As the debate over NSA’s powers unfold, the usual suspects are citing NSA’s denials and obfuscations as “proof” that there is nothing untoward going on. The latest debate is over XKEYSCORE, which is a user interface for data mining.
It’s important, however, that you understand how NSA says things. The denials and reassurances are very carefully worded and Jameel Jaffer and Brett Max Kaufman untangle some of the euphemisms that are employed. For example:
Collect. If an intelligence official says that the NSA isn’t “collecting” a certain kind of information, what has he actually said? Not very much, it turns out. One of the NSA’s foundational documents states that “collection” occurs not when the government acquires information but when the government “selects” or “tasks” that information for “subsequent processing.” Thus it becomes possible for the government to acquire great reams of information while denying that it is “collecting” anything at all.
This is key. The government collects — in the everyday use of that word — tons of information. It has inserted the claws necessary for exploitation of enormous masses of data. Where the reassurances come is not that the infrastructure doesn’t exist or that the data aren’t being collected. It’s that the data aren’t being “collected” in the sense that no one is looking at your information right now. But a quick warrant and your entire life is at their fingertips.
We are assured that this won’t happen, that information is highly compartmentalized and that anyone who abuses their snooping authority is punished. But considering the government’s record on this matter, I find these reassurances meaningless. No incident of wrongdoing by NSA has been discovered … yet. But considing that it took us a couple of years to get confirmation of IRS abuses and that the IRS is not an agency operating in secret; considering James Clapper has already lied right to Congress with a straight face; considering the secrecy with which the very existence of these tools is shrouded; considering the hysterical reaction to the Amash Amendment last week …
You’ll forgive me if I don’t take the NSA at their word that they are playing nice.
The NSA’s activities may be “focused and specifically deployed against — and only against” foreign targets. But the fact that it isn’t “focused” on American citizens doesn’t mean their phone data, Internet behavior, and other information isn’t being collected in vast, searchable databases. If and when access to that information is abused, the focus of the program that first collected it won’t matter.
So long as the NSA operates largely in secret, with tools that enable intrusions into privacy on an extreme scale, the odds that there will eventually be serious abuses approach 100 percent. If and when that happens, Presidents Bush and Obama, NSA Director General Keith Alexander, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and many others will share the responsibility for the totally preventable catastrophe they enabled.