Ever since Edward Snowden revealed US intelligence methods in 2013, a war-of-words has raged over the National Security Agency’s collecting phone call metadata. There are two opposing views on this issue, causing both proponents and opponents to make wildly misleading statements bordering on the absurd. Some of these statements are apparently the result of weak understanding of technology. Others focus on unsupportable legal interpretations. Still others appear to be bloviating only for political gain.
Interestingly, this is a non-partisan fight, with each side embracing allies who are usually fierce opponents. The people who want to shut down NSA collection of metadata include far-right libertarians as well as far-left progressives who want to limit the government’s power and protect personal privacy
On the other side, moderate Democrats and Republicans insist that the NSA program is a necessary tool for detecting and stopping terrorists.
To analyze the questions, we can begin with the feasibility of having “the government listening to all of our calls.” If such comprehensive monitoring were permissible, how difficult would it be for the NSA? How big would the job be?
The US has more than 300-million phones, in fact we have more cell phones than people. To stay on the conservative side, let’s assume that we have only 280-million active phone users. The average phone user might have five conversations daily, each of which might last for two minutes. Using simple math, we can then assume that the NSA would listen to 2.8-billion minutes of phone conversations daily. The agency has fewer than 20,000 employees in their Ft. Meade, MD campus. If all of them, including senior military officers and janitors listened to phone calls, seven days a week, they would still have to double the staff, adding another 20,000+ new employees. Obviously, that whole proposition is impossible.
Opponents of the program use the phrase “listening to your phone calls,” to attack a false premise. The NSA program has never been about listening to nationwide phone conversations. The NSA’s collection has been about phone call METADATA. That does not include any actual calls. A view of phone call metadata would show a small amount of computer coding that would translate to identifying the caller’s phone number, the phone number of the person called, the date, time, and length of each call. Metadata has no voices! It’s only a tiny computer record of each call, through each phone company.
Why would the NSA want these metadata records? How can they use them? Even if they included a record of a call from a suspected terrorist, finding it would be more difficult than a needle-in-a-haystack. It would be more like finding a needle in a 50-acre hay field.
Unlike TV and movie dramas where the good guys listen to calls by a bad guy planning on blowing up a building or becoming a suicide bomber, events seldom happen that way in the real world. The NSA system doesn’t look for a single conversation. It looks for call patterns that tell investigators where to look, whom to investigate, and whom to monitor. The NSA may discover a pattern that homes in on one or more phone numbers. If there is supporting information with a reasonable belief that the targeted caller may be planning or committing a criminal act against US interests, investigators must then go to a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court judge to request a warrant to listen to a suspect’s phone conversations. It’s much like a criminal investigation by a police force. When they believe that someone may be planning or committing crimes, investigators must secure a warrant for a wiretap.
The NSA is only looking for call patterns that tell federal law enforcement where and when calls are made, to or from jihadist groups.
Assuming that all of that is true, the opponents ask rhetorically, “Why didn’t the NSA detect the Boston Marathon bombers? Why can’t they point to one terrorist plot that they foiled?” The answer is that the metadata collection program is not about foiling plots. As always that difficult task is handled by investigators. The job of the NSA is to identify call patterns that point to people and organizations on which investigators must focus.
How about the laws? Some presidential candidates repeatedly state that the NSA program violates the US Constitution. Such far-fetched claims are untrue. They are usually based on the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures of property. The NSA program doesn’t involve property. The Supreme Court decided many years ago that recording metadata of phone calls doesn’t violate the Constitution. In layman’s terms, metadata is analogous to the information on an envelope sent through the mail. It may identify the sender, (return addressee), the receiving addressee, the date and time the envelope was sent. It doesn’t expose the contents to searches.
Program opponents also claim that a panel of Federal judges declared that the law doesn’t permit bulk collection of metadata, and that the NSA program is therefore unconstitutional. That claim is untrue. The judges simply stated that the Patriot Act doesn’t specifically permit the NSA’s collection program. The decision indicated that the program needs a supporting law, and that Congress should pass one if it wants to continue it. Congress has since passed the required legislation.
Does this mean that proponents of the program are truthful? Absolutely not. Voices from both parties claim that the NSA program catches would-be terrorists before they can act. They claim that the program is absolutely necessary to protect America. There is no track record to support such claims, and it’s unlikely that the NSA program will have that kind of impact. The program is a smart tool to help investigators, but it’s only one of many. Halting the program for a few days will not put the country in grave danger.
Our greatest danger is that public bickering by pundits, politicians and media people seeking headlines takes America’s attention away from vital issues that could endanger everyone.
My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX