Given the fact that the Internet and phone intercepts made by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) are in violation of the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution, there is only one nevertheless completely irrelevant argument for the government to make in their defense: that they have made Americans safer. But is that true? President Barack Obama, who has dismissed the uproar over the program as a "ruckus," has provided an impressive array of senior government officials to testify that the violation of civil liberties has been minor, subject to oversight, and effective in identifying terrorists in our midst and also overseas. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper found himself in the hot seat, having to explain that his March Senate testimony in which he denied the existence of any U.S. government programs to detect information on Americans was the "least untruthful" answer that he could come up with. More recently he has explained that they "cause irreversible harm to national security." General Keith Alexander, who heads the NSA, told congress that the information collected "disrupted or contributed to the disruption of terrorist attacks" including one on Wall Street. His agency later claimed that attacks in the US and twenty other nations were preempted, though it provided no details. FBI Director Robert Mueller is even postulating absurdly that if PRISM had existed in 2001 the terrorist attack might have been prevented, so it comes as no surprise that he is demanding even broader surveillance powers.
Since no one should actually believe increasingly shrill government spokesmen whose employability depends on their defending the indefensible, attack dogs in the media and think tank world have also been unleashed. Former Congresswoman Jane Harman and journalist David Ignatius have piled on the scrum, with Harman asserting "Americans want our country protected. I don’t think it’s a choice between security and liberty…It’s a positive sum game. You get more of both…" while Ignatius argues, oddly, that the revelation of the unconstitutional surveillance program "challenges the rule of law." Karl Rove, a self-anointed expert on national security, notes that "America is now a less safe place" due to exposure of the spying, while Dick Cheney calls whistleblower Snowden a traitor and possible Chinese intelligence agent.
Predictably, the Republicans are lining up behind the administration on this issue with Senator Lindsey Graham asserting that he was "sure we should be doing this" while Speaker of the House John Boehner called the programs "very important to the security of the American people." Congressman Mike Rogers, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, claims the program has disrupted dozens of terrorist plots. The defenders of the program rarely feel it necessary to actually describe how the terrorism disruptions took place, presumably with the understanding that such details are classified and cannot be revealed to the general public. It is also to be presumed that the government officials are speaking from an approved script accompanied by an info sheet that is likely shared with friendlies like Harman, Rove, and Ignatius. With that in mind, it should be noted that one name connected to a terrorism case has been surfaced a number of times to demonstrate that the program works and is in the interest of the American people. That individual is Najibullah Zazi.
Zazi was an alleged al-Qaeda member living in Colorado who plotted to bomb the New York City subways in 2009 using explosive devices made from hydrogen peroxide. Note that the citing of his case by a number of supporters of the NSA program – including Congressmen Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein, who described the NSA intercepts as "exactly what was used" – is not mere coincidence. Former Bush Attorney General Mike Mukasey also conveniently described the Zazi case as "disclosed through such monitoring" in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, which included a picture of Zazi in handcuffs. Nor is it surprising to learn that the Zazi-as-vindication story was generously leaked to the media, presumably by the White House, to include The New York Times, Reuters, and CBS News.
Zazi’s name comes up because the clever folks who run our government’s intelligence and security services likely with a little help from an administration spin-meister have decided that his case is the best one to use to convince the public and media that surveillance of citizens is in everyone’s best interest if one wants to avoid getting blown up on the Lexington Avenue line. It should therefore be assumed that the rest of the "evidence" consisting of "dozens" of otherwise unidentified cases cited by General Keith Alexander to support the program is actually less convincing, quite likely not convincing at all.
And the Zazi case is itself far from a poster child for the NSA, if one looks at the details. It is being falsely claimed that the government program PRISM intercepted an email from Zazi to a known al-Qaeda website, which led to his identification and eventual arrest. But the fact is that the email address had already been identified by British intelligence as being possibly terrorism connected through a file obtained on a laptop that had been seized in a police operation, information that was passed on to the United States government. The correct law enforcement procedure at that point would be to obtain a court order to monitor the site rather than exploiting the blanket authority provided by PRISM. In short, the US government knew about the website in question but PRISM had nothing to do with the success of the operation.
So the questions that should be asked are, does the illegal surveillance really work in preventing terrorist acts and also, even if that appears to be possibly true, was the information unique, unobtainable by less intrusive and constitutionally damaging means. Unless the intelligence passes that dual smell test, there is really no argument at all to be made and the program should be dismantled immediately in light of its enormous cost and its demonstrated potential to be abused.
Another point that bears noting is that the testimony in defense of the program is also being used to prepare a government case to prosecute the leaker Edward Snowden by insinuating that Snowden has sold out to terrorism. Per Alexander "If we tell terrorists every way that we’re going to track them, they will get through and Americans will die." This might be charitably referred to as the "stupid terrorist" argument. Terrorists have known for at least twenty years that if they use a cell phone or send an email it will quite likely be intercepted either by the NSA or the British equivalent GCHQ. Osama bin Laden hid successfully for a number of years in the middle of a Pakistani city and did not come to anyone’s attention because he eschewed the use of technology to communicate. His instructions to his followers drove home that point, telling them to avoid any reliance on telephones or computers. So it is not exactly as if the terrorists haven’t figured it all out. Only the really dumb ones send a message to a jihadi website and such folks will always be with us and relatively easy to find, providing the fodder for US government "successes" in its never ending war against terrorism.
So the argument that the NSA surveillance program directed at nearly everyone all the time is making anyone safer is essentially bogus. Putting aside the enormous cost, the violation of both personal privacy rights and the constitutional prohibition of warrantless searches reveal it to be yet another building block in the piecemeal construction of the Total Information Awareness program that was initiated by the Pentagon shortly after 9/11. Total Information Awareness would have created a comprehensive file on everyone living in the US plus millions of people abroad. It would have marked the end of civil liberties in the United States and created a de facto police state based on the premise of doing what is necessary to protect the people from terrorism. That both the premise and the response are deeply flawed should be self-evident to every American who truly cares about the future of this country. But it clearly is not understood by those in congress and the media who continue to sell the snake oil.