Let the NSA Do Job of Protecting USA

There is arguably no greater responsibility for the federal government than protecting the safety of Americans in general and the homeland in particular. But don’t tell that to the multitude of vociferous critics of the National Security Agency.

On Sunday, the latest sensational article about the NSA appeared on the front page of the Washington Post regarding online surveillance of foreign terrorist threats.

The article was among a string of stories by the Post outing the NSA’s highly classified domestic and foreign surveillance methods. The top-secret information surfaced via media leaks by infamous fugitive Edward Snowden, whom some Americans accuse of treason.

Safeguarding America

The NSA’s stated mission in layperson’s terms is, “To help protect national security by providing policy makers and military commanders with the intelligence information they need to do their jobs…”

But how can the NSA effectively do its job with swirling myths, fears and stereotypes about its secretive work, which is perpetuated and sensationalized by the global news media and some privacy advocates?

Despite the Post’s mostly one-sided reporting, the Sunday article does confirm some of the NSA’s successes. For example:

  • “Months of tracking communications across more than 50 alias accounts, the files show, led directly to the 2011 capture in Abbottabad of Muhammad Tahir Shahzad, a Pakistan-based bomb builder, and Umar Patek, a suspect in a 2002 terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali. At the request of CIA officials, The Post is withholding other examples that officials said would compromise ongoing operations.”

Moreover, as the Post points out toward the end of the lengthy article:

  • “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.”

Therefore, it’s a bit ironic and unsettling that so many citizens whom the NSA protects are crying foul over alleged privacy violations – claims which may hold no legal or constitutional merit.

Some proponents of the NSA argue that such purported privacy violations are merely theoretical, as not one U.S. citizen has proven egregious harm suffered due to NSA surveillance.

Privacy vs. National Security

The controversial debate over national security vs. privacy won’t end anytime soon.

Yet it’s somewhat perplexing for citizens to unequivocally embrace today’s cutting edge high-tech advancements on one hand, while whining over questionable privacy violations on the other hand – whether its against the government or Internet giants like Google and Facebook, for example.

Unfortunately, it appears that too many Americans have been too quick to forget the horrific lessons of 9/11 and its aftermath. It’s also worth repeating that countless terrorist plots have reportedly been foiled by the intelligence community behind the scenes.

Moreover, real terrorist threats have not receded. To the contrary, anti-American terrorist sentiment is reportedly ramping up due to current events in the Middle East. That’s why the TSA just imposed new travel rules on flights to the United States from some foreign countries.

What We Don’t Know

As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to point out: We don’t know what we don’t know. Additionally, he spoke of national security threats falling into three distinct categories: 1) the knowns, 2) the unknowns, and 3) the unknown-unknowns (for more on this check out his recent book, “Rumsfeld’s Rules”).

What ordinary citizens don’t know can indeed harm us, as well as what some “experts” and analysts mistakenly believe we already know.

What we do know, however, is that NSA surveillance has played an instrumental role in safeguarding America from another cataclysmic terrorist attack on the homeland.

  • That’s why critics of the NSA need to get out of the way and let the intelligence agency do its job.

These ongoing illegal media leaks of highly classified national security information have dangerous and unanticipated consequences for U.S. interests, according to intelligence officials and some members of Congress.

World Privacy Board Weighs In

Interestingly, just days before the Post article appeared, the New York Times ran a story headlined, World Privacy Board Backs NSA Program that Taps Internet in U.S.

According to the Times:

  • “The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board” concluded the NSA’s foreign surveillance program “is largely in compliance with both the Constitution and a surveillance law that Congress passed six years ago.”

It’s also important to reiterate that the NSA’s actions have been authorized by both the former and current President under the USA Patriot Act and related Congressional actions. Further, the NSA is subjected to stringent oversight by Congress and the so-called Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).

Nevertheless, the NSA’s detractors have failed to learn a vital lesson more than a decade after 9/11 and more recent terrorist plots on U.S. soil. The bottom line is that proactive prevention by the NSA foils terrorism and saves lives.

And that should garner the support of all Americans.


Note: All photos courtesy of the NSA.

*** All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector or private sector employer, organization or political entity.

David Grinberg is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Henry Brown

I am one of those privacy advocates, who believes that the ends does NOT always justify the means. As Thomas Jefferson said “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.

I am not convinced that NSA/CIA/FBI or any other three letter organization needs to break the law to capture the bad guys.

Would also offer that NSA knows what the rules are and willingly broke them with the reality that there was nothing to gain by tracking cell phone calls of any and everyone and then to try to cover it up by first denying it did it and then saying it was approved by the fine members of congress who have often times have had another agenda than to be worrying what our spy agencies were doing….

Peter Sperry

Ancient Rome engraved on the walls of the Forum the warning/question: “Who will guard the guardians?” Every nation has had to find a balance between security and freedom. It is not easy. The Roman Republic neglected security for generations until Hannibal crossed the Alps, defeated two Roman armies and camped in front of the gates of the city. Rome rebounded to defeat Carthege after more than 20 years of war. They swore never to repeat the mistake and built the strongest military the ancient world had ever seen. Julius Ceasar used that military to conquer Rome itself, destroy the Republic and establish a tyrannical empire ruled by his family.

We absolutely DO need the NSA and must empower it to protect us effectively. But we must also guard the guardians and ensure they do not, in the name of security, end the freedom we ask them to protect.

Henry Brown

From a Boing Boing blog:

The report is the second summary of government requests Verizon has publicly issued since shareholders pressured the company to divulge information it shared with the government in December. The government issued 72,342 subpoenas, half of which request subscriber information on a given phone number or IP address, while others ask for transactional information, like the phone numbers a customer has called, according to Verizon.

Verizon also received over 37,000 court orders, including 714 wiretaps, which give access to the content of communications and over 3,000 pen registers and trap and trace orders, which give the government real-time access to outgoing and incoming phone numbers, respectively.

The Actual Report

And this is only from ONE carrier (granted rather large one) and for only a partial yearly report

And does NOT include the numbers requested by NSA/FISA….

What is missing is the number of law enforcement agencies making these requests

Mark Hammer

Security culture, and its sibling – espionage, has always been a little wonky and sick, with kind of a twisted view of the world, not unlike vice cops. After all, it is an entire culture predicated on an absence of trust, and trust is pretty fundamental to human mental health. And when a culture predicated on mistrust turns to the public and its own government, and says “Look we really can’t tell you anything. You’re just going to have to trust us.”, something is also a little off.

If it was always a little sick, post 09/11 it went from a little feverish and short of breath to coughing up phlegm. I suppose a chunk of that is not just 09/11, but the changes to the technological landscape that emerged over the same time period. Those changes not only set the mind wandering about what could be done by those one is concerned about, but also generated a Pandora’s box of ways to expand the domain of what counts as “security”. Add to that the ever-widening gulf between what the public knows and understands about the technology, and what the security folks know and understand, and there is some very efficient fuel for public distrust. Wait, you were doing what without my knowledge or consent?

For me, the questions I have to keep asking myself are “How much of this is actually necessary and actually useful, as opposed to simply technically feasible?”, “How much of what is being done is actually more benign than we think, and simply poorly communicated?”, and “How much are ‘the watchers’ assumptions well-calibrated to the real world?”.

For the first question, I see the conceptual challenge of really big data that is so huge nobody can make heads or tails of it (or can make any head or tail they wish, as opposed to something being compelled empirically). And at times I see something like the relationship between some abstract mission-to-Mars initiative and the various technological innovations such a pointless mission will generate along the way to that brick wall. So, the nation won’t be more “secure”, as such, but the urge to somehow be a step ahead of some imagined foe will generate technological innovation that will find other more practical uses.

For the second question, I seriously doubt whether serious efforts have been made to clearly convey how metadata is used to establish base rates such that the conspicuous needle can be validly and reliably extracted from the haystack. I know that with employee surveys, and things like the national census, one frequently has to explain to people that, no, nobody really cares about your data one little bit, or will ever look at it. But understanding the overall pattern, and gaining useful insights from that pattern, requires the data of all those people like yourself. I suppose we can chalk that up to statisticians being lousy when it comes to soft skills.

What is the real risk? We get fed stuff occasionally to maintain public and government support for security measures. A friend who is one of the national experts on infrastructure security (stuff like oil pipelines, bridges, etc.) tells me “There are some very bad people out there.” But how much risk is there really, such that the whole security machine is justified? I doubt anyone will ever really know. That’s the thing about risk analysis: it is a hypothetical future to be potentially verified. And much like daily astrologers and market analysts that make predictions at such a breakneck pace that all the incorrect ones are forgotten in the frenzy to make new ones, “the 2011 capture in Abbottabad of Muhammad Tahir Shahzad, a Pakistan-based bomb builder, and Umar Patek, a suspect in a 2002 terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali” is but one “success” in the midst of a great many false alarms and failures. I might add that capturing murderers after committing murder is not much of a success; merely a satisfying coda to a tragedy. Success is capturing them before they carry out such deeds. We’re not so good at that stuff as we like to think we are, or as we like to tell the people who fund us.

David B. Grinberg

HENRY, PETER & MARK: Just a note to thank you for sharing your important insights on this post, which I appreciate. You all raise many excellent points, as usual. Your valuable feedback helps contribute to an open dialogue and constructive debate on this forum.

I few thoughts:

HENRY/PETER: As usual, I will have to respectfully agree to disagree on this issue. Neither the Founding Fathers nor the Romans or Ceasar had to deal with the current advancements in new and evolving mobile, digital and virtual technology that have become part and parcel of our 21st century world. Moreover, they did not have to deal with cyber terrorism and threats from hackers breaking into to critical system to steal top-secret information for nefarious purposes. Just something to think about.

MARK: Your comments are comprehensive and thought provoking, as expected. I would point out, as you know, that prior to Snowden’s spilling out state secrets to our enemies the NSA used many of the same surveillance techniques for years post-9/11.

Moreover, no Americans complained out any harm — real or perceived — because there was none. Snowden’s treasonous crimes (IMO) stoked and exacerbated the fear and paranoia that some political groups use to attract followers and berate the current Administration.

Lastly, to find the terrorist needle in a haystack, it helps to have access to the entire haystack — not just bits and pieces. The USA has been fortunate to not experience another horrific terrorist attack on our homeland similar or worse to 9/11. I think Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the intelligence community for that. It’s only after a tragic incident that the public asks why more was not done.

Thus the NSA needs to strike the appropriate balance based upon clandestine information and leads to which ordinary citizens have no knowledge. The NSA doesn’t exist to win a popularity contest but to protect America in concert with the larger intelligence community and military. Failure to identify the “unknown-unknowns” (Rumsfeld) until after the fact will only result in more innocent lives lost. Thanks for considering this, kind sir.

Henry Brown

IMO interesting Survey on how well NSA is doing a public relations….

Yes it is a survey, which can be slanted toward who is paying for the survey but….

The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Global attitudes survey asked 48,643 respondents in 44 countries what they thought about the American government monitoring communications, such as emails and phone calls, in the U.S. and other countries. Specifically, global publics were asked whether the U.S. government’s alleged monitoring of communications from individuals suspected of terrorist activities, American citizens, citizens of the survey countries or the leaders of the survey countries is acceptable or unacceptable.

Peter Sperry

It is critical to realize this is not an either/or situation. We must both let the NSA do its job AND ensure they respect individual rights in the process. Yes, this is difficult, but not impossible. Mining actionable intelligence from the raw ore of disaggregated information does indeed require collection of massive amounts of message traffic. It also requires sophisticated data analysis to separate potential meaningful communications from the background chatter of normal life. Most of us understand this and accept the need for the NSA to engage in this type of activity. But we also expect them to closely safeguard the message traffic they collect, delete clearly unthreatening traffic as soon as it is identified as such and closely monitor the activities of their analysts to ensure intercepted information is only used for national security purposes. The lack of safeguards which allowed Snowden to walk out the door with a treasure trove of information does not exactly engender confidence in NSA’s oversight procedures. The very real question worrying people today is what other rogue analysts have access to our information and how might they use it without proper authorization? Most of us accept the need for NSA surveillance, even when we are not comfortable with it. But we do not want a situation where NSA leaks personal compromising information to third parties for political purposes (as the IRS did under Lois Lerner) or exercises such sloppy oversight that the next Snowdon is able to sell massive amounts of personal data to the highest bidder.

The NSA can and must protect personal privacy while still conducting robust effective communications intercept and data mining activities. They have a large number of SES, GS 13-15s contractors and senior military working over there. They have those high pay grades because they are expected to accomplish difficult tasks. If it were easy, it would be assigned to lower graded workers.

David B. Grinberg

Peter: thanks so much for your additional comments. You raise several important points. First and foremost, I agree the NSA needs to strike the appropriate balance between proactive national security surveillance on one hand, while protecting the constitutional rights of citizens on the other hand. This does not have to be a trade off because national security and privacy are not mutually exclusive — nor should they be.

Second, I would say that many government agencies generally need greater oversight. More is better than less. Thus, it’s the responsibility of Inspector General and Congressional oversight committees to step it up regarding federal agencies within their respective jurisdiction. Outside “watchdog” and whistle blower groups are also helpful to keep a check on potential malfeasance and unethical behavior by employees.

Thanks again for your valuable contributions to this discussion, which are appreciated.

David B. Grinberg

Henry, thank you for sharing that interesting survey, as well as for your prior valuable contributions to this discussion. I would note that the NSA has much more relevant information by which to make controversial surveillance decisions compared to the general views of the survey respondents.

As I noted, per former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, it’s about the “knowns” the “unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns.” Citizens of America and other countries may be aware of some “known” terrorist threats as reported by the news media. However, they are less likely to be aware of the “unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” — this is where the intelligence community focuses on most to connect the dots and protect us.

The NSA is not in a popularity contest and should not base its work on general public opinion. Rather, the intelligence community needs the necessary tools to find the elusive needles in the haystack and then coordinate with the military and other official chains of command to take the appropriate actions. The more of the haystack is able to be observed, the greater the likelihood of the terrorist “needles” being found and their heinous plots foiled.

This all remind me of the quote (paraphrasing) that real leadership means leading people where they don’t want to go — for the greater good. Just something to think about. Again, many thanks, kind sir!

Henry Brown

David: I think we are saying the same thing “real leadership yada yada …..” I would offer that perhaps more could be done to convince the population of the world that NSA has an important mission and that they will NOT abuse the power invested in them

Carol Kruse

David, I am going to weigh in on the other side. I am very supportive of the NSA’s mission and work, and don’t have other folks’ angst or concerns about my phone calls or emails being monitored by our government. I’d much rather have my communications monitored than have 3,000+ more families…or even 5, or 10…lose loved ones to our enemies in an attack we could have prevented had we been paying attention. Heck, my communications would put listeners to sleep from boredom anyway — what are the alarmed people talking about in their phone calls and emails?!! (Said only partially tongue-in-cheek.)

Yes, I do basically trust our government — if we’re paying attention, we elect good Congressional members to represent us and leaders who have the right values. If we’re not paying attention, bad on us. The government is us, after all — and if it isn’t, we’ve no one to blame but ourselves. I don’t believe, in this age of transparency, that anything akin to the McCarthy anti-communist campaign could happen today…but perhaps I am naive. Short of that incident, I am not aware of anyone being harmed by government surveillance…but perhaps I’m uninformed.

I agree with Henry’s point that [VERY paraphrased] more should be done to make the population of the world understand the urgency and critical nature of NSA’s mission and trust that NSA does not/will not abuse the power we vest in them.

(Now I’ll go duck under my desk… 🙂 )

David B. Grinberg

Carol, thanks so much for sharing your valuable feedback. You raise several excellent points with which I agree. Anyone who really doubts the NSA’s authority needs to read (or re-read) the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), Section 702 — in addition to the USA Patriot Act, as amended.

I am not aware of ANY U.S. court which has ruled that the NSA’s actions to protect America are unconstitutional. The NSA’s detractors may read into other court decisions, but those rulings are not against the NSA, plain and simple. Meanwhile, I still haven’t heard of any American who can legally prove they suffered egregious harm because of the NSA’s prudent proactive methods to stop the next 9/11.

Moreover, if the NSA pulled back on connecting the dots and another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil occurred then who do you think people would be pointing fingers at? That’s right, the NSA. But the NSA is not in a popularity contest or base its decisions on public opinion. The general public doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. That’s why we need the NSA. Thanks again.

Steve Elkins

NSA protects Americans. None of us can stop a cyber threat, but the NSA can. Cyber threats are the danger of the future, as war was in the past. As technology advances, in this new area of cyberspace, similar to the industrial revolution, every facet of our lives are run by computers and cyberspace. We are entering a new and unprecedented era. The movie the terminator could be more fact than fiction. The NSA is the new military of this complex era to protect us. We are vulnerable to an invisible, incomprehensible cyber threat from anywhere. The NSA is the most important Governmental agency for the unknown, unrecognizable future, where robots could be in your home, talking to you, walking and thinking for themselves. People don’t realize that the NSA is the only way to keep check on not only cyber security and threats to the homeland, but also reasonable control of the new technological innovations to come. All of which could be vulnerable to cyber attack. Think of this: in world war 2, without agencies like the NSA of their time, we could have lost the war. There is a balance between privacy and security. That’s understandable. But common sense and logic says we absolutely need the NSA to compete with other nations advances in technology . Other nations will keep advancing, whether we do or not. Internet travels at speed of light. There are no borders. So, like I said, we need the NSA. People dont like change, but this new Cyber, internet, computer controlled world is growing beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Its got to be watched and controlled safely. The NSA will follow the constitution of the United States and also do the job of protecting us. Benjamin Franklin said to not surrender freedom for security, I agree. But, the NSA is vital to protection, not taking anyone’s freedom away.