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August 19, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: NSA defenders miss bigger picture

NEW CASTLE — The political establishment in Washington has circled the wagons around the National Security Agency.

This is the intelligence organization tasked with a key aspect of national defense: Monitoring potential threats and gathering information designed to protect America and its interests.

But recent revelations have shown the NSA operating within a wider scope than had been revealed. Basically, the agency is collecting vast amounts of data on Americans regarding phone records and Internet use.

It has privacy advocates upset and politicians making excuses.

We have been repeatedly assured — by leaders of both parties — that citizens’ privacy is not being violated, and that the NSA is simply doing its job to protect us.

For instance, appearing on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” program Aug. 11, Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who’s toying with running for president, groused that President Obama isn’t doing enough to defend the agency — even though the president has been doing plenty of that.

According to King, “These people in the NSA are patriots. It’s probably what’s annoyed me the most over the last several months is people casually using words like ‘spying,’ ‘snooping.’

“I think that has really demeaned the whole political dialogue and that’s why I wish the president (would) be more outgoing before this war and defended the NSA a lot more than he did because this has really been a slander on the thousands of good men and women who every day dedicate their lives for our country.”

Well, I am sure these people are patriots. But so am I. And like any good American, I am innately suspicious of concentrations of too much power. That includes the NSA.

And despite all the protestations from Obama, King and other politicians, The Washington Post reported last week that a leaked audit showed the NSA broke privacy rules it was supposed to follow thousands of times. That doesn’t sound like the crackerjack, professional operation that’s been presented to the public by NSA defenders.

Yes, these NSA operatives may be patriots. But they are also bureaucrats and human beings. In many ways they are the same sort of federal bureaucrats that people like King routinely bash when they work in other areas of government.

It’s human nature to want to find ways to cut corners in how we do things. Our rationales may not be evil and in many cases may be absolutely harmless.

But when it comes to basic privacy rights, cutting corners and making mistakes cause problems. Combine that with the fact human nature also means that people are not always honorable and ethical in what they do, and the NSA program presents multiple concerns.

To put it simply, we don’t know what has happened within the NSA and how far it has gone, because its operations are so secretive. And contrary to any claims from its apologists in Washington, oversight is horrible.

The court that authorizes NSA activities receives its information only from the agency. There are no meaningful safeguards or means of questioning its actions.

Congressional committees supposedly get reports of what the NSA is doing, but these are only as good as the material provided. If the NSA fails to be forthcoming, or ignores requests for information (as reportedly happens) how does that constitute effective monitoring by the legislative branch?

America needs to defend itself from terror threats. But it also needs to defend itself from excessive, secretive and unaccountable government agencies. There’s work to do here.

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