ASPEN, Colo.—Is the NSA keeping us safe? That was the question that MSNBC used to frame a debate Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which The Atlantic co-hosts with The Aspen Institute. The debate featured Keith Alexander, former head of the National Security Agency; former Congresswoman Jane Harman; and former solicitor general Neal Katyal spoke in defense of the signals intelligence agency. Anthony Romero of the ACLU, academic Jeffrey Rosen and former Congressman Mickey Edwards acknowledged the need for the NSA, but argued that it transgresses against our rights with unnecessary programs that violate the Constitution. The two teams also spent time arguing about Edward Snowden and whether his leaks were justified. By the end of the 90 minute session the civil libertarian team handily beat the national security state team in audience voting.
Keith Alexander began the debate by arguing that the NSA made things safer for American troops in Iraq circa 2007, that its international monitoring of terror groups has resulted in tips that helped the FBI and the CIA to stop terrorist attacks, and that NSA plays a vital role safeguarding the United States from cyber attacks.
Anthony Romero of the ACLU was at his strongest when pressing the other team to explain why the American people shouldn't have a right to privacy in their metadata, given how revealing it can be. He rejected the notion that the phone dragnet is permissible because, although the NSA keeps records of virtually every phone call made, it only searches that database under a narrow set of conditions. The 4th Amendment does not just protect against unreasonable searches, Romero pointed out. It also protects us from unwarranted seizures. If the FBI went into a person's closet, took a box without opening the lid, and never peeked inside until getting a warrant a year later, the seizure would be problematic. The NSA does the digital equivalent and acts as if it is unobjectionable.
"The threat of terrorism is real," Romero said. "We need to meet the challenge of those threats... the question is what kind of NSA do we want? Do we want an NSA that's accountable, properly reined in by a more robust set of checks and balances, a system that goes back to the first principle that the government can only infringe upon our basic privacy rights, the right to be left alone, by evidence based on individualized suspicion? Or do we have an NSA that continues with business as usual?"