Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Mistakes, Not Abuse at NSA

“The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents.”

That’s the lead of the latest Washington Post story based on documents stolen by NSA-defector Edward Snowden. Sounds pretty alarming, doesn’t it? The Post article makes it sound as if the NSA is precisely what Snowden claims it is–an out-of-control outfit routinely breaking the law to spy on innocent Americans.

The details tell a somewhat different story. As the New York Times notes:

The largest number of episodes — 1,904 — appeared to be “roamers,” in which a foreigner whose cellphone was being wiretapped without a warrant came to the United States, where individual warrants are required. A spike in such problems in a single quarter, the report said, could be because of Chinese citizens visiting friends and family for the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.

“Roamer incidents are largely unpreventable, even with good target awareness and traffic review, since target travel activities are often unannounced and not easily predicted,” the report says.

In another case, “the system collected metadata logs about a ‘large number’ of calls dialed from Washington – something it was already doing through a different program – because of a programming error mixing up the district’s area code, 202, with the international dialing code of Egypt, 20.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like Big Brother, does it? It doesn’t even sound like the work of the FBI in the old days when it was wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr. and other political figures. This sounds as if the NSA operatives committed innocent errors due to inadvertent mistakes which were then caught and corrected in an internal audit. In other words, the system worked exactly as it was supposed to, and there is zero evidence presented here that NSA wiretappers gathered any information for personal or non-professional reasons.

This was not NSA employees spying on their ex-wives or trying to get an unfair advantage in the stock market. For the most part it is not even the NSA spying on Americans. Indeed the regulations regarding “roamers” highlight an absurdity that terrorists can exploit–it is much easier for the NSA to tap suspects abroad than when they are on American soil, where they can presumably do the most damage.

So before we get too deep into outrage over NSA “rule-breaking,” let’s take a deep breath. A small number of inadvertent errors–and the number is small given the number of overall NSA operations going on–is hardly cause to discontinue valuable intelligence-gathering programs that are helping to keep us safe from a resurgent al-Qaeda.