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News Analysis

NSA: What the Explosive Headlines Aren't Telling You

Thu, June 13, 2013

Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor that leaked classified information and fled to Hong Kong. (Photo: © Reuters)

Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor that leaked classified information and fled to Hong Kong. (Photo: © Reuters)

Ryan Mauro

Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor that leaked classified information and fled to Hong Kong, is being treated like he’s a hero by a bipartisan paranoia club, from Michael Moore to Glenn Beck. He is no hero. He is a criminal who has misled millions of Americans into believing their country is a police state for having legitimate intelligence-gathering programs.

The initial reporting on Snowden’s disclosures made it sound like every American’s communication was recorded and is accessible through a massive database. He even claimed that he, a contractor at the National Security Agency, could tap into anyone’s private communications at will, even those of President Obama.

If that were true, there might be some ground to call Snowden a living “martyr” for the sake of civil liberties. But, based on the information out there, it isn’t true. And even if it were true, publishing classified information is illegal, no matter what Snowden’s opinion of that information is.

The covert cooperation of foreign government and potential spies, obviously, requires secrecy. Thanks to Wikileaks, Bradley Manning and Snowden, it’ll be many times more difficult to convince possible sources to trust America.

Snowden supporters will respond that the NSA’s activity is such a threat to freedom that it justifies the leaking of classified information. This argument overlooks the fact that there are other perfectly legal options available to whistleblowers. That’s what the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are for. And the oversight committees have plenty of politicians there that would love to get camera time by exposing abuses.

No matter how you look at it, Snowden is wrong—but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s now a nationwide controversy over the NSA because of misunderstandings and political theater.

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell made an excellent point when he interviewed Glenn Greenwald, the journalist that originally published Snowden’s information. He asked:

“Given that the NSA as you’re portraying it knows everything, sees everything – how is it in that environment that you were able to communicate internationally over a period of time with someone working as a contractor for the NSA right under their noses? I mean, isn’t what you’ve pulled off here – this successful leak – evidence that NSA really doesn’t know everything that we are suggesting it knows?”

Greenwald’s answer was that Snowden made him install sophisticated encryption technology to avoid the NSA’s monitoring—but that was after making initial contact and convincing Greenwald of his credentials. If America was really a surveillance society, Snowden would have been stopped by the government right in the beginning. After all, if the NSA tracked average Americans, wouldn’t it track those capable of letting out its supposedly dirty secrets?

Here’s the truth that doesn’t make its way into the explosive headlines.

The NSA forced Verizon and other telecommunications companies to hand over their logs of what numbers were dialed, when they were dialed and the length of the conversation. Identities were not included, nor were recordings of any conversations.

Former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden explains that 9-11 might have been prevented if the NSA had that data. The NSA intercepted multiple phone calls between two hijackers in San Diego and an identified Al-Qaeda safe house overseas. Amazingly, he says that the NSA had no way to know where the call to the Al-Qaeda safe house was coming from. Thanks to the NSA’s holding of this data today, a Yemen-based Al-Qaeda member’s cell phone could be captured and the NSA could look through the database to see which numbers called his device.

In order to actually wiretap the individual, the NSA still has to get a judge’s approval through a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court. The NSA must then prove to the judge that the target has a link to a suspected terrorist or foreign government. That’s a far cry from the original depiction of an out-of-control NSA snooping on typical Americans’ phone calls.

Andrew C. McCarthy, the prosecutor who put the “Blind Sheikh” in prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, rips apart the claim that this violates the Fourth Amendment that prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.” He notes that the Amendment clearly refers to citizens’ private property. When Verizon documents that a phone number made a call to another number, that data is not the customer’s private property.

There is also uproar over the NSA’s PRISM program that allowed it to monitor massive amounts of Internet communications and data. The Internet companies denied reports that they gave the NSA direct access to their servers. PRISM was only allowed to target non-Americans, and the Director of National Intelligence says that accidental retrieval of Americans’ information is minimized by its safeguards.

Hayden provides another example of how this program is used: “So, if I've got a bad person in Waziristan, talking to a bad person in Yemen, via a chat room that is hosted by an American Internet service provider, the only thing American about that conversation is the fact that it's happening on a server on the West Coast of the United States.”

The NSA’s programs are not only understandable, they are common-sense. If it turns out that there has been abuse, then the conversation must not be about the existence of the programs, but about how to improve them.

It is legitimate to debate ways to have better safeguards for civil liberties, while keeping in mind the rational national security concerns addressed by these programs. What is unacceptable is the bombastic rhetoric designed to panic Americans into thinking that all their phone and Internet communications are available for viewing by curious eyes in the government.


Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.