In the 10 days since the NSA surveillance story broke
open, after listening to an array of arguments for and against the dragnet
approach taken by the spy agency, I think the comment that makes the most
sense to me came from Jeremy Bash.
Bash, who has considerable experience working with the
intelligence community, said this:
“If you want to find a needle in a haystack, you need a
In other words, the billions of bits of information that
the NSA stores – phone numbers, locations and durations of calls – provide the
starting point if the intelligence agencies get a tip about a suspicious phone
Bash, who served as chief counsel for the House
Intelligence Committee, chief of staff to the CIA director, and chief of staff
to the Defense Secretary, certainly has the credibility to boil this
controversy down to the basics.
Here’s how he explained it: Suppose a foreign
intelligence service alerts the NSA that a phone call from a terrorist group in
Yemen will be coming in to a disposable phone in Texas at 2:45 p.m. today. That’s
it – no names, no numbers. The haystack provides our spies with a starting
point to investigate. Without that massive database, the tip provided from
overseas has no value.
A similar argument came from a very different source –
David Simon, creator of HBO’s “The Wire” and a former Baltimore newspaper
reporter who covered the cop beat.
On his blog, Simon wrote a long, thoughtful piece in
which he recalled a story he covered in the 1980s when the Baltimore cops
collected thousands of numbers from pay phones and pagers and used that database
to break up a major drug ring.
“When the government asks for something, it is notable to
wonder what they are seeking and for what purpose. When they ask for everything, it is not for specific
snooping or violations of civil rights, but rather a database that is being
maintained as an investigative tool,” Simon wrote.
Liberals and libertarians who call the revelations about
NSA surveillance a scandal fail to realize that the Bush and Obama administrations
have gradually assembled “an American anti-terrorism effort that is effectively
asked to find the needles before they are planted into haystacks, to prevent
even such modest, grass-rooted conspiracies as the Boston Marathon bombing
before they occur,” Simon noted.
Here’s his take on why concerns about potential
violations of civil liberties must be trumped by a very real, ongoing terrorist
“You would think that the government
was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and
the hyperbole being tossed about. And you would think that rather than a legal
court order, which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted
and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame.
Nope. … The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on
which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads
from that data. … I know it’s big and scary that the government wants a
database of all phone calls. And it’s scary that they’re paying attention to
the Internet. And it’s scary that your cellphones have GPS installed. … The
question is not, ‘Should the resulting data exist?’ It does. … The question
is more fundamental: ‘Is government accessing the data for the legitimate
public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse
individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is
unsupervised?’ And to that, The Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads
about this pretend-discovery of  U.S. big
data collection are noticeably silent. We don’t know of any actual abuse.”
As for all the noisy criticism displayed by Republican
and Democratic lawmakers, Simon ponders this:
“… just imagine how much bloviating
would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident
of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed
to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible
to find those needles in the haystacks.”