A lot of people are debating as to whether or not the secretive nature of the NSA (National Security Administration) is necessary. To be clear, and to clarify, federal agencies that manage classified documents and files and that deal with sensitive, volatile information need to have some sort of secrecy about their operations. The real question being raised is: How much is too far?
Is the opaqueness of the clandestine services community coming into question after all of these years? Seriously, it’s called clandestine services for a reason. The reason being that you have to have a clearance level to access classified files. And those who leak them, like the accused Edward Snowden, are subject to harsh prosecutions often resulting in lengthy prison sentences. Then again, these contractors also swore an oath and received their clearances after attesting they would never leak anything, and that compromises the core of these agencies and their sensitive operations altogether.
“I think there are legitimate issues to be raised about how much more leg can be shown … to facilitate public debate and a debate in Congress,” said Paul Pillar, a former chief counterterrorism analyst for the CIA. “But the main risk and damage that’s been caused in these leaks is in hurting the cooperation and confidence between private sector companies that are involved and the government agencies.”
Reported last week, The Washington Post and Guardian newspapers flipped the lid on the FBI and NSA access to millions of phone records and emails. But this is nothing new. (Read more on this in our previous article: Pres. Obama to U.S. Public: NSA Snooping Was the “Right Balance”), as apparently such operations have been conducted in a similar scope since the 70s. It should be noted that all three branches of government and congress oversaw and approved these controversial programs that have successfully deflected and prevented numerous terrorist attacks, especially a large scale one that was intended to be carried out in a subway in New York City.
Some people say that terrorists like Osama Bin Laden evaded such calamities by refraining from electronic communications altogether, something that many analysts purport undermines the ability to track these terrorist cells.
“I’m not sure what kind of advantage an adversary gets when we say, ‘Hey, we’re collecting a lot of phone and e-mail records,’ ” said Philip Mudd, a former FBI and CIA counterterrorism official.
NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander says that the secrecy of such programs is incremental to them working. After all, how are you supposed to thwart terrorist attacks if the suspects are aware of your entire game plan, but you are not aware of theirs?
“Our ability to discuss these activities is limited by our need to protect intelligence sources and methods,” Clapper said. “Disclosing information about the specific methods the government uses to collect communications can obviously give our enemies a ‘playbook’ of how to avoid detection.”
A recent USA Today article sheds some further light on the debate between the delicate balance of the rights of people and in secretive government programs that are intended to undo terrorist plannings, yet that in the process of doing so, also touch a very red line on individual privacy rights that are granted by the constitution:
Susan Landau, author of Surveillance or Security?: The Risks Posed by New Wiretapping Technology, counters that government has the right to protect algorithms, the specific mathematical formulas the NSA uses to process and analyze the data. But the public is entitled to know the kinds of data collected and how its use can be restricted to prevent abuse of law-abiding citizens, she said.
“We really need to discuss how this meta-data should be handled under the law,” Landau said. “What data is collected and what the minimization rules are for that data.”
In the recent past, Congress has shown little appetite for making public even the general outlines of the government’s surveillance programs. Last year, three disclosure proposals were offered by Democratic Reps. Bobby Scott of Virginia, Jerrold Nadler of New York and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, but were defeated by the House Judiciary Committee.
The debate is open. As for Edward Snowden, he is unlikely to find solace or refugee status in any country that has ties to the U.S., as he is a citizen. The Justice Department will assuredly seek prosecution for a laundry list of federal crimes, and Hong Kong is no safe haven whatsoever for him, according to officials over there; notwithstanding the fragile nature of U.S.-China relations that could be deleteriously impacted should an international incident take place regarding China granting a defacto and rogue intelligence contractor safe haven.
But what do you think? Is the NSA going too far and overstepping its authority by authorizing such invasions? Or is this necessary to protect ourselves from repeating 911?