The NSA Should Be Congratulated

August 23, 2013

Bradley Manning’s 35-year prison sentence, the overnight detention and interrogation of Glenn “Sock Puppet” Greenwald’s partner in London, and Edward Snowden’s ongoing efforts to ingratiate himself with some of the more authoritarian governments the world has to offer has ensured government secrecy’s ominous presence on the front pages of all major newspapers.

Those who defend Snowden’s leaks via Greenwald and The Guardian hope it will reinvigorate a conversation about just what the U.S. government is doing.

Since Snowden became a fugitive and PRISM became a story, a lot of information has come out about the nature of NSA data collection and various oversight mechanisms. I have been pleasantly surprised to learn how the system was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing – bringing itself back into line through inspectors general investigations and rulings by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court.  I have also been impressed by the numbers that have come out measuring how often the NSA overstepped its boundaries in recent years.  I mean, the NSA violates Americans’ privacy by accessing their data almost 3,000 times a year? That’s crazy! That number is so low!

Low? Am I crazy? No, I just read a recent must-read op-ed by Joshua Foust that puts this number into context. After doing the math, he finds that only “0.001156666667 percent of the queries the NSA performs each year are violating laws or regulations.”  And about two-thirds of these “violations” were actually against non-Americans who happened to travel to the United States. According to David Gerwitz, a computer scientist and government advisor, who said, the NSA collects 30 quadrillion bytes every day and only one thousand of those are on Americans. That’s less data than the latest Lady Gaga (a Bradley Manning fan) single takes up on your iPod.  So the NSA is 99.99% compliant with the law and external and internal oversight is very effective in determining when it is not.  Not too bad.

Unfortunately, the mega-leaks of Manning and Snowden will have the effect of hardening the secrecy regime. Taller walls will be built around data, investigations will proliferate and become more rigorous, and official de-classifications will slow down.

Isn’t that the opposite of what NSA critics want to achieve? Maybe they should reconsider their strategy and act within the boundaries of the law (Greenwald is a lawyer, after all) to challenge the system where it needs to be challenged rather than flailing at straw men and putting American national security at risk. The problem is not what the NSA is or is not doing. If there is a problem, it is what the U.S. Congress authorized them to do.

So I’ll say it if no one else will: I’d like to thank the tireless analysts at the National Security Agency and those who work inside the system to ensure they aren’t collecting the wrong data.