Opinion: Stay calm and let the NSA carry on

June 12, 2013


By Max Boot

Los Angeles Times

After 9/11, there was a widespread expectation of many more terrorist attacks on the United States. So far that hasn’t happened. We haven’t escaped entirely unscathed (see Boston Marathon, bombing of), but on the whole we have been a lot safer than most security experts, including me, expected. In light of the current controversy over the National Security Agency’s monitoring of telephone calls and emails, it is worthwhile to ask: Why is that?

It is certainly not due to any change of heart among our enemies. Radical Islamists still want to kill American infidels. But the vast majority of the time, they fail. The Heritage Foundation estimated last year that 50 terrorist attacks on the American homeland had been foiled since 2001. Some, admittedly, failed through sheer incompetence on the part of the would-be terrorists. For instance, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani American jihadist, planted a car bomb in Times Square in 2010 that started smoking before exploding, thereby alerting two New Yorkers who in turn called police, who were able to defuse it.

But it would be naive to adduce all of our security success to pure serendipity. Surely more attacks would have succeeded absent the ramped-up counterterrorism efforts undertaken by the U.S. intelligence community, the military and law enforcement.

And a large element of the intelligence community’s success lies in its use of special intelligence — that is, communications intercepts. The CIA is notoriously deficient in human intelligence — infiltrating spies into terrorist organizations is hard to do, especially when we have so few spooks who speak Urdu, Arabic, Persian and other relevant languages. But the NSA is the best in the world at intercepting communications. That is the most important technical advantage we have in the battle against fanatical foes who will not hesitate to sacrifice their lives to take ours.

Which brings us to the current kerfuffle over two NSA monitoring programs that have been exposed by the Guardian and the Washington Post. One program apparently collects metadata on all telephone calls made in the United States. Another program provides access to all the emails, videos and other data found on the servers of major Internet firms such as Google, Apple and Microsoft.

At first blush these intelligence-gathering activities raise the specter of Big Brother snooping on ordinary American citizens who might be cheating on their spouses or bad-mouthing the president. In fact, there are considerable safeguards built into both programs to ensure that doesn’t happen. The phone-monitoring program does not allow the NSA to listen in on conversations without a court order. All that it can do is to collect information on the time, date and destination of phone calls. It should go without saying that it would be pretty useful to know if someone in the U.S. is calling a number in Pakistan or Yemen that is used by a terrorist organizer.

As for the Internet-monitoring program, reportedly known as PRISM, it is apparently limited to “non-U.S. persons” who are abroad and thereby enjoy no constitutional protections.

These are hardly rogue operations. Both programs were initiated by President George W. Bush and continued by President Obama with the full knowledge and support of Congress and continuing oversight from the federal judiciary. That’s why the leaders of both the House and Senate intelligence committees, Republicans and Democrats alike, have come to the defense of these activities.

It’s possible that, like all government programs, these could be abused — see, for example, the IRS making life tough on tea partiers. But there is no evidence of abuse so far and plenty of evidence — in the lack of successful terrorist attacks — that these programs have been effective in disrupting terrorist plots.

Granted there is something inherently creepy about Uncle Sam scooping up so much information about us. But Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Citibank and other companies know at least as much about us, because they use very similar data-mining programs to track our online movements. They gather that information in order to sell us products, and no one seems to be overly alarmed. The NSA is gathering that information to keep us safe from terrorist attackers. Yet somehow its actions have become a “scandal,” to use a term now loosely being tossed around.

The real scandal here is that the Guardian and Washington Post are compromising our national security by telling our enemies about our intelligence-gathering capabilities. Their news stories reveal, for example, that only nine Internet companies share information with the NSA. This is a virtual invitation to terrorists to use other Internet outlets for searches, email, apps and all the rest.

No intelligence effort can ever keep us 100 percent safe, but to stop or scale back the NSA’s special intelligence efforts would amount to unilateral disarmament in a war against terrorism that is far from over.

— Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.


jayhawklawrence 5 years ago

Are these kind of columns now being published as part of a campaign to whitewash the recent spying scandal and to keep Americans from being upset with our government? Hard to say, but what is clear is that we are being asked to trust the government that they know what they are doing.

Trust in government has to be coupled with protections afforded by laws, the enforcement of those laws and penalties that are strong enough to deter the violation of those laws.

Looking at the Patriot Act, we now know that there have been 1000s of violations of the Patriot Act by the FBI and those violations have come against American citizens like you or I. These violations and the possible misguided implementation of the Patriot Act have been a target of the ACLU and now the ACLU is suing the federal government over the recent spy scandal involving the NSA.

We do not know the depth of the invasion of our privacy and how this intelligence is being used against American citizens until we have an investigation and get to the truth. There are too many unanswered questions and there are not enough safeguards, legal protections and enforcement in place to protect US citizens.

We are being asked to accept either of two choices. Trust the government or get attacked by terrorists. This is not fair. There are plenty of other choices and this issue needs far more scrutiny than it has been getting up to now. Clearly, a new Bill of Rights is needed to protect American freedoms and privacy.


verity 5 years ago


There certainly are a lot of the pompous pontificators taking this stand. So many sound very Orwellian: up is down and black is white. You are paranoid if this bothers you. It will only be used against you if you're doing something wrong.

Manning released information very indiscriminately, some of which was only embarrassing to certain people and had no other value. Snowdon was very careful about what he released.

I believe that our freedom is more in danger from our own government than from "terrorists." I will never trust someone who says, "Trust me." They have always turned out to be the most untrustworthy.

seebarginn 5 years ago

One of the better responses to the current controversy, which as the author points out, isn't so current. Compare this with the LJW editorial of June 11, another in a sorry series of Obama-hating rants, and you'll see there's no comparison. Boot knows how to make a reasonable case in support of a program that too many are attacking with paranoia and panic.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

Max says, don't worry, be happy--


From the article--

"Inverted totalitarianism is a term coined by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin to describe what he believes to be the emerging form of government of the United States. Wolin believes that the United States is increasingly turning into an illiberal democracy, and he uses the term "inverted totalitarianism" to illustrate the similarities and differences between the United States governmental system and totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union."

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

"More Intrusive Than Eavesdropping? NSA Collection of Metadata Hands Gov’t Sweeping Personal Info"


"Is Edward Snowden a Hero? A Debate With Journalist Chris Hedges & Law Scholar Geoffrey Stone"


tomatogrower 5 years ago

Why aren't people upset with sites like YouTube or Facebook. You know they are monitoring your web searches. If you are looking for lawn mowers on line, suddenly you go to your Facebook account, and low and behold, there are ads for lawn mowers. That's ok, but the NSA trying to keep us safe isn't? Weird.

jafs 5 years ago

Well, there is the obvious distinction between private sites and government intrusion.

If you don't like Facebook's policies, you can simply choose not to use them - you can't really "opt out" of secret government surveillance.

And, tracking your potential interest in lawn mowers isn't analogous to keeping track of your phone records.

Of course, other than that they're exactly the same.

Why exactly would the NSA need to keep track of all of our phone calls in order to keep us safe, anyway? What useful information do they get by knowing that I called my sister yesterday at 2:45pm?

tomatogrower 5 years ago

Well if you and your sister were talking about bombing something, I'm sure they would be interested. Basically, the metadata they collect just raises alarms when there is something like violence discussed. Otherwise, they don't care. And if you think you can avoid the corporations knowing everything about you by staying off Facebook, you would be wrong. I'm sorry, I trust my government, even most Republicans more than I do WalMart. I know several people who have said almost traitorous things about the United States, even on TV. People have signed petitions to secede from the union, so they don't even want to be Americans. None of them have been arrested. None are in Guantanamo. The government doesn't send me annoying ads.

jafs 5 years ago

I'm sure they would be.

But, they don't know what we're talking about just by knowing we call each other and speak for a certain length of time on a certain day - they're just collecting the metadata.

And, that information doesn't give them any idea whether or not we're terrorists, so it can't serve as "probable cause" for a warrant to tap our phone and find out what we're talking about.

So, what's the point?

You're really more concerned about "annoying ads" than secret government surveillance? That's almost impossible for me to comprehend. And, you really should know that American citizens have been brought to Gitmo without charges or trials, without access to a lawyer, held for many years, and eventually released. If that isn't a textbook violation of constitutional rights, I don't know what would be.

American citizens have a right to a "speedy trial", and also the right to not be deprived of liberty without due process, both of which are violated in the above scenario.

I don't understand folks who "trust" the government so much - do you think that the people in the government aren't fallible, or prone to corruption, make no mistakes, don't get power hungry, etc.?

The point of our system is that the people have the right and ability to hold elected officials accountable - we can't do that if we don't know what they're doing.

Linda Endicott 5 years ago

Everybody is talking as if the U.S,. government has never done this kind of thing before...it has, numerous times, and even in the eras long before cell phones, the internet, and sites like Facebook...

It's nothing new, people...the FBI had files on thousands and thousands of totally innocent people, for no apparent reason, long before this age of technology even existed...

And then there was the McCarthy era...when you didn't have to do anything at all to be crucified...just the accusation alone was enough, and they didn't much care where that accusation came from...

Please stop believing this is something different...there really is nothing new under the sun...

jafs 5 years ago

I'm quite aware that this isn't a new problem.

That doesn't mean it's not a problem, though, right?

"Calm down, we've been doing this for years" doesn't make me any more comfortable with it.

verity 5 years ago

Didn't see your post before I posted.

The "calm down" thing was really condescending and annoying.

verity 5 years ago

Just because it's not new doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned. Yes, we've known this sort of thing was going on for decades, but the reality and scope of the secrecy and intrusion has been laid out in a way that shocked even members of congress who were not given information about it as they should have been.

seebarginn 5 years ago

Yes, they monitor our searches, because they are for-profit entities and they want to make money from us. I don't know about YouTube and Facebook, but Google does have settings that users can adjust so their searches don't get used in the ways you mention. Those settings are easy to find and use.

oldvet 5 years ago

How can this not be OK? Obama supports it, Pelosi supports it, and Reid probably supports it too. Obama, Pelosi, Reid... how could they be wrong!

tomatogrower 5 years ago

So does Karl Rove, and George Bush, and Boehner. What's your point?

Richard Heckler 5 years ago

It should comforting to know that the nations security has been handed over to privatization who will undoubtedly provide just the right information to keep taxpayers AFRAID and providing zillions of tax $$$$$$$ to their cause.

CEO's,BOD"s,Shareholders,political campaign donations and golden parachutes keep the payroll shooting beyond reality.

seebarginn 5 years ago

Merrill makes an excellent point, true to form. Edward Snowden, who strikes me as a coward because he runs and hides, worked for a private business that did contract work for the US government. So many of the libertarians and Republicans on these boards see privatization as the panacea for all our ills. You'd think they'd have a few concerns about national security matters being handled by for-profit enterprises. But no--this surveillance program is just another excuse for them to whine about Obama, Reid, Pelosi, et al., and to tell us what we already know--they hate Obama's guts.

smileydog 5 years ago

Obama is violating the Patriot Act for his own gain. No hatred here, just fear.

smileydog 5 years ago

The NSA gives their British counterparts our technolody so the British can spy on us then give the information back to the United States. Very clever. Obama is mounting his coup and the American people are too stupid to give a rip.

kansanbygrace 5 years ago

A perfectly predictable blob from the "we know so much better than American citizens what's really good for them, Constitution and rule of law-be-damned" idealogues.

Save the paper. We can hear this rationalization coming before he starts to dictate it.

verity 5 years ago

Hum, a poster disappeareded yesterday and now we have a new one who sounds just like him. Registered some time ago but didn't start posting until today. Could that be a coincidence?

temperance 5 years ago

Max Boot was a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq war, so he obviously has good judgement.

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