Lies, Damned Lies, And The NSA

Today the Washington Post reported documents demonstrating that the NSA breaks privacy laws “thousands of times” each year.

Consider this the conclusion of what was the last-ditch argument put forth to defend the NSA: Yes, they have the capability to abrogate your Constitutional rights, but there is no evidence of abuse! Wrong. We now have proof that the NSA both wittingly and unwittingly breaks that law on average of 7.6 times per day, using leaked 2012 numbers.

That’s a nontrivial number of infractions.

Let’s tease our way through the path to today. The story broke that the NSA collected metadata on phone records of Americans. This proved James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, a liar to more than the American people, but also to its Congress.

Leaker Edward Snowden then said that, with a mere email address, he could access the content of that account. He was mocked by Rep. Mike Rogers, who said that Snowden “was lying. […] It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.”

But then news of the XKeyscore program came out. And former NSA Director General Hayden confirmed its existence. Oops.

The President said that no abuse was ongoing:

What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now part of the reason they’re not abused is because they’re — these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.

Well, that’s not true either. The Post’s report is utterly damning. A few excerpts for flavor:

They [infractions that broke the law] range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls. […] In one instance, the NSA decided that it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans. […]

Despite the quadrupling of the NSA’s oversight staff after a series of significant violations in 2009, the rate of infractions increased throughout 2011 and early 2012. […]

James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, has acknowledged that the court found the NSA in breach of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, but the Obama administration has fought a Freedom of Information lawsuit that seeks the opinion.

Generally, the NSA reveals nothing in public about its errors and infractions.

It gets worse. The Post spoke to members of the government close to the situation who stated that the above figures only count infractions recorded at the NSA’s headquarters, and other Washington facilities. So, the tally and examples do not take into account the abuses of the private data of United States citizens by other parts of the NSA.

In short, the above is therefore but foretaste to the real feast of abuse that is ongoing, day in, and day out.

Another point: The Post’s documents directly corroborate the story that the NSA is directly tapping the fiber cables of the Internet. Calling it the “one of the most serious violations,” the Post states that the National Security Agency “diverted large volumes of international data passing through fiber-optic cables in the United States” to its data centers. The data was then up for analysis. We knew this was happening, but it’s nice to have yet another confirmation of the information.

At every turn the NSA has lied and obfuscated. It has dodged, and later been forced to correct the record. Again, and again.

There has been a steady drumbeat of bullshit from those unconcerned with privacy. What was once perhaps dismissed as speculation and intrigue is now confirmed. The Post clutches this:

In a statement in response to questions for this article, the NSA said it attempts to identify problems “at the earliest possible moment, implement mitigation measures wherever possible, and drive the numbers down.” The government was made aware of The Post’s intention to publish the documents that accompany this article online.

So, the Post in short showed the government proof that it had been lying, and was given a statement that essentially read “yes, but.”

Well I won’t “yes, but” my right to privacy and the Fourth Amendment. I thank the damn stars that at a minimum – for now, unless you are Lavabit – most of us still enjoy our First Amendment rights to shout that the government shouldn’t take apart other parts of the Bill of Rights.

One final caveat to all of this. There exists an argument that for our well-being, the government must at all costs protect the safety of its citizens. Under this argument, physical security is the first, and primary goal of government.

Bullshit. The first goal of the government must be to protect the rights of its citizenry. This fact is simple to prove: The United States is more than willing to expend the lives of its youth and the treasure of its coffers to stand up for the fundamental rights of the American individual. Therefore, rights matter more than physical security. I find it odd that I have to say this out loud.

So we should stand by that, and realize that the price that we pay for the right to privacy is that the government simply will not have as much data as it otherwise might. I am willing to live slightly less physically safe to be far, far more free. And I suspect the same of you.

Stand up.

Top Image Credit: Cristian Ramírez