WSJ: Latest Snowden Leak Shines Positive Light on NSA

Monday, 19 Aug 2013 03:39 PM

By Dan Weil

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The latest leak from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden actually shows the NSA is doing the right thing, according to a Wall Street Journal editorial.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that an NSA internal audit and other secret documents provided by Snowden showed the agency "has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008."

But there was less than meets the eye in this story, Journal editors write. "The critics claim to have finally found evidence of government abuse, but the truth is that the evidence shows no abuse and even reveals admirable self-monitoring by the NSA."

The audit reveals that the agency only broke its privacy rules 2,776 times over the last year among the tens of millions of communications it intercepts monthly. And the auditors said the majority of slip-ups were "database query incidents due to human error."

The problem is one of "due diligence, such as the now-infamous analyst who in a database query typed in the Washington, D.C. area code (202) for the international dialing code for Egypt (20)," the editorial says.

"This is dumb but also unintentional — and hardly rises to the caricature of secret police spying on Americans as if this is East Berlin circa 1984."

The report is actually reassuring, the editorial says. "[It] shows an agency with robust controls to follow the rules and internal self-policing to identify and correct its own mistakes. Improperly collected data or content is destroyed when uncovered."

More laws have been broken implementing the Affordable Care Act than by the NSA, the editorial says. "And no NSA abuses have been exposed so far that are nearly as corrupt as the Internal Revenue Service targeting domestic political opponents."

Of the 2,776 infractions during the past year, 1,904 involved wiretapping foreign targets abroad, which is the programs' main focus. "Most of these resulted from technological limitations," the editorial says. "Is spying on foreigners now supposed to be controversial too?"

The domestic rule-breaking incidents look trivial too, the editorial says. For example, there were call records that were acquired legally but kept accidentally beyond the deadline for getting rid of them. "There is no evidence that such information was misused in any other way," the editorial says.

The NSA audits were designed to create compliance reports for Congress.  Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal., said in a statement that her committee "has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes."

So the brouhaha is over minor, unintentional mistakes "in the service of — let's not forget — protecting the country from terrorist attacks," the editorial says.

"But even that wouldn't appease the anti-anti-terror lobby. ... The real "incidents" that [its] political agenda will generate are more dead Americans."

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