The NSA may not be allowed to return to the shadows
By John Schindler
After working safely away from the public eye for decades, the National Security Agency was thrust into the limelight, opening a controversy the likes of which America's most secretive of secret services has never experienced.
The NSA is the US signals intelligence (Sigint) arm that intercepts and analyses electronic communications of every sort. Famed for its intense devotion to secrecy about itself and its mission, its employees joke that NSA stood for No Such Agency (or, alternatively, Never Say Anything). Recent revelations about "Prism", an electronic surveillance programme, will be causing the whole institution great nervousness.
Initial media reports have proved too simplistic, in large part because Sigint is a complex art and science that few outsiders understand. Unlike Humint - human intelligence or traditional espionage - one cannot read a few spy novels and feel oneself in halfway command of the topic. Electronic espionage especially in the 21st century is too complex for that: Bill Gates meets James Bond.
As James Clapper, the US national intelligence director, sought to explain, for example, the NSA's gathering of "metadata" about phone and online activities do not amount to "collection" in the sense that the intelligence community uses that word. These ideas are familiar to veteran spies, but are not something the public can easily grasp.
The NSA's interpretation is that the gathering of information about patterns of calls and online exchanges is fair game. But if the agency wants to gather more information than that about an American, to actively "collect"
in NSA language, court authorisation is required.
Confusion about what Prism is, or is not, may not be helped by the fact that Edward Snowden, the source of the information, is a curious character. Some of his claims - for instance, that he was able to listen in on anyone, including the president - can be charitably termed fanciful. I also cannot explain why someone who claims to be a dissident and advocate for free speech would take sanctuary in Hong Kong, within the reach of Chinese intelligence.
A conventional "whistleblower", he is not. Certainly his recent claims of NSA online spying and hacking against China indicate that he has more than civil liberties on his mind.
Regardless, the issues he has brought into the public eye will not go away quickly - and America certainly is overdue for a vigorous public debate over what it wants its intelligence services to do. It is difficult to see how the Obama administration, which declared an end to its predecessor's "war on terror", can indefinitely justify the invasive intelligence techniques that the Bush administration began and which the current White House has, if anything, expanded.
In any case, the online revolution of the past decade has profoundly altered the Sigint playing field and the legal norms that NSA operated under since the 1970s, when listening in on Americans without a court-issued warrant was simply forbidden, have been left behind by technological advances.
What, after all, is one to make of an online chat between two possible terrorists, one in Salford and one in Somalia, when their conversation is routed through a server in Indianapolis? These are the sorts of technical-cum-legal challenges that NSA has grappled with in recent years and which form the backstory to the Prism leak.
"A big debate has only just begun in many countries far beyond the US, and NSA will never again be No Such Agency"
So the US intelligence community now confronts a degree of scrutiny it has not faced in four decades. Beginning with the Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks, US defence and security agencies have been accustomed to an understanding public, fearful of more and worse terrorism, willing to give the secret government a wide berth in the name of protecting the citizenry.
This may no longer be the case.
One of the issues certain to now be questioned is how the Pentagon has spent countless billions of dollars in recent years on outsourcing contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that will likely be the poster child for misconduct in intelligence as Halliburton was in contracting over the Iraq war.
The public is right to wonder about both the ethics and efficiency of ostensibly private companies that are wholly dependent on defence contracts while being run by retired top officials of the agencies that provide the contracts.
For the rest of the world there can be little comfort in knowing that NSA's big ear may be tilted in its direction. Washington makes no assurances about the privacy of non-Americans. What does this mean for the EU - including many of America's Nato allies? All that can be said now is that a big debate has only just begun in many countries far beyond the US, and NSA will never again be No Such Agency.
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