The Magazine

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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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. 

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