Do Americans need the National Security Agency (NSA) to keep them safe from terrorists? The answer is short and simple: No. Has the agency prevented every terrorist attack? No, but, in theory, it should have, considering the technology, resources and assets available to it. Could the billions of dollars a year that are allocated to the agency be put to better use? Yes. Does the United States government have the constitutional or moral authority to spy on its own citizens? No, it certainly does not. One thing is clear, then: The NSA must be dismantled.
To address the first question: The main reason why Americans do not need the NSA to keep them safe is because they should never feel safe from terrorism; such a feeling would be mere illusion, anyway. The United States, it should never be doubted, faces nothing less than an existential threat from Islamist extremists, whose goal is the complete destruction of the American culture and way of life. Even though the agency is clearly unable to prevent every terrorist act – as proven by the events of September 11, 2001, the Boston Marathon bombing and numerous other incidents – it could be argued that, without the agency, there might be more attacks; such a scenario would teach Americans to be on their guard; to practice a higher level or what the military terms ‘situational awareness’ and to fully understand that, whilst we bicker about distractions, such as politics, race and sexual orientation, all of us face a common enemy. The greater exposure to risk would actually be good for people and good for the nation. In return for that greater exposure, private citizens are rewarded with a greater level of freedom: Truly, a win-win situation.
As to the second question; has the agency prevented every attack? There are many who would argue that it is simply not possible to prevent every attack. Anyone who has gone through any level of anti-terrorist training will know that the common refrain of instructors is that we have to be lucky all of the time, whilst the terrorist only has to get lucky once. That being the case, why is the United States spending undisclosed amounts of taxpayer dollars building an organization that is supposed to achieve the impossible; prevent every act of terrorism? The greatest tool in the counter-terrorists arsenal is human intelligence, known as HUMINT. This is most effectively gathered on the ground, from actual human sources. Far more terrorist acts and other crimes have been prevented with this method than will ever be prevented by monitoring emails and telephone calls.
Whilst the NSA may already have the capacity to collect and store every electronic communication, it will never have the capacity to analyze every one of those and extrapolate meaningful intelligence; attempting to do so is a stunningly inefficient way to spend money. The world’s most powerful computers cannot do it with sufficient effectiveness; it takes a trained human being to do so. The NSA would need to recruit and train 10 million intelligence analysts make this system worthwhile.
The third question really needs no further exploration; of course the money could be better spent – in a thousand ways. As to whether the US government has the right or authority to spy on American citizens, the answer is a resounding no, according to the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.
The original mission of the NSA was to gather foreign intelligence. It has clearly stepped well beyond the bounds of this mission. Regardless of who is in the White House, or which party is in control of Congress, the temptation to use such an organization as a political weapon is also too great. The NSA has become a bloated and abusive institution – unaccountable, it would seem, to anyone – and it must be dismantled.
An Op-Ed by Graham J Noble