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Posts Tagged ‘NSA’

Last June, in response to a question about indiscriminate spying by the National Security Agency, I made two simple points about the importance of judicial oversight and cost-benefit analysis.

I want – at a minimum – there to be judicial oversight whenever the government spies on American citizens, but I also think some cost-benefit analysis is appropriate. Just because a court has the power to approve snooping, that doesn’t mean it’s a sensible use of law enforcement resources.

Nothing since then has changed my mind.

Indeed, I’m perhaps even more skeptical of untrammeled government power and ability to spy on citizens for the simple reason that I don’t trust politicians.

Just look at how the White House turned the supposedly professional IRS into a partisan political operation. The government had power, ostensibly for a legitimate reason, but politicians and bureaucrats then used the power is a grossly improper fashion.

On the other hand, I know there are people out there who hate America. And they don’t just hate us because we’re intervening in the Middle East. I suspect many of them would want to kill us even if we had a perfect libertarian foreign policy of non-intervention and peaceful global commerce.

Now we learn from a report in the Washington Post that government has become bigger and more powerful and that our privacy has been violated as part of the NSA’s spying, yet there have been no benefits. As is zero. Nada. Zilch.

Here are some excerpts.

An analysis of 225 terrorism cases inside the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has concluded that the bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.” In the majority of cases, traditional law enforcement and investigative methods provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case, according to the study by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

But perhaps, you may be thinking, this is merely the predictable conclusion of a group that is predisposed to be skeptical. That’s a fair concern, but the article also has some very compelling corroborating evidence.

The study, to be released Monday, corroborates the findings of a White House-appointed review group, which said last month that the NSA counterterrorism program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and that much of the evidence it did turn up “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”

So not only do outsiders find little to no value in NSA spying, but even hand-picked insiders couldn’t come up with any evidence to show that the program was effective.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that defenders of the NSA have come up with a can’t-miss way of defining success.

Senior administration officials…say it has been valuable in knocking down rumors of a plot and in determining that potential threats against the United States are nonexistent. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. calls that the “peace of mind” metric.

Yes, your eyes did not deceive you.You actually read correctly. The government wants us to acquiesce to a loss of privacy because we will learn that there are no threats and we’ll have “peace of mind.”

That has to be the lamest justification for government power that I’ve ever read.

This is even more preposterous than asserting that we should squander $1 trillion per year on anti-poverty programs, not because that redistribution will help the poor, but rather because it makes leftists feel better about themselves.

That being said, supporters do have a somewhat powerful comeback.

Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director and a member of the panel, said the program “needs to be successful only once to be invaluable.”

Indeed, I suspect this is the main reason why ordinary people might support the NSA.

But I disagree with Mr. Morell because he asserts that a single example of success would be invaluable. The article, for instance, cites one “victory” for the NSA surveillance program.

…the program provided evidence to initiate only one case, involving a San Diego cabdriver, Basaaly ­Moalin, who was convicted of sending money to a terrorist group in Somalia. Three co-conspirators were also convicted. The cases involved no threat of attack against the United States.

I’m glad that a foreign terrorist attack was blocked, but is that really “invaluable”? Does that “victory” justify a very expensive and very intrusive NSA monitoring regime?

As I’ve acknowledged before, I don’t know enough about terrorism to offer an informed viewpoint. But I have studied a similar issue, money laundering laws, and that research leads me to be very suspicious about the NSA.

These laws were put in place with the excuse that government would collect and analyze large amounts of data to help deter crime.

All the evidence, however, shows that these laws are a costly failure. The invade our privacy, hurt the poor, impose high regulatory costs, and have little or no impact on underlying crimes.

Just something to keep in mind when people argue that government should have more power and authority.

P.S. At least the revelations about NSA spying have generated some first-rate political humor.

P.P.S. Keep in mind that the NSA is just one cog in the machinery of government. So if you’re worried about the NSA’s intrusion and power, then you should also worry about the power of the IRS. If you’re concerned about the IRS’s authority, then you also should fret about the Obamacare exchanges. And if you think the Obamacare exchanges give the government too much knowledge and power, then you should be agitated about “know-your-customer” laws that require banks to spy on their customers. And if you’re not happy about those money-laundering rules, then you surely should be dismayed about asset-forfeiture rules. And if you don’t approve of government stealing property, then maybe you don’t like government accumulation of power for the Drug War. And if the failed War on Drugs rubs you the wrong way, then perhaps you…I better stop now. I think you get the point.

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Exactly three years ago, I posted a simple quiz about libertarians and patriotism.

The two questions in that quiz are illuminating since they highlight how libertarians in some cases may differ from conservatives (click here for more on that issue), but I also included this t-shirt, which seems to capture the mindset of a lot of Americans regardless of their political outlook.

Well, it seems that Mark Twain had the same attitude as the young lady in the photo, at least if we can believe the quote in this Steve Breen cartoon.

Simply stated, our loyalty should be to a set of ideals, not to any particular group of people who happen to hold power.

Patriotism Cartoon

What makes the cartoon so effective, though, is the inclusion of an IRS thug and a snoop from the NSA.

Reminds me of this cartoon about Obama and the Founding Fathers.

But there’s a serious point to discuss. Are we losing our freedoms and giving the state too much power and authority?

According to a recent news report, a former lieutenant colonel for the infamous East German STASI spy agency says the NSA-type snooping ability “would have been a dream come true.”

Wolfgang Schmidt…pondered the magnitude of domestic spying in the United States under the Obama administration. A smile spread across his face. “You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” he said, recalling the days when he was a lieutenant colonel in the defunct communist country’s secret police, the Stasi. In those days, his department was limited to tapping 40 phones at a time, he recalled. Decide to spy on a new victim and an old one had to be dropped, because of a lack of equipment. He finds breathtaking the idea that the U.S. government receives daily reports on the cellphone usage of millions of Americans and can monitor the Internet traffic of millions more.

I’ve already written that we do have enemies and that I think it’s okay to spy on those enemies (though I want the government to get judicial approval before spying on Americans).

But I also wrote that spying should be subject to cost-benefit analysis. The NSA info-gathering exercise reminds me of anti-money laundering laws and those laws are a costly failure. They invade our privacy, hurt the poor, impose high regulatory costs, and have little or no impact on underlying crimes.

We also need to be concerned about potential misuse of data, whether by people currently in the government or those that will have access to the information in the future.

This is what worries me the most. Simply stated, I don’t trust people in government. Which, rather ironically, means I’m in agreement with a former STASI bigwig.

Even Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said. “It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”

Hmmm… maybe being warned about the risk of unrestrained government by a former communist spy is the modern equivalent of being called ugly by a frog?

In any event, I suppose Herr Schmidt has first-hand knowledge of the danger of giving government too much information.

P.S. Speaking of first-hand knowledge, it’s somewhat amusing that former communists in Russia and current communists in China have told the Europeans that the welfare state breeds too much dependency.

P.P.S. While this post has touched on libertarians and patriotism, fairness requires me to acknowledge that leftist politicians also believe in a form of patriotism.

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To save readers some time, the honest answer to the question is that I don’t have many profound thoughts about the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and snooping by the National Security Agency.

But since I’ve been asked by several people to pontificate on the matter, I won’t let trivial obstacles such as lack of knowledge or absence of expertise preclude me from giving a response. Heck, I’ve written about drone attacks, and terrorism policy, and my knowledge in those areas may be even less than the President’s understanding of the economy!

Normally, when I’m in the dark about some matter of public policy, I simply see what some of my Cato colleagues have said about an issue. But as you can see here, here, and here, those experts are split on the topic (brings to mind the joke about the politician who, when asked his position on some legislation, said “some of my friends are for the plan and some of my friends are opposed, and I always stick with my friends).

So I reckon I’ll just wing it with a couple of observations and a concluding thought about patriotism.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I want – at a minimum – there to be judicial oversight whenever the government spies on American citizens, but I also think some cost-benefit analysis is appropriate. Just because a court has the power to approve snooping, that doesn’t mean it’s a sensible use of law enforcement resources.

I confess I don’t know whether NSA snooping is a good use of time and energy, but I’m skeptical. Why? Because we don’t find much common sense in areas where I do know enough to run my mouth, such as money laundering laws and Transportation Security Administration rules. So why is NSA snooping any different?

It probably isn’t. As such, I side with other Americans in not wanting to give up my liberties simply because some politicians say our security is threatened.

That being said, I find myself irked by Mr. Snowden’s behavior. Some people believe he is a genuine patriot (in the proper sense of the word) motivated by libertarian principles, but the fact that he fled to Russia (perhaps en route to Cuba, Venezuela, or Ecuador) doesn’t reflect well on him.

For all its flaws, I rank the United States far above places such as Russia, China, and assorted Latin American thug regimes.

I understand that Snowden presumably wants to go someplace where he can’t be snatched by American officials, but he will cross the line and unambiguously become a traitor in my eyes if he gives sensitive material to unfriendly foreign governments.

And by sensitive, I don’t necessarily mean classified. I’m sure the federal government goes way overboard in labeling material as secret or classified. I’m talking about information that could compromise the security of the United States.

I’m guessing Edward Snowden has such information. If he shares it with hostile governments, he’s a bad person.

P.S. Here’s a humorous look at Obama-approved snooping.

P.P.S. If you think I’m being too hard on Snowden, you’ll probably beat my libertarian score on this comprehensive test.

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If you liked the cartoons I shared about the NSA spying scandal, I suspect you’ll like this story even more.

It begins with a newlywed heading home to his lovely wife…but has a surprise ending.

NSA 1 NSA 2 NSA 3 NSA 4 NSA 5NSA 6

Sort of reminds me of a scene in that cinematic class, American Pie II.

And you have to give the President credit for good timing when delivering a line. Maybe he does have a future career as a movie star?

He’d definitely do better on the silver screen than he did in his previous position.

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