The NSA and Americans caught up in the data sweep

Article Highlights

  • New Snowden leaks give up more analysis and less sensationalism

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  • We demanded that NSA search for the needle in a haystack to prevent future attacks

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  • We should want government to know when someone is planning to wage war on the US

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Yesterday,Tthe Washington Post’s top story was another leak from NSA contractor Edward Snowden.  Unlike many of the Post’s other Snowden stories, where sensationalism has greatly outweighed the reported facts about this or that NSA program, this one had more substance and less breathless analysis.

The core of the story is the Post’s own analysis of some 160,000 email and instant messaging exchanges that NSA had intercepted and which Snowden had somehow gotten access to and passed along to the Post’s Barton Gellman.  The headline in the story is that the vast majority of the Internet cache collected by NSA was not of suspected terrorists but non-targeted individuals, American and non-American alike.  With graphics included, the Post concludes that NSA has been collecting vast amounts of data involving the communications of ordinary, presumably, innocent citizens, while finding within this collection sweep only a small percentage of usable intelligence.

Yet, as the Post reporters also report: NSA does make a significant effort to minimize the identities of Americans caught in the collection sweep.

“Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents. NSA analysts masked, or “minimized,” more than 65,000 such references to protect Americans’ privacy….At one level, the NSA shows scrupulous care in protecting the privacy of U.S. nationals and, by policy, those of its four closest intelligence allies — Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.  More than 1,000 distinct “minimization” terms appear in the files, attempting to mask the identities of “possible,” “potential” and “probable” U.S. persons, along with the names of U.S. beverage companies, universities, fast-food chains and Web-mail hosts.”

And isn’t the fact that the proportion of usable versus unusable intelligence is precisely what one would expect from the effort to find the proverbial “needle in the haystack?”  An effort, I might add, that we demanded from the intelligence community in the wake of the attacks on 9/11 in order to help to preempt similar attacks?   And, indeed, as the Post story reports, in the cache of materials they reviewed, there were considerable intelligence finds, including intelligence leading to the capture of a terrorist bomb builder and the discovery of a covert nuclear project abroad.

Not too surprisingly, the Post story also focuses on the fact that, while there was a substantial effort to mask American identities of “possible,” “potential,” and “probable” U.S. persons, the reporters “found nearly 900 additional e-mail addresses, unmasked in the files, that could be strongly linked to U.S. citizens or U.S. residents.”  However, absent more details, the reader is left to wonder whether this is the result of NSA not properly scrubbing the collection thoroughly to keep American identities from being circulated needlessly among intelligence analysts or a by-product of the fact that an overseas target may well be in contact with people in the United States, with that information being of relevance even if the person he’s in contact with is not suspected of any illicit activity.

This last point is actually captured well by the Post also reporting on a cache of emails and Facebook exchanges collected by NSA and Australia’s Signals Directorate that were between a young Australian woman and her Muslim boyfriend who had left Australia in order to join the Taliban.  On the one hand, it’s clear she was not complicit in his effort to wage jihad.  On the other hand, while the conversations between the two were of the most private nature and hardly the stuff anyone would want shared between scores of intelligence and homeland security bureaucrats, it’s also clear that both the American and Australian governments had an interest in knowing what he was up to—especially when he returned home to Australia and she had secured a job in the government there.  So, when asked, if she felt “violated” by the fact that her emails and Facebook exchanges had been collected, stored, and distributed by two governments, she naturally enough said, “yes.”  But, she then went on to say, that she was “not against the fact that my privacy was violated in this instance” because he was being “stupid,” and not “thinking straight.”

Now, one doesn’t know, until more thorough oversight is done, whether NSA has overreached its mandate in this instance, been less thorough than it should be in scrubbing collected data of irrelevant material or, actually, doing its job as expected.  Based on previous reactions to Snowden leaks, one suspects that a number of senators and congressmen will simply conclude that NSA has jumped off the rails.  It would be nice to think, however, that our young Australian woman’s reaction would find favor within a majority.  No one likes the government eavesdropping.  But, then again, when individuals are not “thinking straight,” and are aiming to wage war against either the public or our military, we ought to want, indeed expect, our government to know that as well.

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Gary J.
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