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June 17, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: Excuses for data sweep sound hollow

NEW CASTLE — Perhaps 2013 will go down as the year privacy and civil liberties became too inconvenient for government.

Listening to assorted officials defend massive programs that scoop up vast amounts of data certainly gives that impression.

Anyone who believes we can now go back to an earlier era of privacy protection is delusional. This toothpaste is out of the tube.

That’s because there is no real outrage over revelations the National Security Agency has developed the means and authority to access virtually all telephone and computer data that’s out there. We’re told the intelligence agency handles all this power judiciously and prudently.

But then how do you explain Edward Snowden, a low-level employee for a private government contractor who knew all sorts of things and is now in trouble for spilling these national security beans?

If Snowden knows so much, who else does as well? What access do they have? What sort of ability do they have to abuse the power available to them?

All of this ought to be sparking loud demands for explanations. Instead, for the most part, we get mumbled claims of confusion from members of Congress. And among those who supposedly knew what the NSA is doing, we receive interesting rationalization and defense of what ought to be indefensible.

Take Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence committee. He said last week that revelations about NSA programs have caused terror suspects to alter their communications behavior.

That implies the programs have value — until you stop and think about it. Rogers is basically saying the intelligence community already knows who these people are by claiming they are changing how they operate.

If so, why the need to collect so much data on the rest of us?

Repeatedly we are told what’s being gathered does not impede our civil liberties and it’s just to make us safer. But we really don’t know if that’s true.

Last week, Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, told Congress the American people need to know how these programs operate in terms of collecting data.

That’s nonsense, because Alexander heads up the agency that was in charge of keeping all of this quiet. The American people are informed — or at least partially informed — only when concealing the truth is no longer an option.

These programs are essential, we are further assured, because information gleaned has successfully thwarted attacks. At first, we were told one attack was prevented; now it’s dozens.

It sounds impressive, assuming it’s true and assuming there were no more effective means of protecting the nation.

Significantly, some former NSA employees have emerged to say they quit the agency because they objected to the indiscriminate collection of data and lack of respect for civil liberties. Perhaps they are simply disgruntled ex-workers, but at some point, the evidence mounts.

And let’s not forget the NSA is in the process of building a massive new facility that supposedly will be able to examine even greater amounts of data. Abuse is inevitable amid this much power and so little supervision and oversight.

Of course, all of this is done in the name of thwarting terrorists. Lost in this rationalization is the fact the goal of terrorism isn’t violence. Rather, it’s the application of violence in order to alter who we are.

By giving so much unquestioned power to the NSA, the argument could be made that America has given the terrorists what they want.

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