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Introducing Our Letters Page

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By The Free Press

May 6, 2024

There are few things more gratifying as a journalist than a note from a reader who has really engaged with your work. These notes can be moving, thought-provoking, and illuminating. They keep us honest by pointing out a mistake we’ve made or a part of the story the reader thinks we have missed. They also keep us motivated: every email is a reminder that our readers are thousands of individuals, each with their own perspectives, expertise, and stories. 

But the messages we get from you shouldn’t just be for us editors and reporters. We want to hear from you—and we want you to hear from one another. Which is why we’re launching our new letters page—a weekly roundup of the best of our correspondence with readers—starting today. To open things up, we have readers’ favorite icebreakers—prompted by David Sedaris’s Saturday essay on small talk—a meaty exchange on FISA laws and whether the government is spying on us, and a touching note from the son of a Free Press reader who recently passed away. 

If you have something to add to the conversation, get in touch:

Readers’ Icebreakers 

On Saturday, David Sedaris paid tribute to the underappreciated joys of small talk in the pages of The Free Press. But how to initiate the small talk? David revealed that he gets his icebreakers from Duolingo, the language app. His favorite is “How long have you known your dentist?” (Read his full piece here.) Free Pressers got in touch to tell us their own preferred icebreakers. Here are some highlights: 

Robert writes

My wife Branan’s favorite icebreaker is, “Who do you think killed JFK?” It might not be for strangers but among family, friends, or acquaintances it never fails. The best answer? At a family gathering in Texas, where she met my grandpa, after a few of the usual answers, he slapped the table with both hands and said, “He’s not dead,” followed by, “Touchdown!”

Eric writes

I’m an introvert and despise small talk, but I’m also a substitute teacher, so good icebreakers are pretty essential to my job. Some years ago, I discovered the following formula: What is the one _________ you love that everyone else hates? You can also reverse it: What is the one ________ you hate that everyone else loves?

The best category seems to be movies and always leads to interesting conversations. For example, I love Grease 2. Why? Several reasons: Track for track the music is better, Adrian Zmed is the coolest T-Bird, Michelle Pfeiffer is the hottest Pink Lady, and it’s a never-ending delight to me how much its existence pisses off everyone who loves one of the sacred “thou shalt not criticize in the least degree” musicals: Grease (which is, I suppose, the movie I hate that everyone else loves). 

Kevin writes:

My grandmother taught me a marvelously simple icebreaker once. When conversation stalled she would ask, “So, what did you have for supper last night?”

Fen writes:

In the elevator on the way to work in the morning, I like to ask a young, silent grump, “Are you a morning person?” I eventually get a snicker. Especially after I say, “I didn’t think so.” The other riders of the elevator enjoy the exchange, too. I have to admit, it’s more of an enjoyable needling than an icebreaker.

FISA Confusion 

We recently ran an item on the threats to freedom and privacy posed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was up for renewal on the Hill. The item, by Isaac Grafstein, provoked some interesting responses, including this one from Adam I. Klein, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and director of the Strauss Center for International Security and Law. Notably, Klein is also the former chairman of the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the federal agency that oversees counterterrorism programs at the NSA, FBI, CIA, and other federal agencies. 

Here’s Adam

Should readers “fear” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), as a recent Free Press item warned? 

National security surveillance certainly poses some risk to Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. I worked to identify and mitigate those risks in my time as chairman of the federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. 

But intelligence gathering also keeps us safe. The truth about government surveillance is more nuanced than the item’s author, Isaac Grafstein, allows.

Mr. Grafstein claimed that FISA has been used to collect “vast amounts” of data on Americans. But the example cited involved surveillance under another authority, Executive Order 12333, not FISA.

The item also failed to mention that most of the FISA reauthorization bill, which Biden has now signed into law, was not new surveillance powers, but new constraints on the government. In fact, the legislation, which contains dozens of new safeguards, is the most important privacy-protective reform since FISA’s enactment in 1978.

The bill also reauthorizes FISA’s critical Section 702, which allows the government to collect the communications of foreigners located overseasthe targets can never be Americans—when their messages travel over American networks. Because many foreigners use American technology providers, Section 702 is one of our best intelligence sources.

The bill also modestly expands Section 702 in three ways:

  • It permits use of Section 702 to gather intelligence on drug trafficking (but only by targeting foreigners abroad, never Americans).

  • It allows use of information from Section 702 to vet foreigners seeking to enter the United States, to ensure that they are not terrorists, spies, or otherwise dangerous to our country.

  • Most controversially, it expands the definition of “electronic communications service providers” who under the law must facilitate surveillance of foreign targets who use their networks.

That last change may sound ominous, but it is well-settled in law that tech platforms and telecom providers can be compelled to help implement lawful surveillance. It happens thousands of times each day, usually to investigate ordinary crimes.

No, the new definition can’t be used to force anyone with “a phone or a Wi-Fi router. . . to help the federal government spy on Americans,” as the item claimed. Americans can never be targeted under Section 702, and the new “service provider” definition exempts internet access provided by everyday locations like cafés and hotels.

Mr. Grafstein invoked the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. But no warrant is needed for searches directed at foreign people overseas. Nor for checking a government database of information that was already lawfully collected.

Lastly, the piece betrays a basic misunderstanding of why FISA exists and what it does.  

FISA did not create national security surveillance—FISA constrained it. Before FISA, the FBI bugged and tapped thousands of Americans—including, infamously, Martin Luther King Jr.—as putative threats to national security.  Those taps were approved by executive branch officials, not the independent judges required by FISA.

Government spying rightly unsettles. But intelligence rarely presents a satisfying morality play. Would Americans be better off if Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and Hamas operatives could prowl our country unafraid of detection? Or if we gave up the overseas espionage that provides extraordinary insight into dangerous corners of our world? In the secret realm, there are few simple solutions, only dilemmas.

And here is Isaac’s response

Mr. Klein suggests that FISA, specifically Section 702, has “never” been misused to spy on American citizens. 

But reports from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board he used to chair say otherwise. One report suggests Section 702 was used to query communications data on hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters, among other American targets. This unsealed court document reveals a batch query of 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign, among other American targets. And the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s 2021 Annual Statistical Transparency Report revealed that the FBI performed up to 3.4 million U.S. person queries of Section 702 data that year alone. 

This law has in practice allowed for warrantless spying on Americans at scale, in direct contravention of the Fourth Amendment. 

What Mr. Klein calls a “modest” expansion of Section 702 allows for thousands of additional businesses across the country to be compelled to fork over data. Forgive me if the extraordinarily narrow exemption for cafés and hotels, added after much protest to the original amendment, doesn’t quell my concern. 

As for the fact that the government has wiretapped Americans since before the existence of FISA, I don’t see the relevance. It was bad then and it’s bad now. 

Of course, there are always trade-offs between security and liberty. And I concede that Section 702 is a useful tool for monitoring terrorist threats. But this law, meant to protect us from foreign menaces, has clearly been repurposed for domestic surveillance. 

I think we should be extremely—even reflexively—skeptical when it comes to compromising the rights that make this country uniquely free in the first place. 

As the cliché goes, and recent history shows: give an inch and they take a mile. 

Unfinished Wisdom

This past December, over 400 seniors entered our senior essay competition. Some sent poems; some submitted stories from WWII and Vietnam; others offered personal confessions. We selected three runners-up and a winning essay. (You can read them all here.) 

More recently, we received the start of an essay by a Free Presser who passed away before she could finish it. Her son, Trey Lackey, sent it to us, and told us a bit about his mom and her writing. 

Elizabeth Boswell Lackey passed away on December 2, 2023, at her home in South Hill, Virginia, three miles from where she was born. She was a great observer of nature. She watched the deer and the bobcats coming up to her home in South Hill and had a bird feeder in the yard. Trey tells me his mother led a “quiet, normal, American life.” 

She was 90 and is survived by 3 children, 4 grandchildren, and 8 great-grandchildren. But one of her other legacies is her writing, Trey says. “That’s how she went out, we think. After the autopsy, the doctor said he couldn’t figure out what got her other than the usual decline from old age. She was writing and just kind of died.” Along with her Free Press essay, Trey found a stack of Christmas cards at his mother’s house, some of which were addressed, stamped, and sealed. He mailed them out.

About the start of her essay for our competition, Trey says: “She was trying to write about the pecan tree [pictured below] between her old house, built in 1810, and the soybean fields. It shades the house and provides pecans. For her, the pecan tree was a symbol.” Here’s what she wrote: 

I was born April 25, 1933.

I am using the following as symbols of what I wish my country to be.

A beautiful old house

A very tall, magnificent pecan tree

My grandfather was from Virginia and married a lady from Orangeburg, SC

And when she came to Virginia to meet her new family, she brought with her a seedling of the famous SC pecan trees as a gift.

The old house which was to become their home had to be renovated because it had stood vacant for many years. It survived the vacancy, lootings, Civil War scare, and many other things. It still stands today and well-cared for by the present owners though not lived in. 

The pecan tree seedling was planted beside the house and through the years was blown over by storms but always raised and cared for by loving hands. It is strong and stately today. Friends and family were invited to share the pecans for cakes, cookies, and just the fun of picking them up.

My wish for my country

A deep faith

Caring hands reaching out to those in need

A forgiving heart



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