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?