Opinion

A New Year's resolution for Obama: Dismantle the NSA

Two new reports reveal that the spy agency is even more lawless than we thought

Here's a perfect New Year's resolution: Let's abolish the National Security Agency and prosecute its agents for spying on us. It's perfect because it's the right thing to do — and because it's a promise that's probably impossible to keep.

On Christmas Eve, the NSA, complying with a Freedom of Information Act request from the American Civil Liberties Union, released documents showing that intelligence agents used the incredible resources of the NSA to spy on their wives, husbands, and girlfriends.

A naval intelligence officer snooped on his wife while she was overseas. His punishment was a demotion and a forfeiture of half his pay for two months. Another agent used the government's massive spy apparatus to look into the phone number of one of his son's friends. His security clearance was revoked. But there's no indication in these heavily redacted documents that he was fired. There was certainly no trial.

And those were just the Americans whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated on purpose. If you have a name that is too close in spelling to that of a foreign target, then your emails and other digital communications may have also have been vacuumed up into a security database. Afterwards, the NSA may or may not have deleted those records to comply with its own interpretation of your constitutional rights.

As awkward as it may be, we have one man to thank for this information being public at all — and that's Edward Snowden. The ACLU's representatives specifically cited his leaks as a kind of roadmap that taught their lawyers how to format their FOIA requests to receive even this highly edited dose of information.

These are criminal violations. However, the report, where it does not detail the minor penalties visited upon the perpetrators, wanly concludes that they were just the result of human error. Mistakes were made.

It's hard to think that these are just mistakes. In another major Christmas report, Der Spiegel investigates the scale of the NSA's ability to retrieve data from digital services. The NSA's efforts to create backdoor access to digital services so that it can tap into digital communications, as well as its attempts to weaken internet security more generally through lobbying efforts, are evidence of a worldview in which privacy is considered an obstacle to intelligence, and intelligence is equated with making all digital communication instantly transparent.

In the language of the Fourth Amendment, our "papers and effects" are now largely digital. They include not just our interpersonal communications, diaries, and receipts, but out location data, list of contacts, and metadata. It is laughably Orwellian that one of our major intelligence and security agencies sees its job as making our private data less secure.

A security agency worth paying for would actually look for vulnerabilities in popular software products from Google and Apple; when it found them, it would suggest patches and better encryption techniques. In other words, a security agency worthy of the name would presume the American public and American companies are innocent before proven guilty, and worth protecting from prying eyes whether they be a foreign government or some scummy hacker collective.

If security agents are willing to spy on their wives and son's friends, then we should presume they can be bribed into compromising anyone's data, or are willing to blackmail others just for kicks and personal pleasure. The agents (whose names we do not know) should be outed, fired, and prosecuted. And the agency that currently ennobles their snooping with an aura of national purpose should be dismantled.

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