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Shouting '9/11' in a Crowded Internet

Why the NSA's 'we keep you safe from terrorists' rationale is bogus.

When National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden first revealed himself in a video interview five months ago as the source of leaked documents exposing the NSA's collection of phone and data records of U.S. citizens, he noted: "The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change."

Despite the rapid pace of the NSA revelations, the subsequent claims and counterclaims of U.S. officials (and the fact that nobody possesses the policy, technical, operational, and legal background required to accurately characterize these stories and place them within a proper historical and global context), there's still one thing that can no longer be denied: The Snowden-supplied documents have instigated a global conversation about U.S. surveillance that will undoubtedly result in changes to the scope and conduct of certain NSA programs. And in fact, it's happening already.

Within the last week alone we have learned that the Obama administration authorized an internal review that brought to light the existence of a program used to spy on numerous world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (This investigation complements an independent review of U.S. surveillance efforts conducted by former officials and experts, which will present its findings by year's end.) Even the staunch defender of the NSA, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, announced: "the committee will initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs." Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that U.S. electronic surveillance was "on an automatic pilot because the technology is there," and "in some cases, it has reached too far inappropriately." And for the first time since the Snowden leaks, White House spokesperson Jay Carney acknowledged the agency's overreach saying, "We recognize that there need to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence."

Yet, Snowden's most meaningful and enduring impact will not be prompting U.S. electronic surveillance policy reform. Rather, what these five post-Snowden months have demonstrated is that inflating terrorist threats to justify expansive and invasive executive branch powers no longer resonates with the general public or most policymakers. That default appeal to 9/11 and vague warnings of terrorism that Bush and Obama administration officials relied upon to shape opinions and silence critics is no longer sufficient or acceptable.

Still, intelligence officials continue to defend the NSA as just another federal agency dedicated solely to protecting American citizens from terrorism. In his opening testimony before the House Permanent Intelligence Committee last week, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander re-used this same old trope:

"First, how did we get here? How did we end up here? 9/11 -- 2,996 people were killed in 9/11. We all distinctly remember that. What I remember the most was those firemen running up the stairs to save people, to there themselves lose their lives. We had this great picture that was created afterward of a fireman handing a flag off to the military, and I'd say the intelligence community, and the military and the intelligence community said: ‘We've got it from here.'"

Sorry, Keith: the NSA was not created on Sept. 12, 2001, but came into existence on Nov. 4, 1952. Its purpose was -- and, in theory, still is -- to collect and process communications intelligence in order to identify threats and opportunities for a range of diplomatic, military, and economic activities. (Preceded by the Armed Forces Security Agency, established in 1949, the Army's Signal Intelligence Service (1930), and the Army's Cipher Bureau (1917), the NSA was established with NSC Intelligence Directive No. 9 and authorized to be responsible for all national communications intelligence gathering.) It has been resourced and supported through its success and failures by senior decision-makers ever since for the unique information advantages that only it can provide. But, employing a selective narrative of the tragedy of 9/11 for political advantage, and rationalizing the NSA's activities by directly linking them to Ground Zero should be condemned.

Likewise, General Alexander claimed that terrorist fatalities have never been higher:

"If you look at the trends in the [counterterrorism] arena, in 2012, it was the highest globally that it's been ever. Over 15,000 people killed.... And yet, there has not been a mass casualty here in the U.S. since 2001."

Here again, he's resorting to playing fast and loose with facts. According to the State Department's annual counterterrorism data -- which, as of 2012, is compiled by the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism -- global terror deaths have generally decreased from a high of 22,719 in 2007, to 11,098 in 2012. To be fair, there are methodological problems with categorizing terror deaths, and Alexander might have used an alternative database. Nevertheless, there were no international terrorism mass casualty events in the United States before or after 2001. And overemphasizing the NSA's role in either causing 9/11, or preventing subsequent 9/11s, misses the inadequate government-wide response to al Qaeda that the 9/11 Commission found, and diminishes the important counterterror activities of non-NSA agencies. Moreover, this logic implies both that 9/11 necessitated the NSA's expanded authorities, and that the absence of additional mass casualty attacks requires that all existing authorities must remain intact.

Consider also a June 24 NSA document, obtained by Al Jazeera America via a Freedom of Information Act request, titled: "Media Leaks Master TPs (talking points)." The very first one, under "sound bites that resonate," reads "I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent." This 25-page document of behind-the-scenes media guidance for "Congress, the media and anyone else within the Obama administration surrounding the leak of information related to NSA surveillance activities," only confirmed what Americans have been hearing all along from senior officials: rationalize NSA, CIA, DOD, DHS, or FBI conduct by repeating 9/11.

One can hardly blame General Alexander and NSA public affairs officers from promoting counterterrorism -- and consciously omitting other missions -- to justify and protect their authorities, or shield dedicated staffers from condemnation and scrutiny. Yet Americans increasingly recognize that our political discourse, protection of First Amendment rights, respect for civil liberties, and conduct of foreign policy are overwhelmingly determined by our perceptions of terrorism. Government officials who seek maximum authority with minimum transparency shape those perceptions by constantly re-reminding Americans about 9/11 and inflating terrorist threats. 

Yes, U.S. officials have to manage their obligation to the public and Congress to describe their agency's activities as completely and accurately as possible, without revealing classified sources and methods. But General Alexander's way of relaying the NSA's activities with selective language that plays upon America's resonant fears of international terrorism is a failing strategy. As David Rohde wrote last week, "The United States' obsession with al Qaeda is doing more damage to the nation than the terrorist group itself." Nicholas Kristof further noted that: "For a dozen years, security has been an obsession, rarely constrained by a weighing of trade-offs, and to what result? We have sought every tactical advantage, and this sometimes leads -- as in eavesdropping of foreign allies -- to strategic losses." 

There's yet another problem with this approach, one that journalists have (selectively) reported based on documents that show that what the NSA says it does simply not match up with what it actually does. This chasm between justification and practice leaves the agency open to charges of hypocrisy or deceit. As Scott Shane's excellent survey of NSA activities summarizes: "Obama and top intelligence officials have defended the agency's role in preventing terrorist attacks. But as the documents make clear, the focus on counterterrorism is a misleadingly narrow sales pitch for an agency with an almost unlimited agenda." As the "mission" section of the NSA's own website declares:

The National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) leads the U.S. Government in cryptology that encompasses both Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Information Assurance (IA) products and services, and enables Computer Network Operations (CNO) in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances."

What recent reporting has proven is that the NSA is not, in fact, a rogue agency, but rather one that is doing exactly what its galactically broad and all-encompassing mission entails. The violation is in misleading the nation -- indeed the world -- as to what that mission is, shrinking it down to just one line of action. It is a pretense that the Obama administration and intelligence community officials should cease.

Snowden has brought forth a national debate about electronic surveillance that is not only worthwhile but long overdue. One hopes that it is broadened to protect U.S. citizens from the vastly more intrusive and comprehensive private sector surveillance and tracking as U.S. surveillance programs are investigated further. Snowden will likely play an essential role in changing how people think about state surveillance and personal privacy. Tolerating U.S. officials' mischaracterization of the world as one of innumerable terror threats, and then misrepresenting their agencies as responding solely to such inflated threats, is far more damaging than the activities of any one agency, including the NSA. But beyond that, officials are learning the hard way that simply shouting "terrorism" in a crowded policy debate is no longer a convincing call to action.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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