NSA surveillance

The National Security Agency has come under increasingly heavy fire as details of its vast data-monitoring operations emerge bit by bit, and the list of individuals, decision-makers, organizations, corporations and countries not altogether impressed with the agency’s behavior is growing. From the start, when former defense contractor Edward Snowden released a trove of documents detailing the NSA’s surveillance programs, there have been significant questions about them. As those questions grow in number and outrage, so does the need for clear answers and clearer boundaries.

The latest revelations show that the NSA has been engaged – if not directly, then in partnership with NATO allies – in monitoring the electronic dealings of leaders and citizens of U.S. ally nations, including France, Italy and Spain. Of these activities, to which the House Intelligence Committee was only alerted well after the fact, the NSA has responded with a none-too-sophisticated attempt at obfuscation. The agency’s director, Keith Alexander, told the committee Tuesday, “This is not information we collected on European citizens. It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.” The distinction is difficult to discern. The patriotic tug, less so.

Intelligence Committee members rightly took umbrage at being among the last to know of such activities – a telling sign that the surveillance in question oversteps some bounds. “Why did we not know that heads of state were being eavesdropped on, spied on? We are the intelligence committee and we didn’t know that,” asked Rep. Jan Schakowsky D-Ill. She astutely points out that, regardless of the actual implications of the surveillance, there has been damage.

“There has been some diminution of our diplomatic relationship around the world, naïve or not, disingenuous or not. That is just a fact,” she said.

The distress erupting around the NSA’s overseas spying was compounded by The Washington Post’s revelation Wednesday that the NSA has also been gathering links from Google and Yahoo data centers outside the United States – unbeknownst to the companies or their users. Helping itself to data that it may or may not use, without permission from the companies in question, is an overreach on the NSA’s part that erodes trust between the agency and its private sector partners – it has a court-approved program to gain access to some Google and Yahoo information – as well as between those companies and their clients.

Neither Google nor Yahoo is pleased with the discovery. “We have long been concerned about the possibility of this kind of snooping, which is why we continue to extend encryption across more and more Google services and links,” Google said in a statement responding to the news. That sets up a security arms race wherein the search engines establish ever tighter means by which to protect their users, and that the NSA will no doubt be working diligently to get around. Trust on all sides is lost.

But spying is a game of betrayal, and it should not be altogether surprising that the NSA has engaged in a fair amount of it. What is surprising and damaging is the extent of the activity. There are few checks, it seems, against the NSA’s efforts to gather data, and claims to be doing no surveillance, “except for valid foreign intelligence purposes,” as Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee, are becoming increasingly difficult to swallow.

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