The Campaign Spot

Dear NSA: If You’re Not So Bad, Why Do Your Bosses Keep Lying to Us?

Big Morning Jolt today, with tough questions about what to do if the worst suspicions about Syria’s alleged chemical-weapons attack are true, another look at “the Separation of Celebrity and State” (Tabitha’s great headline), what NR has had to say about pop-cultural offerings like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, and then this predictable turn in the NSA debate:

NSA: Never Straight Answers

Dear NSA and its defenders (who am I kidding, you read this as soon as I sent the e-mail):

Before you get started, let us save you some time and go over things we already know, and you don’t have to say again.

  • Yes, the threat from terrorists is real, and you guys and the rest of the intelligence and law enforcement community have a really tough job.
  • Yes, being able to intercept, read, and listen to almost any communication in the world is a big help in your mission.
  • Yes, there’s a FISA court system, although we’re having doubts about the effectiveness of its oversight.
  • Yes, there’s considerable evidence that Edward Snowden is A) off his rocker and/or B) way too cozy with Russia and China. Of course, you guys are the ones that hired him and gave him access to all the secret stuff.

The problem is every time somebody in authority tries to reassure us by describing what the NSA is doing, it turns out to be a lie. Well, either it’s a lie, or they don’t know what they’re talking about. Like when President Obama told Charlie Rose that the FISA court is “transparent.” (The court’s proceedings are entirely in secret.) Or when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says, under oath before Congress, that the NSA never gathered “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” He later claimed he misunderstood the direct question posed to him and apologized to Congress.

Or when President Obama tells Jay Leno, “we don’t have a domestic spying program” — and then we learn, as we did late Wednesday, that the NSA gathered “tens of thousands of e-mails and other electronic communications between Americans” with no connection to terrorism and a federal judge rules the government has “disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program” three times in less than three years. It’s very, very bad, according to the judge:

In the strongly worded 86-page opinion, U.S. District Judge John Bates, who was then the court’s chief judge, wrote that the “volume and nature of the information it has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the court had been led to believe.”

Bates blasted the NSA for mishandling thousands of e-mails from Americans over those three years, and said the NSA’s disclosures about its e-mail collection effort “fundamentally alters the court’s understanding of the scope of the collection . . . and requires careful re-examination of many of the assessments and presumptions underlying prior approvals.”

You guys at the NSA might be the most swell and honorable crowd this side of Dudley Do-Right, but it’s hard to believe that these programs could never be abused when everybody in charge of them keeps lying to us.

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