NSA monitoring a hot topic for nation, Kansas politicians

May 6, 2014

BY Jena Sauber
NNAF News Fellow

In the months since National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked sensitive documents held by the NSA, the public discussion and opinion about the agency’s actions have fluctuated between almost hero-like approval for Snowden and outright rage at the perceived breach of privacy.

Now, almost a year later, the agency continues to defend itself in light of political and public anger and lack of widespread support, including from some Kansas politicians.


Unique agency

The NSA was developed under the orders from former President Harry Truman’s National Security Council in the early 1950s. Since then, it has worked to guard the U.S. through various means, including code deciphering and communications monitoring.

“The NSA saves lives, defends vital networks, advances U.S. goals and alliances, and protects privacy rights,” said Bill Combs, technical director in public affairs at the National Security Agency, based in Ft. Meade, MD. “It’s a unique agency.”

The organization operated mostly out of general public scrutiny until the summer of 2013 when Snowden released sensitive NSA information.

According to the information Snowden provided to The Guardian, a daily newspaper in the U.K., the NSA was partnering with organizations and gathering information previously assumed to be private, including partnerships with tech companies including Apple, Google and Microsoft. A collection of documents, called Boundless Informant, showed that the agency collected almost 3 billion pieces of information from American computer networks in a 31-day period that ended in March 2013, according to The Guardian.

When the information surfaced that the NSA was collecting information on phone calls, many Americans became concerned. The courts also took notice. In December 2013, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon announced the Court’s ruling that the NSA’s metadata collection of phone records, which included the time of calls and numbers, violated the privacy rights of U.S. citizens. Later that same month, a New York federal judge ruled the opposite, saying the NSA’s actions were legal.

“Might the NSA have the technology to listen to your phone calls? Do we have the people to do that? No. Do we have a giant database and hide it and do all the foreign stuff, too? No,” said Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command.

What NSA is looking for, Alexander and Combs said, is anything that could pose a threat to U.S. security. This includes domestic communication with anyone that has been deemed a terrorist.

“The threats have changed a lot,” Combs said. “There are small nations or groups, the kid in his basement with a Commodore that can threaten security.”

The definition of a “terrorist” is defined by the organizations the NSA works with, Combs said. The NSA works for virtually every branch of the government, including the military, the FBI and the CIA.

“Whatever happens is what we will work with,” Alexander said. “It seems tough to believe, but we do what they tell us to do.”

The average American shouldn’t be concerned, unless he or she is interacting with a known terrorist, Alexander said.

The agency has defended its telephone metadata collection practice in court, including in the cases in New York and Washington in December 2013, on the grounds that the practice is designed to collect information on subjects to protect the nation.

“We never asked permission to see everyone … everything we do is targeted,” Alexander said. “Chances are, 99 percent of Americans aren’t talking to a known terrorist everyday. We don’t care.”

In the New York federal court, Leon noted that the government, “does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.”


Court process

If it is believed that a citizen is interacting with a terrorist, the NSA must take the request for more information to the courts, Combs said. The court then decides if there is a reasonable cause for gathering more information before the NSA may continue with the collection process, he said.

“Most of them are there serving a real purpose,” said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archives in Washington. “Their best defense is that each step of the way, they clear it with their bosses and lawyers. Arguably, those lawyers aren’t always right about privacy.”

Alexander dismissed the idea that NSA employees were listening in on phone calls, or perusing the activities of all American citizens.

“We can’t do everything,” Alexander said. “Everyone thinks that we can do everything—that the NSA is a magical place that can do everything, but that’s not true.”

An important aspect of what the NSA does is to help the military by gathering foreign information, Alexander said.

“We can know where it is going, what it is going to do,” Alexander said. “Think about all the cool things you can do with that. People think about it in war time … but it’s a peace tool, too.”


Kansas split

Kansas politicians are split on their view of the NSA’s activities and the constitutionality of those actions.

“With the NSA … they aren’t listening to your calls—only if you are talking to someone overseas who is a terrorist,” Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts said. “They then take it to the courts, take a look at it, and if it is reasonable, they go in.”

Roberts served as the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee for four years until 2006. He expressed his support for using the NSA to further military action, but only for the “good of the country.”

“I have confidence in the NSA,” Roberts said. “I think there have been oversights, but it’s a careful balance.”

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-KS, who represents the 1st Congressional District of Kansas, which includes Manhattan, is less supportive of the NSA’s actions.

“They have been lying to us,” Huelskamp said. “There has been plenty of evidence. They lie to us, and then the next day it’s in the New York Times. We don’t know the extent. It’s shocking.”

Huelskamp would not comment on whether or not he believed the NSA was spying on members of Congress.

Huelskamp explained that what Congress knows has changed over time, as well as his opinion on the issue.

“I voted for the Patriot Act, but I wouldn’t today,” Huelskamp said.

The Patriot Act was passed in 2001, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It “allows investigators to use the tools that were already available to investigate organized crime and drug trafficking,” including allowing “federal agents to follow sophisticated terrorists trained to evade detection,” and other terror-related situations, according to the Department of Justice.

More than a decade later, Huelskamp said he doesn’t know what will come next.

“I, as a member of Congress, don’t know what I should ask,” said Huelskamp, describing his displeasure with the vague answers he feels Congress receives from the NSA. “We get ‘Harvard Lawyer’ answers.”



Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington, has spent decades studying and archiving national documents, including documents on the NSA.

“Documents have power,” Blanton said. “They make you the fly on the wall. They connect you to the bureaucrats.”

Blanton said he believes that, in some capacities, the NSA is overstepping ethical and legal boundaries.

“When the director looks at the camera and says, ‘No, we don’t collect data on millions of Americans,’ he is lying,” Blanton said.

Capability shouldn’t equal action, Blanton added.

“Just because they can ‘Hoover’ it all up, they do,” Blanton said. “It doesn’t mean that they have to.”


Potential changes

In March, the Obama administration proposed changes to end the NSA’s bulk collection of millions of phone records. The proposal has been criticized since its unveiling for leaving gaps and questions. The full details of the proposal haven’t been released yet.

In early April, President Barack Obama announced details on his plan to overhaul the NSA’s phone surveillance program. The newest changes would require service carriers to collect and store customer data longer than what it is currently required to. Information such as phone numbers and call duration, but not content, would be recorded and saved by providers and required to be turned over to the NSA in response to court-approved government requests.

The proposal brings up questions about flat rate or unlimited plans. Current Federal Communications Commission rules are “vague” for unlimited phone plans because consumers don’t get bills for individual calls, according to an April 3 Reuters article by Mark Hosenball and Alina Selyukh.

“At this early point in the process, we propose this basic principle that should guide the effort: the reformed collection process should not require companies to store data for longer than, or in formats that differ from, what they already do for business purposes,” said Verizon Communications Inc. General Counsel Randal Milch in a March 27 blog post, referring to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the law that authorized the NSA program.

A bill currently drafted by the House Intelligence Committee would allow the NSA to request metadata from the phone companies under a broad authorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; at a later date, the court would be required to review the data to see if the data collection had been legitimate.


Okay with discussion

According to Alexander, the NSA isn’t turning away from the discussion that has formed after the 2013 leak.

“What we don’t have a problem with is the discussion,” he said. “Yes, maybe it should have been discussed earlier, but it’s good that we’re having these conversations.”

He warned citizens about not believing everything they hear concerning the agency.

“A lot of what you are seeing is things that could be done,” Alexander said. “They took the blueprint, not the rulebook.”