NSA and National Security: A Balanced Perspective

The revelations of Edward Snowden concerning NSA and its global spying apparatus has not only damaged relationships with our friends and allies around the globe but it will have a lasting negative impact on us as a nation in the many months and years to come. Along with a lot of misinformation, Mr. Snowden has recklessly divulged many of our sensitive techniques and sources to terrorists, rogue nations and those who want to do us harm, putting all Americans in harm ways whether they’re shopping in a mall, flying on an airplane or enjoying a vacation or visiting with a business partner somewhere in the world. Mr. Snowden and his friends live in a naïve fantasy that the world should be totally transparent with “no secrets” but realistically, collecting intelligence or spying is the “world’s oldest profession”.

All nations and societies since Biblical times have managed and maintained their security by collecting intelligence on both friend and foe. That intelligence includes information related politics, economics, technology as well as national security threats. Undoubtedly, many nations, some considered “good friends” of the U.S., go about their business of spying and collecting much more aggressively and with little moral compass but the reality is, collecting intelligence is a requisite not only for a nations security and stability but for its very own survival.

Ironically, as Americans, we don’t seem to have a problem with the fact that Google, Amazon, Facebook or anybody we do business with on-line is collecting everything on us from who we vote for, where we worship,, what we read and yes, even what kind and color of running shoes we wear. Yet, the media and many politicians on the extremes of both sides have a problem with NSA collecting and storing streams of data, called metadata and telephone numbers that flow into the USA in the event a warrant is needed at a future date to uncover a plot or identify a terrorist planning to kill thousands of innocent Americans. Yes, it’s often done within classified channels, as it should be, but the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has long upheld the practice of simply obtaining streams telephone call records for analysis without a warrant. This where the lines seem to blur in peoples’ minds and the need for clarification on what is permissible and what is not, is necessary. Any deeper electronic surveillance of a telephone or an individual is not being done without the existence of a warrant along with the knowledge and scrutiny of the both the courts and legislators.

Now, if that analysis of that “metadata” indicates a possible threat and the FBI wants to actually intercept phone calls on a suspicious target phone, a warrant is required. This happens every day in FBI field offices around the country and judges sign those “search warrants” to intercept those phone calls for a limited period of time. Judges require a daily or near- daily reporting of the intercepted activity; if there is nothing suspicious and no cause to continue the monitoring of that line, the court order is pulled and the “wiretap” ceases.

The courts consider these warrants to be the most egregious and invasive of “search warrants” and so the probable cause and the justification is significant. Media and political pundits, since the Snowden revelations, have been screaming the FBI is arbitrarily listening to Americans phone calls. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, in a minimum of cases where it is justified to save American lives, court-authorized telephone interceptions are taking place. But to say that the FBI could be monitoring the billions and billions of phone calls that Americans make each day with the few hundred FBI agents and analysts that work this target is ludicrous. Ludicrous too because with today’s technology, no such wiretaps could be conducted without an appropriate court order to the telephone carrier and the legal penalties are so severe that, again, the idea is nearly absurd.

The resources to conduct electronic surveillance are burdensome, expensive, very time-consuming and only conducted only under specific circumstances. Those extreme circumstances and exceptional standards are a requirement of both the courts and law-makers. Critics for NSA collection efforts have alluded to the “potential for abuse” but not a single case has been cited. Of course, there is a “potential for abuse” by the government and police agencies such as the FBI with their weapons, their vehicles and their arrest powers but do you take all those tools away and disarm them in order to eliminate that “potential for abuse”?

Electronic surveillance in the U.S. is layered with oversight by Congress, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, the Department of Justice and their reviewing attorneys, the requesting agency’s legal division as well as that agency’, Inspector General. The notion that an FBI agent or other intelligence officer would illegally conduct electronic surveillance or a “wiretap” resulting in not only evidence would be useless and inadmissible in a court of law but would expose that agent or officer to the risk of dismissal, prosecution, prison and significant fines, again, borders on the ludicrous.

The NSA surveillance programs and other changes in the laws and within the intelligence community have made us safer in a world where al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have relentlessly kept the U.S. homeland as well as our overseas presence in their cross-hairs since 9/11. Both General Keith Alexander, NSA, Director and Robert Mueller, former FBI, Director have testified in front of Congress that over 54 plots and plans to commit acts of terror against U.S. targets have been thwarted since 9/11.

Information collected by the intelligence community by both the NSA and domestic surveillance operations such as those conducted under court order by the FBI have led to these disruptions including subway bombing plots targeting both the New York and Washington, D.C. subways. We as a society have to decide through our law-makers and policy-makers what we want and where the balance should lie between national security and privacy rights. But that decision should be predicated on facts, logic and the law not hysteria. The intelligence community was heavily criticized by the media and politicians for not “connecting the dots” in the wake of 9/11 but now those same politicians and media are exposing and denouncing the process as an “invasion of privacy” when those threats are detected and those dots are connected. Google, Amazon, Face book and all our on-line business activity is collected, crunched and analyzed without any congressional or judicial oversight but that which keeps us safe is demonized.

Americans have to make a choice.

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