Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 19, 2005

Thoughts on the NSA revelations

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Christian Beckner on December 19, 2005

I have not written about the New York Times story on the NSA published last Friday until now – in part because it falls somewhat outside my area of expertise, and in part because I don’ t think we’ve heard the full story yet. I’ve been reading commentary around the web on both sides of the issue since the story broke, trying to figure out what I think.

On one hand, I yield to no one in taking seriously the existential threat that America faces from radical and messianic terrorism today. I don’t shrink from the statement that we are “at war” with the terrorists, and I know that they obey no boundaries or rules in their behavior and intentions, a fact that requires the United States to respond in a manner that is often unlike previous wars and conflicts.

But I also believe that we can win this war – we have to win this war – without debasing core American values and liberties, and without having to throw out the Constitutional checks and balances in our system.

Not because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Because it’s the better strategy.

Perhaps we benefit in a short-term and tactical sense from activities that are inconsistent with American values. But tactical “short-cuts” are not sustainable in a democratic society. It’s an illusion to think that things like unsupervised wiretaps and extraordinary renditions to countries that are known torturers can ever be kept secret as tools in a globalized and decentralized war, in the same way that nuclear launch codes and maps of Soviet bases were kept secret during the Cold War.

The result of these short-cuts: long-run strategic setbacks that have undermined the war on terror, including the alienation of would-be allies, the radicalization of the broader Islamic populace, and (now potentially) an overboard domestic reaction against legally-vetted security measures.

The tactical short-cut of circumventing FISA might very well have had short-term security benefits. I’ll give the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt. But the long-run effect of this “short-cut” could very well be less leeway for this administration and future administrations to prosecute the war on terror. If a post-9/11 “Church Commission” responds to prosecutorial excesses in the war on terror with overzealous constraints, and throws the baby out with the bathwater, then the nation will be facing new and unnecessary risks.

Finally, the “blame the messenger” strategy in response to the story is very disheartening. The New York Times is not aiding and abetting our enemies. It is doing its job. One of the key lessons I learned from the Cold War is that an open society is inherently stronger for its openness. That is still true today.

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Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » More NSA revelations from the New York Times

December 24, 2005 @ 3:54 am

[…] But this story reinforces what I wrote last Monday in this post, and my sense that the extra-legal path that has been chosen by the Administration will harm our efforts to fight the war on terror in the long-run, for all of the potential short-run benefits. A story like this has the potential to tar ALL data mining and data analysis activities in the government, without making distinctions between activities based upon their security benefits, built-in privacy protections, and consistency with other legal and societal norms. […]


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January 7, 2006 @ 1:33 pm

[…] There are certainly cases where the government has overreached on privacy and civil liberties issues, as I’ve written about on this site, and I think the media is doing a commendable job of bringing issues such as the recent disclosures about the NSA to public attention. But the media needs to do a better job of discerning between real “Big Brother” concerns and red herrings such as this story, rather than crying wolf in response to any scrap of evidence that supports a theory of malicious government overreach. […]


Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » NSA revelations: the Bureau strikes back

January 17, 2006 @ 1:28 am

[…] The article notes how NSA was forced to disguise the source of its leads to such an extent that it hindered the FBI’s ability to discern how it should respond to leads. This is another data point in support of the key argument in my initial response to the NSA story: that fighting the war on terror by taking ’short cuts’ or operating in a legal grey zone is ultimately the less effective strategy for combating the threats that we face. There’s something inherently wrong with a system where you can’t even trust the nation’s lead law enforcement agency with any context on collected intelligence. […]


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February 26, 2006 @ 11:22 pm

[…] Most of the blog reaction to this story has been critical, wondering why tech companies would get involved with the NSA. I’ve expressed concerns in the last two months about the apparent circumvention of U.S. law in the recent NSA revelations, but this seems like exactly what the NSA should be doing: seeking out new ideas from the nation’s brightest technology minds. The NSA absolutely needs to stay ahead of the technology curve and adopt leading-edge tools. That’s not inconsistent with wanting there to be a better framework to ensure that the applications of these technologies are legal and are used consistent with the nation’s system of checks and balances. […]

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June 23, 2006 @ 12:26 am

[…] I’ve been critical of the NSA program that was revealed by the same New York Times reporters in December. But I think this program is very different, and plays a valid and important role in the war on terrorism, for three reasons: […]

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June 24, 2006 @ 12:45 pm

[…] I’ve been critical of the NSA program that was revealed by the same New York Times reporters in December. But I think this program is very different, and plays a valid and important role in the war on terrorism, for three reasons: […]

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