by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
The recent opinion piece (below) by Amy Zegart and Marshall Erwin of the conservative Hoover Institution suggests the NSA spy agency's real problems are caused by our not knowing how well they protect us from terrorists. They think the NSA should focus on this rather than correcting our "misperceptions" about how they use our email and telephone data. They wrote that, "...there is no evidence the NSA is engaged in any illegal domestic snooping," even though such evidence requires transparency and everything the NSA does is secret.
Setting aside recent proof that NSA employees do sometimes breach security protocols, we know the NSA maintains a database of electronic "envelope" information from all our calls and emails. From this information they create their meta-data analysis that reveals how closely each of us is linked to anyone else. But the NSA also has yet to deny that they are storing the content of our emails, and possibly our phone calls, in huge data storage facilities such as the recently built Utah Data Center, officially called the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center. The NSA may not be previewing all this content data, but saved records can be accessed and reviewed in the future if they choose to look. By any stretch of meaning, saving private electronic content by government, even if it is never opened, is still an unreasonable government seizure prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.
So, is it reasonable for government to seize all our private emails or phone conversations providing they don't peek? If so, then what's to stop state or local law enforcement from doing the same. And what's to stop the NSA from making secret allegations, obtaining secret FISA court access to stored communications or even altering those files to persecute citizens perceived as a threat? Our founding fathers would not have consented to this and neither should we. Protecting us from terrorist threats doesn't justify suspending Forth Amendment rights protecting us from tyranny at home.
The NSA's image problem
To know the spy agency is not necessarily to love it.
By Amy Zegart and Marshall Erwin
November 1, 2013
In the wake of Edward Snowden's ongoing revelations about U.S. surveillance programs, the National Security Agency is facing the worst crisis in its 60-year history. Today, too many Americans mistakenly believe the NSA is listening to their phone calls and reading their emails. But misperception is only part of the agency's problem. In an Oct. 5-7 YouGov national poll we commissioned, we also found the more that Americans understand the NSA's activities, the less they support the agency. [snip]
Our poll results found the part about the public's ignorance was true. But we did not find that ignorance bred greater distrust of the agency. [snip]
For example, Americans who accurately understood the NSA's telephone metadata program were no more favorable toward the agency than those who mistakenly thought metadata involved snooping on the content of calls. [snip]
NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander [has said]: "And so what's hyped up in a lot of the reporting is that we're listening to your phone calls. We're reading your emails. That's just not true." [snip]
The NSA needs to win this debate on the merits. What we need to know is whether the agency's telephone and Internet surveillance programs are wise and effective.
Though legal scholars will continue to debate endlessly just what "relevance" or "targeting" means, the message from these disclosures for the rest of us is this: There is no evidence that the NSA is engaged in any illegal domestic snooping operations.
For national security, the more important question now is whether these programs are good counter-terrorism policy. We have lost sight of that.