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The Costs and Benefits of the NSA

The data-collection debate we need to have is not about civil liberties.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Should Americans fear the possible abuse of the intercept power of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland? Absolutely. In the midst of the unfolding scandal at the IRS, we understand that bureaucracies are callous creatures, capable of manipulation. In addition to deliberate misuse, closed intelligence agencies can make mistakes in surveilling legitimate targets, causing mountains of trouble. Consider Muslim names. Because of their commonness and the lack of standardized transliteration, they can befuddle scholars, let alone intelligence analysts, who seldom have fluency in Islamic languages. Although one is hard pressed to think of a case since 9/11 in which mistaken identity, or a willful or unintentional leak of intercept intelligence, immiserated an American citizen, these things can happen. NSA civilian employees, soldiers, FBI agents, CIA case officers, prosecutors, and our elected officials are not always angels. Even though encryption is mathematically easier to accomplish than decryption, the potential for abuse of digital communication is always there—all the more since few Americans resort to encryption of their everyday emails. 

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Pro-Snowden protest in Hong Kong

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But fearing the NSA, which has been a staple of Hollywood for decades, requires you to believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of American employees in the organization are in on a conspiracy. In the Edward Snowden-is-a-legitimate-NSA-whistleblower narrative, it also requires that very liberal senators and congressmen are complicit in propagating a civil-rights-chewing national surveillance system.

According to Glenn Greenwald, the left-wing American columnist of the Guardian newspaper, Snowden first realized how unpleasant the U.S. government could be when he read the cable traffic of CIA case officers attempting to recruit a foreign banker in Geneva by getting the poor man drunk and arrested, to set up an opportunity to bond with him. Note to the reading public and Mr. Greenwald: This makes no sense. CIA operatives don’t want to get their recruits into legal and professional jeopardy; they want to nurture their prospective agents’ careers and self-confidence. 

It should be obvious by now that Snowden is a serious flake. But the American government and its contractors—even the CIA and the NSA—are chock full of flakes .  .  . along with responsible, Constitution-loving liberals and conservatives who would be loath to allow the U.S. government to spy on their fellow citizens, let alone their own relatives and friends. It is endlessly amusing how many liberals and libertarians seem to believe that the employees of the CIA, NSA, and other shadowy organizations are hatched in hawkish communities far from the world that liberals and libertarians inhabit. Certainly, good people can do bad things if put into a corrupt system.  

But journalists in Washington, who rub shoulders every day with national-security types, surely know that America isn’t that far gone. Civil liberties after 12 years of the global war on terrorism are actually as strongly protected in America as they were in 1999, when Bill Clinton was treating terrorism as crime and his minions were debating the morality of assassinating Osama bin Laden. The same is true in France and Great Britain, liberal democracies that have the finest, but also the most intrusive, counterterrorism forces in the West. Surveillance in these countries is intimate—the French internal-security service, the DST, and British domestic intelligence, MI5, bug and monitor their countrymen in ways that remain unthinkable in the United States. Yet the political elites and the societies of both countries have become much more sensitive to, and protective of, personal freedom as their internal security forces have grown more aggressive.

It’s an odd and, for those attached to Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, disconcerting development: The massive American government, born of the welfare state and war, hasn’t yet gone down the slippery fascist slope. Liberal welfare imperatives may be bankrupting the country, but they have not produced a decline of most (noneconomic) civil liberties. Just the opposite. American liberalism’s focus on individual privacy and choice has, so far, effectively checked the creed’s collectivism. America’s national-security state, which Greenwald believes has already become a leviathan, is, for the most part, rather pathetic. 

As much as the conspiratorial left and right would like to believe that big super-secret bureaucracies like the NSA are easily capable of violating our constitutional rights, the truth is surely the other way round: Civil liberties are much more likely to be in danger when smaller organizations—the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the CIA, or the Secret Service—with specific, highly selective targeting requirements, abuse their surveillance authority or, in the case of Langley with its drones, their war-related authority. And it’s doubtful that the national-security institutions since 9/11 have engaged in practices that fundamentally challenge anyone’s constitutional rights—the possible big exceptions would be the FBI’s counterterrorist practices against militant Muslim Americans that have occasionally tiptoed close to entrapment and the bureau’s extensive use of national-security letters that can allow curious minds to wander freely through the personal lives of targeted individuals. If the government sensibly gives the Secret Service the capacity to intercept cellular telephone calls as a means to protect preemptively American VIPs, its officers may well monitor the salacious conversations of Washington celebrities or sexually adventurous co-eds at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Adults are always required to ensure that such practices don’t become anything more than bad-boy behavior. All organizations run amok unless adults are present. 

The huge high-tech intelligence bureaucracies, like smaller outfits such as the operations and technology directorates within the CIA, are extremely difficult for senior government officials to manipulate and abuse because of the many overlapping and checking authorities in these institutions. Unlike the IRS, intelligence agencies are not designed to interact with the citizenry, nor do they have or want prosecutorial power. The intelligence agencies grow uneasy, sometimes even too cautious, when foreign threats develop a domestic dimension.

What’s more, big secrets are hard to keep. The CIA has always loved to chant that its great successes go unheralded—a bigger fib has rarely been accepted by so many. Little intelligence victories can stay buried for years; big intelligence successes bring too much pride and create too much paper to remain unknown. Internal CIA documents on covert actions since the late 1940s and external press and scholarly writing on them pair up pretty closely. As a rule, journalists and academics, who seldom have a feel for classified government service, are less accurate than the working-level internal writing, which can often be skeptical, if not scathing, about what the CIA has actually achieved. Black-art, let alone illegal, conspiracies are rare in the CIA’s history. Exploding cigars and Predator drones have never defined the agency’s ethos. For those with even a minimal knowledge of the NSA, snooping on Americans isn’t what the NSA has been built to do. The agency would probably break down bureaucratically if it attempted to shift gears from foreign observation to domestic surveillance in any threatening way, and Congress and the press would detect the fallout. 

Rogue operators—like WikiLeaks’s Private Bradley Manning and Snowden—may cause harm to innocent civilians, or even case officers and their foreign agents or the discreet-reporting sources for American diplomats. But the damage done to American civil liberties by individuals gone bad isn’t the stuff of Nixonian, let alone Orwellian, nightmares. If in the future the advance of technology allows the denizens of the White House to push a button and monitor a political “enemies list,” then we will be in a frightening situation. But we’re nowhere close to that. 

This is the better question provoked by Snowden’s paranoia: How much money has Congress spent on these data-collection projects? We are told, both by administration officials and by congressmen, that the NSA’s PRISM project, marrying Ft. Meade with Silicon Valley, has stopped numerous terrorist attacks. Perhaps. But it would behoove us all to question that assertion. Americans love their high-tech toys. Sometimes the cost is worth it: America’s intelligence-collecting satellites, though very expensive, have provided the country with much more valuable information than anything collected by the CIA’s spies. The administration would not be compromising the methods of PRISM if it told the citizenry which attacks were thwarted. Outside observers can probably reverse engineer the cases to see whether PRISM’s role was essential. 

We may be on the cusp of a new wondrous counterterrorist tool; or we may be seeing American officials, once again, looking for a technical solution to a problem that actually requires intensive human labor, some of it morally challenging and bloody. Given the volatile state of Islamic militancy, the imminent nuclearization of the Islamic Republic, whose ruling elite has terrorism in its DNA, and the likely coming defeat of the United States in Afghanistan, which will probably supercharge jihadism, a big attack inside the United States in the coming years wouldn’t be surprising. We should want to assess PRISM’s capacities thoroughly and critically. It may be a great technology—or it may be an overpriced dream whose promise was just too appealing. What we shouldn’t do is throw it away over unwarranted fears of snooping.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former case officer in the CIA’s clandestine service, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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