NSA

NSA Hammered by Unwelcome Headlines, Even With a Small Courtroom Win

Chances are, the professional snoops are pining for the quieter old days.

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For a secretive federal bureaucracy once jokingly nicknamed "no such agency," the National Security Agency (NSA) made an awful lot of headlines this week. Chances are, the professional snoops are pining for the quieter old days.

Today, NSA chief Adm. Michael Rogers (pictured) found himself defending his agency's practice of gathering images of people's faces from around the world for use in a facial recognition database to match against pictures of suspected terrorists. This followed revelations in the New York Times about the program, which reportedly relies on intercepting emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications.

"We do not do this in some unilateral basis against U.S. citizens," Rogers told a Bloomberg cybersecurity conference. "We have very specific restrictions when it comes to U.S. persons."

Rogers went on to insist that his agency remains within legal limits in its activities.

That may not be as reassuring as Rogers believes, both to people outside the United States and to those within its borders who just don't want their communications tapped. Not everybody finds the snoops' assurances of discretion completely convincing. As Reason science columnist Ron Bailey wrote, "Many Americans do not count on the permanent good will of the minions of the domestic surveillance state."

A reminder that a government practice's legality doesn't guarantee its acceptability surfaced in a federal judge's ruling about NSA surveillance on Tuesday.

In Smith v. Obama, Idaho resident Anna J. Smith challenged NSA interception of cellphone communications. She claimed that, under the Fourth Amendment, a citizen cannot be searched in violation of reasonable expectation of privacy unless a judge has found there is probable cause to believe a crime is being committed.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill reluctantly ruled that binding precedent permits the NSA's collection of cellphone data, based on a Ninth Circuit decision that "'there is no Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy' in data that includes the number dialed along with the length and time of the call."

But Winmill also pointed to a contrary decision from Washington, D.C., on NSA data-gathering in the case of Klayman v. Obama in which Judge Richard Leon found a likely Fourth Amendment violation.

"Judge Leon's decision should serve as a template for a Supreme Court opinion. And it might yet," wrote Winmill.

Smith plans to appeal, apparently with the best wishes of the judge who dismissed her case.

Rogers also may have felt a chill blowing his way from Germany, where officials plan to investigate the alleged monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel's (pictured) cellphone by the NSA. Documents released by Edward Snowden revealed such surveillance of dozens of high-ranking international officials (which should come as a surprise to exactly nobody).

The NSA is supposed to spy on foreign officials, who presumably return the favor to the best of their abilities (Germany certainly does). But matters grow extremely awkward when it is publicly revealed to be doing so.

And "awkward" is the operative word for any spy agency that finds itself swirling through the news cycle, no matter how or why it makes the headlines.

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  1. This is a test of reasonable, please ignore.
    Except: FIRST
    Also: fuck the NSA!

  2. ok, this is a second test, please ignore, except I still say “Fuck the NSA!”

  3. HMMMM… so I went through all the trouble (at least 15 seconds worth) of trouble to add an image to Gravistar, and my avatar is still showing up. Not the most important thing, I know, I am just bored today.

    1. ok, kill the “of trouble” and also should say “NOT showing up”

  4. NSA’s mission statement as linked to in this article posits its goal as gathering intelligence on “foreign adversaries” and to support “military operations”. Wiretapping Merkel serves neither of these goals. Regardless of the pointless ally-snooping the Germans themselves engage in, they are not an adversary and surveillance serves no realistic benefit to military operations.

    While Reason’s coverage of this topic, and most of its analysis, have been exemplary, I find it necessary to challenge the seemingly ever-present assumption among Americans that merely being “foreign” represents prima facie probable cause for lifetime surveillance. Unless we overcome this fallacy, Americans can have no moral authority to attempt to disarm other nation’s rapidly growing military surveillance programs. Mutually assured destruction of basic privacy rights to civilians world-wide is the end of this slippery slope. Let’s get off now.

    1. …”I find it necessary to challenge the seemingly ever-present assumption among Americans that merely being “foreign” represents prima facie probable cause for lifetime surveillance.”…
      Yeah, pretty much it does. The people in ‘friendly’ countries are communicating with those in not-so-friendly countries and so forth. Tough; governments should surviel other governments always and everywhere.

      …”Unless we overcome this fallacy, Americans can have no moral authority to attempt to disarm other nation’s rapidly growing military surveillance programs.”…
      We have none; see above.

      …”Mutually assured destruction of basic privacy rights to civilians world-wide is the end of this slippery slope. Let’s get off now.”
      Sorta fell off a slippery slope all on your own, didn’t you?
      Non sequitur…

  5. We have very specific restrictions when it comes to U.S. persons.

    Fucking right they do. Those restrictions are in the fourth amendment, and NSA has violated them billions of times.

    -jcr

    1. NSA violates the Constitution like McDonald’s sells burgers.

  6. But matters grow extremely awkward when it is publicly revealed to be doing so.

    And “awkward” is the operative word for any spy agency that finds itself swirling through the news cycle, no matter how or why it makes the headlines.

    That awkward feeling is known as failure. You would think, after Benghazi, Tahrir Square, 9/11, etc., etc., etc…. It would be less awkward.

  7. Did you ever think that the people involved in Benghazi, Tahrir Square, or 9/11, maybe just didn’t chat with each other on the phone like teenage girls when they were hatching their plots? Or maybe the idea that the NSA is “collecting everything” is total bullshit? I’m sure that if everything were being collected, and some foreign guys were talking about blowing shit up, and the NSA actually intercepted those calls (if in fact there were calls), somebody would have done something, right? They wouldn’t have wasted an opportunity to show that they were effective, right? So, either there were no phone calls to intercept, or the NSA doesn’t collect everything, or no person or machine was listening to content. Make sense?

    1. When literally everyone, from the Carribean, to Russia, Pakistan, and China knows you’re spying on them. You’re failing as an intelligence agency/community.

      When the reason they know is single errant pawn rather than even a modestly skilled cabal of opponents. You’re failing as an intelligence agency/community.

      When undesirable political disarray around the world is happening without your ability to do anything to stop it. You’re failing as an intelligence community.

      Did you ever think that the people involved in Benghazi, Tahrir Square, or 9/11, maybe just didn’t chat with each other on the phone like teenage girls when they were hatching their plots?

      Yes, I did think that. It just makes it even more ridiculous that our civil liberties are being trampled to tap telephone conversations.

      Do you think the Tsarnayev Bros. actions were a intelligence success? How about Raymond Allen Davis? How about Edward Snowden? Benghazi aside, has our intervention in Libya been a success intelligence-wise? How about our the chemical weapons or general situation in Syria? How about Gulf War I or II, intelligence successes?

      If you sit in on a poker game and don’t see a sucker, get up. You’re the sucker. -Whispering Saul

      1. Sometimes the person you think is the sucker, isn’t really the sucker. You don’t seriously think that we as a Nation spend that kind of money on intel without significant successes, do you?

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