(N)ot (S)urprised at (A)ll: thoughts on the NSA “scandal”

In his interview, Edward Snowden revealed himself as the source for a series of leaks to the Guardian last week, which included disclosures of a secret court order dealing with Verizon passing the details of phone calls to the NSA related to millions of customers, and a vast NSA intelligence network called Prism, which collects data on foreign intelligence targets from the systems of some of the biggest tech companies. My knee-jerk reaction to this was thinking that James Madison should have thought about this stuff when he wrote the Fourth Amendment, but that was over 200 years ago so we can’t really blame him.

That being said, I was bored the other day and thought to browse through George Washington University’s National Security Archive (yes I do this for fun sometimes), where I found a recently declassified memo from 2001: the NSA wrote to the Bush Administration requesting new powers and authority to adapt to the internet era we now live in. In it, the memo points out that “today’s and tomorrow’s mission will demand a powerful, permanent presence on a global telecommunications network that will host the ‘protected’ communications of Americans as well as the targeted communications of adversaries.”

The 9/11 attacks, which happened in the same year, was precisely what the NSA needed to grow to the size that it is today, billions of dollars and dozens of new legal authorities later.  We seemed to be perfectly fine with the Patriot Act and FISA’s passage in the wake of 9/11, but a decade later we’re disgusted. In fact, Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act in 2011 and the FISA Amendments Act in December of 2012, with no serious debate or limiting of the laws even as a decade had passed since the terrorist attacks. As Paul Pillar pointed out, anyone who was interested in having a debate about this privacy-security balance everyone is talking about now could have done so:

“We also are again hearing nonsense about how a leak is somehow critical for obtaining public accountability or a public debate. Any other members of Congress who listened to Ron Wyden or Mark Udall could have joined their cause if they were so inclined and there would have been the debate. But evidently other members, including the leaderships of both parties, were not so inclined.”

Also, anyone who is surprised or shocked by the NSA revelation obviously does not read the news. Here are a few stories you may have missed from some of the most popular news sources.

But before you make your own judgment on whatever it was that actually happened last week, think of this:

1) as far as we know there have been no abuses of the NSA’s  authority during this program’s lifetime.

2) can we afford to live in a world pretending that 9/11 did not happen?

3) and if one more 9/11 were to happen, considering there are groups and individuals out there trying to carry one out as I write this, and it could have been prevented by the simple data mining procedures that are being called “scandalous,” that help connect the dots for 9/11 like plots, what do you think will happen to your civil liberties (the ones you falsely believe to have been violated now) when it does happen again?

And as I wrote this, I came across Tom Friedman’s piece which expands on my point. And to think, I could have been in the NY Times today…

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