I had no knowledge of the NSA’s programs, but I’m not surprised by most of it. James Bamford articulated in The Puzzle Palace in 1980 what the NSA was capable of, and it has always been clear to me that they would establish whatever intelligence capabilities they could in order to carry out their mission. There are several areas that raise substantial concerns:
1. NSA’s own documents indicate that they intended to interfere with and degrade crypto standards. That on its own has caused the agency substantial harm to its reputation that will take decades to recover from. But they haven’t just sullied their own reputation but that of the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) who are a true braintrust. Furthermore, they’ve caused the discounting in the discourse of anyone who is technology knowledgeable who have either recently held or currently hold government posts. I will come back to this issue below.
2. It is clear that the FISA mechanism just broke down, and that its oversight entirely failed. Neither Congress nor the Supreme Court took its role seriously. They all gave so much deference to the executive because of that bugaboo word “terrorism” that they failed to safeguard our way of life. That to me is unforgivable and I blame both parties for it. In fact I wrote about this risk on September 12, 2001. I wrote then:
I am equally concerned about Congress or the President taking liberties with our liberties beyond what is called for. Already, millions of people are stranded away from their loved ones, and commerce has come to a halt. Let’s not do what the terrorists could not, by shrinking in fear in the face of aggression, nor should we surrender our freedom.
Sadly, here we are.
3. There are reports about law enforcement taking intelligence information and scrubbing the origin. Where I come from we call that tampering with evidence in an egregious attempt to get around those pesky 4th and 5th amendments.
4. The NSA’s activities have caused great harm to U.S. services industry because other nations and their citizens have no notion as to when their information will be shared. This is keenly true for companies such as Google and Microsoft who, it is reported, were ordered to reveal information. The great Tip O’Neill said that all politics is local. That may be true, but in a global market place, all sales are local.
It would be wrong to simply lay blame on the NSA. They were following their mission. Their oversight simply failed. Congress needs oversight. That is our responsibility.