The High Likelihood That Future NSA Abuses Will Occur

The latest defenses of the agency put an irrational amount of faith in its analysts and supervisors.
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The Guardian's latest scoop concerns the ability of National Security Agency analysts to search vast databases of emails, online chats, and web browsing histories, among other online activity.

Glenn Greenwald notes that the NSA is lawfully required to obtain a FISA warrant if the target of surveillance is a U.S. person. But it provides analysts "the technological capability, if not the legal authority, to target even US persons for extensive electronic surveillance without a warrant," he reports, and to reveal IP addresses of everyone who visits "any website the analyst specifies."

That alarms many Americans.

The Guardian article doesn't provide any evidence of NSA analysts targeting U.S. persons without a warrant, as critics of the newspaper are quick to note. Yet there is still ample reason to worry.

It is naive -- in fact, it is absurd -- to imagine that the scores or hundreds of NSA analysts given access to these databases will never commit abuses. There are bad apples in every human enterprise. Agencies that operate under the cover of secrecy are that much more vulnerable to abuses. U.S. surveillance agencies have a particularly sordid history of abusing the power given them. Illegal, warrantless spying on Americans was secretly conducted as recently as the Bush years, and the people responsible for the illegal abuses were granted retroactive immunity. Edward Snowden himself demonstrated that the NSA cannot predict when one of its own might suddenly abscond with top secret information that no one planned to be made public.

Then there is the lesson that 9/11 taught us.

In its aftermath, the U.S. government panicked. Federal officials institutionalized behavior, including the torture of other humans, that would've been unthinkable before the terrorist attack, and a traumatized nation required years of reflection to turn against the most extreme practices. Could the NSA be trusted to restrain itself after a future terrorist attack, or would the safeguards its defenders keep referencing be swept away by a new generation of panicked officials?

Or what if a higher-up at the NSA didn't panic, but exploited the panic of everyone else?

Unless the NSA is reined in, it is all but certain that future abuses will occur. The question its defenders ought to be asked is, "Would you support these programs even if you knew future abuses were inevitable?" True, every law-enforcement tool is abused at one time or another. But the consequences of NSA abuses are catastrophic in a way without precedent in American history because their law enforcement tool contains private information about almost every citizen.

How many government officials could be blackmailed with already collected material that no one has looked at ... yet?

The NSA is nevertheless out with another defense of its program. The statement, posted online Wednesday, is worth a close look. "The implication that NSA's collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false," it begins. Recall that this is an agency that collects metadata on all phone calls. In other words, its approach to data collection isn't "arbitrary," it's virtually comprehensive. "NSA's activities are focused and specifically deployed against -- and only against -- legitimate foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements that our leaders need for information necessary to protect our nation and its interest," the NSA's statement continues.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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