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Sense out of Non-Sense

I’m amazed at the stunning lack of understanding about the now widely reported NSA terrorism surveillance program. I expect as much for the yak-o-sphere, but listening to the AG go round and round with the Senate Judiciary Committee made me dizzy. Surely this august panel isn’t this dim? Oh wait, I forgot we were talking about politicians. For those who aren’t drinking the “domestic spying” kool-aid, let’s get a few things straight:

Claim: The NSA is spying on innocent Americans without a warrant and without probable cause.

Response: The NSA program is a terrorist surveillance program: It involves the monitoring of communications between known terrorists abroad and suspected terrorists or their supporters in the US. The data used to seed this effort comes directly from captured terrorists – numbers are not pulled out of the blue. Inasmuch as the recipients or senders of such calls are Americans, their status as “innocent” is open to debate (see below). There are any number of cases in which the government and its agents do not need a warrant to conduct a search of your person or property. Even the much vaulted FISA allows for the government to “search first” and ask for permission later. The key factor here is time. In the information age threats can be initiated at the speed of light. As much as the programs detractors would like to wish it so, the FISA process – liberal with warrants as it has been – isn’t played out like a scene in Law and Order.

Claim: The NSA program is casting a wide net and is in fact a massive invasion of privacy.

Response: As has been stated publicly many times, the focus of the terrorist surveillance program is very narrowly focused. Even if the reported list of 500 people that are being monitored at any one time is refreshed with new names during every 45-day review period (worst-case-scenario), that still means that barely 5/1000th of the population of the country has at some point had some part of their conversations listened to. In fact, recent reports suggest that only about 5,000 citizens (or people residing in the US) a year has been listened to: Hardly a wide net.

Claim: The NSA program hasn’t caught any terrorists and is a waste of time.

Response: General Hayden, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence and former Director of NSA has stated that the information obtained via this program has been vital to the defense of the nation. It has also been reported that roughly 40 people have been determined to be shady enough to warrant further intelligence and law enforcement scrutiny. In addition to answering questions of validity, this also speaks to the scope of the effort 40/300,000,000).

Claim: There are no checks or balances on who gets listened to.

Response: The decisions about which targets are listened to are made by experienced, career intelligence officers who have mastery over their mission areas. These are not appointees or political hacks, and in fact their political affiliation is likely to vary as widely as the rest of the population. In effect these are both topical and functional geeks, making a judgment call that could impact the security of the nation and perhaps their own family members.

Claim: This is Nixon and the “Enemies List” all over again.

Response: Nixon’s enemies list was, as John Dean reportedly put it “how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” Terrorism may be characterized as political violence, but as best as can be determined the targets of this effort are not politicians, reporters, and business leaders, but people with some apparent connection to people trying to kill us and end our way of life.

Claim: Congress was kept in the dark.

Response: The leaders of congressional intelligence oversight committees were briefed twelve times on the program. One can imagine the caution with which the IC approaches its Congressional overseers when they are known to have leaked classified information. Nevertheless, they briefed them anyway, as they are required to do.

Claim: When Congress passed the AUMF they didn’t mean the President could start such a program.

Response: In order to first capture or kill the enemy one must first seek out and identify the enemy. The AUMF did two things; recognized the President’s authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the US, and authorized the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those …organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist acts in order to prevent further attacks on the US. The AUMF didn’t say “invade Afghanistan” or “overthrow Saddam” or “detain enemy combatants” . . . the language was broad for a reason.

Powerline notes similar disagreements from others who are a little more angry.

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.