liberties were going to be protected. We’ve kept up web pages, we’ve had programs at conferences. We’ve developed toolkits, to help librarians and others have this debate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s no unit of measure for raised consciousness, but can you point to any concrete thing that your campaign a dozen years ago did?
LYNNE BRADLEY: Section 215 became known for a long time as the Library Provision. When you're speaking in generalities, many people in the public would say, well, I don't have anything to hide. If they get my phone records or whatever, what’s the difference. But when you say, look, they can get what you read at the library, people would respond like, wait a second, why do they need to know what we read?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This may sound a little defeatist, but you raised the alarm more than a decade ago about the same provision of the Patriot Act and the same worries about transparency. Do you think a new national dialogue really could influence the implementation of surveillance laws? And where is it most important for that dialogue to happen?
LYNNE BRADLEY: First of all, inside the Beltway and in Congress. If you look at how Congress has oversight, they’re not even allowed to take in legal people to look at these secret documents or to take notes. What kind of public analysis can our elected officials have in a system that is so limiting?
We are pleased to see that there are those in Congress and elsewhere that are seeking to declassify some of this information, so the American public can have such a discussion. Our worries ten years ago look modest compared to what we have learned in the last two weeks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lynn, thank you very much.
LYNNE BRADLEY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lynne Bradley is the director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations.
In that Charlie Rose interview earlier this week, President Obama said he hoped the conversation would be helped along by an oversight board.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’ve stood up a privacy and civil liberties oversight board, made up of independent citizens, including some fierce civil libertarians. I'll be meeting with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He met with that board on Friday, but if it’s to be the lever for a national conversation, we’ll have to take that on faith. Sharon Bradford Franklin is the senior counsel at the Constitution Project, and she says the first version of that board, established by President Bush in 2004, did practically nothing.
SHARON BRADFORD FRANKLIN: It had no independence from the White House, very little authority. It came into existence in 2005 and lasted for about two years. In 2007, Congress enacted new legislation to completely revamp the board, to create an independent federal agency within the executive branch, with subpoena power, with a bipartisan membership, and all five members who must be confirmed by the Senate, and so created a structure that really could have an impact.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And did it?
SHARON BRADFORD FRANKLIN: Well, the board didn't come into existence for five more years. It took until 2012 to get confirmation of any members. It took until December 2011 to get a full slate of five nominees.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why was there such a delay in filling out the oversight board, since Obama is, at least now, evincing such a strong interest in it?
SHARON BRADFORD FRANKLIN: We can only understand that to be a lack of priority. The chair of the board wasn't finally confirmed until just last month. Only the chair is a full-time member of the board; that’s his full-time job. And only the chair has the authority to hire a permanent staff. The board is still in startup mode.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's imagine a world where this oversight committee is up and running and effective, what can it do?
SHARON BRADFORD FRANKLIN: Okay. It has two overarching purposes. First, evaluate national security programs, proposed ones and existing ones, and to ensure that there are adequate safeguards for privacy and civil liberties. The second is to inform the public. They are required to report to the President and to Congress, and the statute specifically says that these reports should include an unclassified version and these should be made available to the public to the greatest extent possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've been following the evolution of this board. Do you have faith that it can actually set up and structure a national conversation?
SHARON BRADFORD FRANKLIN: Well, I have faith that it can play a significant and meaningful role. Not only do the board members have security clearances, they have subpoena power. So they will be able to get a full picture of the operation of these programs. Right now, the public is just getting carefully selected disclosures to justify the program.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
SHARON BRADFORD FRANKLIN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sharon Bradford Franklin is senior counsel at the Constitution Project.
Everyone seems to agree that there can be no useful conversation, that is - conversation that leads to change, without serious, sincere congressional participation, which doesn't happen, I guess, without voters and the media eating through the entropy on Capitol Hill. Representative Henry Waxman is a California Democrat who truly believes in the power of national conversations.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Where we have all of the different aspects of our society working together, whether it’s in the press, in local community meetings, activist groups, to push the agenda forward to see what can be done. That is what I think of in terms of a national dialogue.
Now, let me take the issue of climate change. I think this is the greatest threat facing our lives today, yet the Republicans who run the House refused to hold hearing with the scientists and then they go out and assert the science does not support climate change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're saying that they are suppressing that national conversation by refusing to hold hearings.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: They are trying to do what they can to suppress that conversation and information that the public would otherwise react to with some sense of urgency to make changes. Now we have a very big story on national security, and people are paying attention now in ways they never did before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does national conversation ever lead to consensus?
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: I do think it does. I think the incidents in the civil rights struggles, and people saw little children being hosed or people being jailed for trying to exercise basic rights, I think it drew a lot of awareness and understanding of a problem that people thought was somebody else's problem, somewhere else. And I think our country reacted to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Congressman, following the Newtown elementary school shooting, you are part of a forum for a, quote, “national conversation on violence and severe mental illness.”
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Yes. After the horrific incidents of shooting by deranged individuals, people have a clear sense that there ought to be some background checks before people are able to get any kind of weapon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that really worked out well in Congress.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Well, we have 90 percent of the American people who back that, and yet, we have representatives in the Senate and the House who are not willing to support legislation, yet. But I don’t think the pressure’s off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a US congressman, how do you determine when a national conversation is taking place?
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: When my constituents are talking about it and asking me questions, when the press is writing about it, informing the American people, when committees of Congress see that there's a reason to be concerned and start doing either private investigation and public hearings, when a whistleblower comes forward and talks about what's actually happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you glad that Snowden leaked what he leaked?
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: He started a debate in this country and people starting to ask questions. That's worthwhile. He may be a traitor. I don't know the man. I don't know his motivations. But I think that we’re drawing more attention to issues that we should have been aware of and should not have had to become informed this way, but that was the way we heard about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Without this leak, we would not be having this conversation.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: You may well be right, but ultimately what we have to have, not just a discussion but a call to action to change things, if the status quo is too troubling and not productive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Congressman.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Thank you.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Representative Henry Waxman is a congressman from California.