New Castle News

Columns

January 27, 2014

Mitchel Olszak: While gathering data, did NSA miss details?

NEW CASTLE — It is the nature of bureaucracies to seek expansion.

The bigger, the better, you might say. A bureaucracy that’s growing and gaining resources is better positioned to protect itself and to ensure its future.

And if it’s a bureaucracy that’s tasked with protecting people, it naturally will insist on having every conceivable means at its disposal to do its job. There is nothing inherently evil or corrupt about this; it simply is the way things — and people — work.

The above basically describes the National Security Agency amid revelations that it has been scooping up billions of telephone and email records as part of its mission to protect America from terrorism.

The reports, that came from leaks provided by the now-wanted Edward Snowden, revealed a vast system where the NSA has been gathering so-called metadata and using automatic systems to sift through it, looking for patterns that could uncover terrorist ties.

We’ve been repeatedly assured by those in positions of authority that these efforts do not invade the privacy of average Americans. Yet President Obama has proposed changes and restrictions in the way the NSA handles such data, including rules that keep phone records in the hands of companies, rather than government.

But many of the reforms outlined by Obama will require congressional action. This is a body that has difficulty deciding anything, let alone how to reform the nation’s intelligence gathering apparatus.

It’s worth noting that many folks in Washington hold on to the claims that little or nothing should be done to rein in the NSA. They paint apocalyptic pictures of what will happen if the agency is defanged.

Of course, no reasonable person is demanding that. Instead, serious people — including those on presidential commissions — have questioned the purpose and effectiveness of the metadata-gathering systems devised by the NSA. These methods tend to equate with locating needles in haystacks. And while details are classified, there are public doubts over whether they have done anything to make Americans safer.

Consider, for example, that while the NSA was scooping up all of this information, two yahoos were able to plant bombs at the finish line of last year’s Boston Marathon. This despite the fact they were posting anti-American screeds on line and Russian intelligence was warning American counterparts about at least one of the men.

And then there’s Snowden, now ensconced in Moscow. Lately, there have been rumblings in Washington from assorted NSA supporters that this young private contractor — who managed to abscond with what have been described as some of America’s most sensitive secrets — may have been a spy for a foreign power.

Yet if he was a spy, that hardly helps the NSA, which still has to explain how it let all these secrets escape when it’s supposedly doing such a crackerjack job keeping Americans safe. Perhaps the agency is looking in the wrong places.

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