This week, the NSA took more steps toward controlling the damage caused by Edward Snowden when he released information detailing an extensive surveillance program aimed at U.S. citizens. The NSA had previously said that it had foiled over 50 terrorist attacks against the United States by collecting phone and Internet records, but the agency’s damaged credibility largely caused those claims to fall on deaf ears. So on Thursday, NSA Director General Keith B. Alexander provided new information on these supposed attacks. In all, Alexander claimed that 42 attacks had been stopped, although only 13 of those were being planned on U.S. soil. The others were to take place in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Alexander attributed these numbers to the success of the PRISM program and other surveillance programs that have come under fire since Snowden first released information to the public about them. The claims did not come without criticism as multiple senators questioned the role that the surveillance programs played in thwarting the attacks. Alexander further stated that the public had nothing to worry about in terms of privacy because the data could not actually be accessed unless the NSA had reasonable suspicion that it could use the records to thwart an attack. Essentially, the NSA is claiming that they were only collecting the data without examining it unless they had been tipped off that the communications contained information about an impending attack.
Once again, we’re faced with the problem of not being able to believe a government entity that has already breached the public’s trust. Although these claims are a bit more specific than the original claims brought forth by NSA brass, it’s still difficult to trust them without any kind of documentation. But with al-Qaida already changing their tactics based on Snowden’s leaks, releasing information about how these supposed attacks were stopped could prove even more detrimental to our national security. The NSA has basically gotten itself into a vicious circle of unsubstantiated claims with no legitimate way of backing them up.
Putting aside the claims of thwarted attacks, I personally find it a little easier to believe that the NSA was not accessing the records without reasonable suspicion. Think about how many records we know the NSA collected and how many more they could have collected without our knowledge, and ask yourself if the NSA really has the manpower and time to rifle through millions upon millions of files that probably have no value in terms of national security. Whether you believe the numbers or not, the NSA certainly has a monumental task in protecting us from terrorist attacks and it’s hard to believe that they would waste their time investigating people without probable cause. On top of that, we haven’t heard any reports of American arrests stemming from the surveillance programs that weren’t terrorist-related. If there were any such incidents, they probably would have come to light along with all the other dirt that has been dug up in the past month or so.
Like I’ve said from the beginning, it’s completely understandable that Americans are still concerned about these programs. Regardless of how many terrorist attacks may have been stopped by the NSA, it’s unsettling that the government has this type of power. But I’ve also said that we need to keep it in perspective. We face more threats today than ever before and we have put our trust in the government to protect us from these threats. The government certainly isn’t making it easy, but we need to have some level of trust that they won’t abuse their power. You could easily make an argument that they already have simply by collecting our records, but we still have to weigh that against the possible destruction that could occur if agencies like the NSA weren’t taking these steps. There’s no easy answer here, but unfortunately these are the kind of questions we’re left with in the current global climate.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research