Feature

The NSA’s domestic reach

The PRISM program is just one of many used by security officials to access the data flowing through domestic servers.

The true breadth of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance network was revealed this week in a report that found it can comb through 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic in search of foreign intelligence. The PRISM program, detailed in former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks in June, is just one of many that security officials use, according to The Wall Street Journal. Programs with names like Blarney and Stormbrew give the agency access to reams of data flowing through domestic servers, with the content of some emails and phone calls between Americans retained even though the NSA is only permitted to target foreigners. According to documents leaked by Snowden last week, an internal audit registered 2,776 incidents of analysts breaking privacy rulesin the 12 months through May 2012. Officials acknowledged this week that the NSA had collected up to 56,000 emails annually between Americans with no links to terrorism.

America’s surveillance state “keeps getting bigger,” said Timothy B. Lee in WashingtonPost.com. The “comforting notion” that the NSA mainly spies on foreigners has now been exposed as false. During the 2002 Winter Olympics, all emails and texts in the Salt Lake City area were filtered during the six months surrounding the event. How many Americans were caught up in that net?

“The NSA can’t catch a break,” said Benjamin Wittes in NewRepublic.com. When harmless domestic data is accidentally harvested, the government is legally required to destroy it, and there’s no evidence that it has not done so. Nearly all of those 2,776 incidents—among “billions and billions of communications”—were “minor technical mistakes.” More transparency about these programs would only “help our adversaries elude their reach,” said William Galston in The Wall Street Journal. For a more open agency, “are we willing to sacrifice a measure of security?”

That defense “is just not cutting it,” said Doug Schoen in Forbes.com. We can’t trust the government to responsibly manage a sprawling network so ripe for abuse without meaningful oversight. We need a more transparent Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and independent public advocates to oversee the NSA. The House must also vote to curb the agency’s powers. “It’s time to get serious about reform.”

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