The National Security Agency is headed by Admiral Michael Rogers, and is tasked with global monitoring, collection, and processing of information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes. It has recently become very controversial, as information has been leaked showing that the NSA has been systematically spying on and violating the privacy of America’s own citizens.
There are points to be made on both sides of the NSA issue. I personally stand against the NSA, for several reasons. Let’s start first with the constitutionality of the organization. It doesn’t even matter how much it has stopped terrorist attacks or violated the privacy of American citizens if it’s unconstitutional to begin with.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
— Fourth Amendment
People have a right to privacy that shall not be violated. End of story. Right?
No, not really. Some people still try to justify the NSA by looking at the security it brings us. Let’s take a look at that.
In June 2013, General Keith Alexander, then Director of the National Security Agency, claimed to Congress that his organization had thwarted about 50 potential terror attacks. (Source: ABC NEWS) If this figure is true, then the National Security Agency has lived up to its name by actually preserving our national security, and is arguably justified in its extensive surveillance programs.
To begin with, however, we ought to hold Alexander’s statement in some doubt for two reasons – conflict of interest, and lack of evidence. Why wouldn’t General Alexander make claims that will result in more funding for his own agency? Also, it’s suspicious that he refused to elaborate on how or what or who was caught in those ’54 terror attacks’ that were supposedly stopped by the NSA. We shouldn’t simply take his statements at face value simply because he’s in the military or has four stars on each shoulder. Let’s actually take a look at the factuality of the 54 number.
“Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and of the 54, only 13 had some nexus to the U.S.?” Leahy said at the hearing. “Would you agree with that, yes or no?”
“Yes,” Alexander replied, without elaborating.
Okay. So to begin with, the 54 terrorism cases that were thwarted is already reduced to 13 that have anything at all to do with the USA. That number is further reduced when we learn that not all of the 13 were actual plots for an actual terrorist attack. Then, the number is further reduced when we learn that the NSA is not even responsible for thwarting all of the remainder of the 13 actual terrorist plots.
In the end, when the claims and reality are fully analyzed (full analysis here), the NSA had a prominent role in detecting or foiling all of about one or two actual terrorist plots to carry out an attack on American soil or directed at American citizens, and it hasn’t been shown that those attacks couldn’t have been foiled by other agencies without the use of the NSA’s extensive dragnet collection of the data of American citizens.
At the end of the day, not only is the NSA’s extensive violation of privacy unconstitutional, the claimed actual benefits to our security resulting from those violations just don’t add up to actual security at all. If that isn’t enough, let’s now look at the harms done to our society because of the NSA and similar surveillance programs.
The Washington Post reported on August 15, 2013, on a leaked top-secret internal audit from the NSA that stated that in 2012 alone, 2,776 violations of privacy took place. (Source: CNN and The Washington Post)
“There is no reliable way to calculate from the number of recorded compliance issues how many Americans have had their communications improperly collected, stored or distributed by the NSA.”
Those 2,776 violations of in-house rules can’t even be independently verified, simply by nature of the complete secrecy surrounding the NSA. So we can’t know if there have actually been perhaps even thousands more violations of regulations.
The Obama administration and top officials in the NSA have publicly claimed that only 12 violations have taken place in the last decade. (Source: Bloomberg Business) Obviously, 2,776 a year and 12 a decade are two numbers that cannot coexist in the real world. So let’s take a look at the facts.
“A secret court that oversees the NSA said in a declassified legal opinion from October 2011 the agency substantially misrepresented the scope of surveillance operations three times in less than three years.”
“Since the first secret documents on NSA spying were revealed in June, senior officials have been clamouring to win back the trust of the public. But in the process, they have repeatedly made factually inaccurate and disingenuous statements—whether due to incompetence or complicity—which will only further erode confidence in the current system and fuel desire for comprehensive reform.”
The National Security Agency, as well as the current administration, has a history of lying to the American people. Even the secret court that oversees the NSA doesn’t trust the claims that NSA officials present to it any more. NSA officials and the Obama administration are simply no longer credible, at least when they make claims about the NSA. It simply does not make sense to trust the ’12 abuses’ claim unless we have actual evidence to back it up. It makes more sense to trust the 2,776 number, as it comes directly from an internal audit from the NSA, rather than from officials who have their own careers and reputations at stake if they tell the truth.
Bear in mind that the 2,776 number only counts violations of internal regulations. First off, there may be thousands more violations that haven’t been discovered or documented. Secondly, some may consider actually even storing or analyzing their own personal data as an unreasonable invasion of their privacy. (Source: RT) Third, every single one of the 2,776 violations of regulations can encompass multiple (in one case even 3,000) violations of privacy rights. Fourth, the 2,776 number doesn’t actually count every single instance where rules were broken while accessing data collected by the NSA. (Source: The New American)
“But the NSA review document did not review every violation of U.S. citizens’ privacy. It only reviewed violations based from the NSA’s Ft. Meade headquarters. The NSA also has large database systems and staff in half a dozen other locations, including a huge new data center in Utah. The NSA document did not analyze abuse by non-NSA personnel either. Other agencies — as well as private contractors such as Edward Snowden — also have had access to NSA data center information. So the actual abuse could be much wider than the 2,776 incidents last year.”
So the actual number of violations of actual privacy rights is substantially higher than 2,776. The actual number will vary on how you analyze the situation and because we don’t have definitive evidence or empirical facts.
We won’t dive too deeply into even more disgusting and reprehensible accounts of how the NSA and its officials have abused its power and blatantly violated the privacy of American citizens. (Sources: Wall Street Journal and Just Security)
“…someday, the abuses will begin, in all likelihood long before we know about them.”
Finally, even if there aren’t that many privacy violations in the here and now, the NSA opens the door to privacy violations in the future – it sets a very disturbing precedent of allowing the federal government to violate your privacy at will. As stated above, this is obviously unconstitutional.
A simple cost benefit analysis indicates that the one or two terrorist attacks that have been stopped by the NSA (which probably could have been stopped without the NSA) aren’t worth the massive violations of privacy that are happening on a regular basis.
In sum, the NSA is violating the Constitutional right to privacy on a regular basis, it also doesn’t actually provide with real security against anything, and on top of that, thousands (and perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands) of privacy violations ought to make us think twice about maintaining the NSA in its current form.