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Published: Thursday, 6/13/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

NSA leaks show we need a debate

EUGENE ROBINSON
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

The important thing right now isn’t whether Edward Snowden should be labeled a hero or a villain. First, let’s have the debate he has sparked over surveillance and privacy. Then we can decide how history should remember him.

Mr. Snowden is the 29-year-old intelligence analyst and computer geek who leaked some of the National Security Agency’s most precious secrets to journalists from the Washington Post and the British newspaper the Guardian.

Mr. Snowden betrayed his employer, the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, and his promise not to divulge classified information. He paints what he did as an act of civil disobedience, but he has decided to seek political asylum abroad rather than surrender to authorities and accept the consequences.

In published interviews, he comes across as grandiose to the point of self-parody, a legend in his own mind. He is an imperfect messenger, to say the least. But his message should not be ignored.

Did you know that the NSA is compiling and storing a massive, comprehensive log of our domestic phone calls? I didn’t. Nor did I know that the agency can gain access to huge volumes of email traffic and other electronic data overseas — not just communications originating in trouble spots such as Pakistan, but also in countries such as Germany and Britain.

I would have thought that anyone who accused the U.S. government of “omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance,” as Mr. Snowden did, was paranoid. Now, I’m not so sure.

As President Obama noted, nobody is eavesdropping on the phone calls of U.S. citizens and residents. I’m not certain this could be said about email communications in other countries, some of which take privacy as seriously as we do.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague felt obliged to reassure Parliament that “our intelligence-sharing work with the United States is subject to Ministerial and independent oversight” and to legislative scrutiny.

But we have oversight of intelligence operations in this country too. The problem is that the system works more or less like a rubber stamp.

The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has to issue the orders that allow the NSA to collect “metadata” from telephone providers. But as far as I can tell — we are not allowed to know the content of the court’s rulings and have to make do with crumbs of, well, metadata — the court’s standard answer is yes.

In its 34 years of existence, the court has approved more than 30,000 government requests for surveillance authority, while rejecting a grand total of 11. That is not what I’d call oversight.

Mr. Obama said last week that “I welcome this debate and I think it’s healthy for our democracy.” Why, then, didn’t he launch the discussion rather than wait for Mr. Snowden’s leaks?

In the coming debate, someone should explain why a midlevel computer guy working for a private contractor had access to so many of the NSA’s most closely held secrets. Someone should explain why the intelligence court is evidently so compliant.

But here’s the big issue: The NSA, it now seems clear, is assembling an unimaginably vast trove of communications data. The bigger it gets, the more useful it is in enabling analysts to make predictions.

It’s one thing if the NSA looks for patterns in the data that suggest a nascent overseas terrorist group or an imminent attack. It’s another thing altogether if the agency observes, say, patterns that suggest the birth of the next Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street movement.

Is that paranoia? Then reassure me. Let’s talk about the big picture and decide, as citizens, whether we are comfortable with the direction in which our intelligence agencies are heading.

And let’s remember that it was Mr. Snowden, not our elected officials, who opened this conversation.

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