The latest revelations about the National Security Agency’s monitoring of email and text messages are bound to increase the agitation that Edward Snowden’s leaks fueled on the issue. The information about the parameters of the NSA’s activity was itself the product of leaks from an anonymous “senior intelligence official” speaking to the New York Times and raises questions about who is running the store in Washington. It’s one thing for a low-level contractor to be able to access this information and broadcast it to the world. It’s just as reprehensible for a “senior official” to be releasing these sorts of details for what may be political motives. But while the question of how and why this information was leaked deserves as much attention as efforts to retrieve Snowden from Washington, the main fallout will be to embolden those who want to prevent the NSA from doing its job in keeping tabs on terrorists and their supporters.
According to the Times:
The N.S.A. is not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, a practice that government officials have openly acknowledged. It is also casting a far wider net for people who cite information linked to those foreigners, like a little used e-mail address, according to a senior intelligence official.
This is raising questions about U.S. intelligence targeting more Americans than many had thought. But while this policy deserves to be debated now that it is in the open, it is still a long way from the “Big Brother” paranoia that many opponents of the NSA have been feeding in recent weeks. So long as the NSA is limiting its efforts to find information about terrorists to pertinent information about these enemies, it should not be represented as an intolerable intrusion on our liberty. Though snooping of any kind scares Americans, even this broader jurisdiction does not come even close to violating the law.
The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the practice saying that searching for emails about terrorists will discourage people from “discussing controversial topics or investigating politically sensitive questions.” But in practice what that means is that those who frequent al-Qaeda websites or seek to communicate with supporters of terrorists will have to worry that the government is observing their behavior. But preventing the government from obtaining such information is more or less the moral equivalent of banning the government from monitoring those who attend meetings of the Ku Klux Klan or any other group that advocates violence. Such attendance is perfectly legal, as is visiting al-Qaeda websites, but the notion that doing so should render one immune to scrutiny is unsustainable.
As the Times article noted:
Stewart Baker, a former general counsel for the N.S.A., said that such surveillance could be valuable in identifying previously unknown terrorists or spies inside the United States who unwittingly reveal themselves to the agency by discussing a foreign-intelligence “indicator.” He cited a situation in which officials learn that Al Qaeda was planning to use a particular phone number on the day of an attack.
“If someone is sending that number out, chances are they are on the inside of the plot, and I want to find the people who are on the inside of the plot,” he said.
Baker is right and the impact on privacy rights from operating in this manner is minimal as well as being insignificant when compared to the threat the NSA is defending the country against. But we should expect the leaks to embolden Rep. Justin Amash, Senator Rand Paul, and the rest of the September 10th caucus in Congress that seeks to pull back from the war on Islamist terror. They will continue to trade on the false idea that ordinary Americans are being spied on indiscriminately when, in fact, the activity is limited to communications that are linked to terror. But whether the administration and sensible members of Congress can get this message across to a country that is being scared silly by distortions about what the NSA is doing is an open question.