by Amna El Tawil
Privacy is incredibly important to every person on this planet, but unfortunately, almost nothing is private anymore. It’s like we’re living in a Big Brother’s house where someone’s watching our every move. When it comes to monitoring, the NSA made it to the center of media attention when Edward Snowden published classified files and documents. Back in 1952 when the President Harry Truman signed the top-secret memorandum which created the National Security Agency, it was so secret that only members of the Congress knew about it. Nowadays, things are different and while everyone knows the NSA exists and has a limited knowledge of what they do, there are many myths surrounding this Agency. To me, it’s perfectly understandable why those myths arise. When you aren’t sure what’s going on, you’re bound to make assumptions, and that’s what people do. Below, you can see some of the most common myths about the NSA and find out whether they’re accurate or not.
Myth 1: Surveillance carried out under Section 702 is aimed at foreigners only, not at the communication of Americans.
A June 2015 letter from the director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, confirms that one of the primary uses of the Section 702 surveillance programs is to enable the intelligence agencies and the FBI to carry out warrantless searches of Americans’ communications with people outside the US.
Further commentary: while it’s easy to assume that NSA would only target foreigners due to the national security, the reality is much different. Communicating with a person of interest or someone who becomes suspect for legit or false reason is enough for the Agency to track American citizens as well. End of commentary.
Myth 2: The NSA surveillance programs target specific people.
The New York Times revealed that “The N.S.A. is not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, a practice that government officials have openly acknowledged. It is also casting a far wider net for people who cite information linked to those foreigners, like a little used e-mail address, according to a senior intelligence official.”
The report also states the following: “To conduct the surveillance, the N.S.A. is temporarily copying and then sifting through the contents of what is apparently most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border…Computer scientists said that it would be difficult to systematically search the contents of the communications without first gathering nearly all cross-border text-based data; fiber-optic networks work by breaking messages into tiny packets that flow at the speed of light over different pathways to their shared destination, so they would need to be captured and reassembled.”
Moreover, the CDT.org reports that “In 2014, the Washington Post examined a large sample of e-mails and instant messenger conversations collected under Section 702 between 2009 and 2012, and found that 90 percent of the communications the government had captured and retained were from online accounts not belonging to foreign surveillance targets. A surveillance program purportedly geared towards foreign intelligence has instead swept up a huge amount of communications content belonging to innocent, untargeted people, and the fruits of those warrantless searches have been used to conduct criminal investigations against Americans – investigations that are unrelated to national security and terrorist activity.”
Further commentary: Despite the fact, we’re convinced that NSA and other intelligence agencies only carry out surveillance of targeted individuals, that’s far from the truth. As seen above, about 90% of gathered communication is from innocent persons. This just shows that nothing’s as it really seems and we’ll never know whether our online communication has been surveilled too. End of commentary.
Myth 3: NSA conducts surveillance only to detect/prevent terrorism.
According to the 50 U.S. Code § 1881a – Procedures for targeting certain persons outside the United States other than United States persons, the NSA can engage in warrantless spying under Section 702 as long as “a significant purpose” of the surveillance is to obtain broadly defined “foreign intelligence information.” Foreign intelligence is defined to include purposes beyond terrorism, such as information about US foreign affairs that may be transmitted by journalists or activists.
Myth 4: The court makes sure that NSA surveillance is legal.
This is definitely a part of the NSA mantra; everything they do is according to the law and completely legal. Most people believe this is accurate due to one reason only: both the surveillance court and the activities it monitors are secret so it’s difficult to contradict them.
The New York Times exposed the warrantless wiretapping program back in December 2005. The report stated: “President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.
Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years.”
After these illegal activities were exposed, Congress amended the law to weaken the court’s oversight and incorporate many of the formerly illegal eavesdropping activities conducted during the Bush years.
Myth 5: Congress oversees NSA religiously.
Remember the part I wrote above, that back in time when the NSA was created, only members of the Congress knew about it? The NSA is supposed to be overseen by Congress, but that isn’t the reality.
In his post in The Guardian, Alan Mark Grayson said that the Congressman Otis Pike of New York labeled the Congress’ oversight of the NSA is a joke. The post also said: “Despite being a member of Congress possessing a security clearance, I’ve learned far more about government spying on me and my fellow citizens from reading media reports than I have from “intelligence” briefings. If the vote on the Amash-Conyers amendment is any indication, my colleagues feel the same way. In fact, one long-serving conservative Republican told me that he doesn’t attend such briefings anymore, because, “they always lie”. Many of us worry that Congressional Intelligence Committees are more loyal to the “intelligence community” that they are tasked with policing, than to the Constitution. And the House Intelligence Committee isn’t doing anything to assuage our concerns”.
Further commentary: In order to justify their activities, the intelligence agencies always claim everything they do is legal and they are under the firm supervision of the Congress. That’s primarily because they want to portray they’re protectors of the US Constitution while, at the same time, thousands of innocent people were victims of their surveillance, thus disrespecting that same Constitution. End of commentary.
by Amna El Tawil