NSA ‘Scandal’ Remains Laughably Overblown

Nov. 15, 2013, 7:21 a.m.

Five months after Edward Snowden came forward as the source of extensive leaks about National Security Agency signals intelligence programs, the repercussions are still being felt, both at home and abroad. The revelation that the NSAapparently operating without direct presidential oversight and with only the supervision of a secret court systemaccessed the personal communications of millions of Americans and non-Americans is certainly disconcerting.

To blindly critique such policies as a uniquely American practiceor as a fundamental breach of international decorum with long-lasting repercussionsis, however, both naïve and shortsighted.

Amidst the outcry in Europe and elsewhere in response to the revelation that Angela Merkel’s cellphone had been tapped, the list of nations that expressed no significant concern and voiced no substantial criticism is telling. Russia, China and the United Kingdom were largely or completely silent on the subject, in a tacit recognition that such practices are simply the international norm among greator previously or aspiringly greatpowers.

To be caught in the act is embarrassing, but hardly a deviation from what could fairly be considered standard practice for countries that have the means. Even peripheral nations like Brazilwhose president had previously spoken out forcefully against the NSA programshave acknowledged conducting similar activities against diplomatic targets from other nations.

That such surveillance is simply the norm is reinforced by the reaction of policymakers. Public anger in Europe and elsewhere has been pronounced, certainly, but remains largely superficial, the result of contrived attempts at nationalism and equally shallow concerns about governmental impotence. Even in the case of American relations with Germany, supposedly riven asunder by Angela Merkel’s anger over the invasion of her privacy, more important aspects of the relationship will continue to dominate its current conduct and future path.

Those policymakers are equally well aware of their own role in furthering such programs through domestic intelligence agencies. Some of the most “egregious”from a certain perspectivepractices undertaken by the NSA, such as mass intercepts of foreign communications, were actually conducted by partner intelligence agencies who then passed the information onto their American counterparts. Excessive protesting may jeopardize the future of such mutually beneficial collaboration, an outcome desirable to no one.

In any case, the extent to which the various NSA programs actually constitute any credible breach of privacy is equally overblown. While 39 percent of Americans believe that the NSA data surveillance program features intercepts of the content of calls and other communications, in fact it merely compiles minimal data about the timing and location of calls.

That informationhardly intrusive to anyone but the most paranoidcan subsequently be used to develop a firmer understanding of terrorist and communications and networks, but only upon meeting legally upheld standards of reasonable suspicion. In other words, intelligence services are hardly running amok.

The constraints under which the American intelligence community already operates makes recent moves to impose further limitations profoundly concerning, however. Given the critical nature of the threat posed by terrorism, developing effective partnerships with foreign intelligence services and continuing to prosecute a more aggressive campaign abroad makes sense. Arbitrarily surrendering the ability to target foreign leadersmany of them representing nations whose interests frequently clash directly with those of the United Statesis a step in the wrong direction.

There are certainly aspects of the surveillance program that merit further scrutiny and debate, of course. That the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has essentially usurped the role of the Supreme Court on matters relating to national security is a remarkable step that has largely eluded the interest of the American public, wrongly so. Overall, however, the furor over NSA data surveillance programs is both naïve and misguided, and may still yet generate a self-imposed backlash detrimental to the United States in the long run.


Contact Marshall Watkins at [email protected].

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