The NSA's Porn-Surveillance Program: Not Safe for Democracy

Its targets extend beyond suspected terrorists—and some rhetoric that the First Amendment would protect is singled out.
Reuters

Let's think through the troubling implications of the latest surveillance-state news. "The National Security Agency has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches," Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Gallagher, and Ryan Grim report

NSA apologists would have us believe that only terrorists have cause to be worried. A surveillance-state spokesperson told the Huffington Post, "without discussing specific individuals, it should not be surprising that the US Government uses all of the lawful tools at our disposal to impede the efforts of valid terrorist targets who seek to harm the nation and radicalize others to violence." 

As the story notes, however, the targets are not necessarily terrorists. The term the NSA uses for them is "radicalizes," and if you're thinking of fiery orators urging people to strap on dynamite vests, know that the NSA chart accompanying the story includes one target who is a "well known media celebrity," and whose offense is arguing that "the U.S. perpetrated the 9/11 attacks." It makes one wonder if the NSA believes it would be justified in targeting any 9/11 truther. The chart* shows another target whose "writings appear on numerous jihadi websites" (it doesn't specify whether the writings were produced for those websites or merely posted there), and whose offending argument is that "the U.S. brought the 9/11 attacks upon itself." That could be a crude description of what the Reverend Jeremiah Wright or Ron Paul thinks about 9/11. 

The article quotes another defender of the program as follows:

Stewart Baker, a one-time general counsel for the NSA and a top Homeland Security official in the Bush administration, said that the idea of using potentially embarrassing information to undermine targets is a sound one. "If people are engaged in trying to recruit folks to kill Americans and we can discredit them, we ought to," said Baker. "On the whole, it's fairer and maybe more humane" than bombing a target, he said, describing the tactic as "dropping the truth on them."

Any system can be abused, Baker allowed, but he said fears of the policy drifting to domestic political opponents don't justify rejecting it. "On that ground you could question almost any tactic we use in a war, and at some point you have to say we're counting on our officials to know the difference," he said.

That is a stunning quote. If the history of the FBI and NSA teach us anything, it is that officials cannot be counted on to know the difference between legitimate surveillance and abuses of power. Constant checks on the judgment of insiders is vital. As well, the characterization of targets as people "engaged in trying to recruit folks to kill Americans" isn't necessarily accurate. The chart appears to set forth targeting criteria that go well beyond people trying to recruit killers of Americans.

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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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