NSA says its surveillance stays within the law

May 6, 2014

By Robert Korth

NNAF News Fellow

FORT MEADE, MD—A tunnel of trees lines either side of Interstate 295, north of the nation’s capital.

But a quick exit down Canine Road leads to another world.

A parking lot with enough cars to populate Fremont, NE, sits in front of a massive, mysterious building surrounded by a fence and featuring a checkpoint with armed guards.

This place is the home of the National Security Agency. It’s an ominous view of a building Americans—Nebraskans included—know so little about.

Since the revelations by independent contractor Edward Snowden that the NSA was collecting metadata of calls and using it for intelligence purposes, public opinion of the agency has dipped. Shortly after the revelations last summer, as many as 53 percent of Americans disapproved of the NSA’s actions in collecting data of online and phone communications, according to a Gallup poll.

By the summer of 2013, Americans satisfaction rate with freedom had dropped 9 percent to about 82 percent from 2003, said Jon Clifton, Gallup’s managing director of the world poll.

“And that’s a telling statistic,” Clifton said.

But, NSA leaders—along with Sen. Deb Fischer, R-NE—don’t want Americans to worry about the programs that many feel violate the privacy of individual citizens.

The collection of metadata, which takes in the duration, time and location of callers making all calls, is necessary for national security, officials said. The intelligence gathered by the agency is a unique national asset that saves American lives and defends American interests, NSA spokesman Bill Combs said.

“The threat is constant,” Combs said. “And growing.”


Safe from potential harm

Fischer knows her military issues. She sits on the Committee on Armed Services and is a ranking member on the Subcommittee of Emerging Threats and Armed Services.

Nebraska’s junior senator wants Nebraskans to know they’re safe from any potential harm, but she understands why people might feel concerned about their personal liberties. However, Fischer said she feels that the government is taking steps to ensure it doesn’t cross any lines.

“The NSA and CIA, in the cases I know, shouldn’t make ordinary Americans feel concerned,” she said. “If you’re directing messages or if you’re receiving calls, there are protections in place.”

Those protections are widely recognized within the NSA’s organization as safeguards to protect liberty, while still catching “bad guys,” Combs said.

The purpose of the NSA is not to actually apprehend criminals, Combs stressed during a news briefing in the NSA museum’s Magic Room. It’s to gather intelligence that is then handed over to the armed services or CIA for their own operations. Often, other branches of government will come to the NSA for help.

The work the NSA does is approved by the military and by President Barack Obama. And there has to be “reasonable suspicion” that someone is engaged in terroristic activities before his or her communications will be targeted, Combs said. To achieve this suspicion, they must associate with known terrorists.

For example, if the metadata shows that someone is repeatedly calling a terrorist abroad, it’s likely that will spark action, Combs said.

“It’s important to note that everything we do here is legal,” said a senior NSA official in a separate interview. “We swore an oath to protect the American people, and we’re going to do it.”

The NSA official noted that the agency would continue to operate under the bounds of the law. If the law changes following the revelations by private contractor Edward Snowden, it will be difficult to continue protecting the American people, but the NSA will find a way to adapt.

A source inside the NSA said some employees would often carry a copy of the U.S. Constitution in their pocket. The source noted that the agency hopes the leaked information doesn’t cause national security issues in the future.


Simple question—Convoluted answer

Tom Blanton leans back in his chair.

The director of the National Security Archives at George Washington University looks at the ceiling, pondering a simple question with a convoluted answer: What did the revelations of Edward Snowden expose?

“It exposed a body of lies on intelligence,” he said.

That’s the simple answer explained Blanton, whose organization collects classified documents through freedom of information requests to the federal government. The conference room at the archive is filled with boxes of government notes on Iran-Contra participant Oliver North and then Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

But, more importantly the revelations by Snowden illustrate the problem with intelligence gathering, Blanton said. It’s important to have knowledge of the world so Americans can know what’s happening.

So, even if the NSA is using secret tactics that might be invasive toward Americans’ privacy, it would be better for everyone to have knowledge of what’s going on, so the NSA doesn’t operate in secret.

“I don’t actually feel safer in the dark,” Blanton said. “I like to have a light on outside my home at night.”

Although Snowden ultimately betrayed his country, Blanton added, he still is a hero in the sense that he’s helped Americans come to grips with the world around them.

The cars are still in the NSA’s parking lot around 5 p.m., an air of mystery surrounds the building. There’s a brown sign marking NSA’s headquarters, but a lot of what actually goes on there is only known because of Snowden.

Although NSA officials are insistent that the agency’s surveillance programs are for the good of the American people, opponents are insistent that they are not.

History may have to be the judge of what goes on at NSA’s headquarters, because many of today’s NSA operations won’t be declassified for the general public for 50 years.