It seems like not a week goes by without yet another report on the NSA’s digital intelligence gathering activities. Most recently, President Obama had what was likely an uncomfortable conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about whether the NSA was monitoring her cell phone conversations. The President assured Merkel that the United States is not currently, nor would it in the future, monitor her calls. Curiously, however, he did not elaborate on whether the NSA had done so in the past.

Regardless, spying on foreigners is the NSA’s reason for being. If they were indeed monitoring Merkel’s phone calls, while a somewhat embarrassing revelation with regard to foreign relations, the NSA was nevertheless doing its job. Collecting foreign intelligence is within the NSA’s mandate, but when former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden broke ranks and released troves of highly classified documents on the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence gathering activities, it set off a firestorm of public backlash. Some intelligence gathering activities appeared to tread on the Fourth Amendment; that is, the protection against unreasonable search and seizure, or more generally, the expectation of privacy.

The NSA’s intelligence gathering activities are broad and complex and are not easily summarized in superficial media reports (though many have tried). Understanding what the NSA is up to – and how that impacts the potential conflict between security and privacy – deserves a robust and nuanced public discussion. Here are two articles in a series I wrote for Defense Media Network about the NSA’s PRISM program and the legal justification for its foreign and domestic activities. Despite claims to the contrary, the NSA has not built an Orwellian Big Brother apparatus, but the agency’s activities do raise challenging questions about just how much privacy Americans are willing to sacrifice in the name of security and counterterrorism.

Part 1: Intelligence in the Digital Age – The NSA PRISM Program
The NSA gathers billions of data points on online activities across the world. Given the vastness of these operations – functioning under the agency’s PRISM Program – some online communications from American citizens not related to terrorism have ended up in the NSA’s databanks, which is technically a breach of the Fourth Amendment. How does this program function and how do these breaches occur?

Part 2: Intelligence in the Digital Age: Authorizing NSA Espionage
While there has been widespread outcry against the NSA’s intelligence gathering, the agency is in most cases supported by solid legal underpinnings. Yet, the NSA’s domestic and foreign intelligence gathering has operated under changing legal justifications since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Does the American public have a say in any of these laws?

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More
  • Damion

    Take a look at their posted weekly reports, along with photos that detail what is stopped by screening, and ask yourself if that is something you want to abolish. Think about that the next time you’re on a plane.

    Well I have asked myself this very question and I have also reviewed the “Confiscated” items of the week. And of the people who had their Civil Liberties Violated did anyone of them at the time of being illegally stopped and searched met the legal requirement of “Reasonable Suspicion” to have their Civil Liberties ignored and violated.idea with the requirement of an articulable and specific fact suspicion to be searched?

    Let everyone fly with their CCW’s, 5 litre water bottles, knives, golf clubs, box cutters. If more people had been allowed to fly with their guns, knives “weapons” 9/11 hijackings could have been averted, by self defense. The terrorists targeted the airplanes because they knew most flyers are unarmed and can not defend themselves.

    TSA has spent Trillions of Dollars and not improved the statistical likelihood that another terrorist event won’t occur. Nor have they stopped/foiled a singular event either.

    So on this count alone the DHS and its TSA child fail and should be promptly abolished. Freedom & Liberty always greater than Security theater.

    Reasonable suspicion is evaluated using the “reasonable person” or “reasonable officer” standard in which said person in the same circumstances could reasonably believe a person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity.

  • Reality

    Inside job.

  • Jeffrey P. Rush

    The primary pirpose of tsa is to stop terrorists and terrorism. G7ns and knives, etc. aint that. Its mission and government creep.

    The FBI has been and continues to be the primary fed agency for terrorism. Thetefore what does DHS do?

  • “Additionally when you saw unprecedented coordination going on between federal, state, local, and private sector emergency managers working with federal, state, and local law enforcement to safeguard the community while hunting for the Boston bombing perpetrators , who do you think paid for and helped coordinate some of those meritorious functions?”

    Oh, you mean the heavily militarized police, looking like an army of occupation, going door to door in Boston pointing guns at people, screaming at them to come out with their hands over their heads, and going in and searching their houses without a warrant? Is that one of those “meritorious functions”?

    As for the TSA, it would be hilarious, if it weren’t so pathetic, that you actually trot out their list of Big Scary Terroristy Items that are confiscated every week. Hate to break it to you, but guns, knives, etc. — ya know, metal items — are caught by, duh, metal detectors. Just as they have been for decades. They’re not detected by strip-search scanning and groping.

    But why let pesky facts get in the way of good old-fashioned fear mongering? After all, the former are so boring, while the latter keep the sheeple in line.

  • Chris F

    It is my recommendation that the charter of DHS remains as it is, though not without some revision and reduction in scope.

    It is the TSA is the specific target of my ire and represents an organization of generally unqualified individuals performing in an ever expanding security role. They often appear to act in a near law enforcement role but without similar qualifications and training of local or state law enforcment. I would expect a higher standard for individual TSA staff both in terms of background, qualification and professionalism.

    My recommendation is that TSA (Transportation Security Authority) is replaced by ASA, the Airport Security Authority. This limits of the mandate of those individuals to be airport specific and would also cut down on the size of the TSA, which in my opinion, has ballooned without any real justification. Keep our planes safe and let other organizations handle the rest.

    I would also suggest that leadership from TSA/ASA regularly review all serious complaints, at least the more egregious complaints, and that these complaints be addressed in a very public way in an effort to avoid these events from reoccurring. This would likely be done in front of a civilian oversight committee that has the power to influence congressional law making that would help curb these problems, with severe recourse for ongoing abuses by TSA staff.

    And while I do appreciate the firearms, explosives, etc. being caught by TSA, wasn’t this same thing happening before? I recall seeing the same sort of items being confiscated before 9/11, though perhaps in a less structured fashion than the TSA performs this activity today.

    And do we really think that someone we would consider a terrorist is going to try to take over a plane with brass knuckles, small firecrackers, or similar? I would assert that while a box cutter was used to cause some of the outcome from 9/11, I seriously doubt that people traveling today would allow the threat of being cut by such an implement to stop them from taking down an assailant now that we all know what can happen if no action is taken. I, for one, would be willing to sacrafice a few cuts and would leverage whatever I had to (pen, pencil, rolled magazine, shoes) in order to stop such an oocurence, as I believe others would, especially knowing that they might trade some severe cuts for saving their own lives and the lives of others on the plane.

    To summarize my 2 cents on this matter:
    – Should we keep DHS? Yes
    – Should we change DHS scope and responsibilities? Yes
    – Should we keep TSA? Yes, but only with the caveats below
    – Should we change TSA mandate to airports only? Yes
    – Should we require smaller staffing count, higher quality staff and greater professionalism from TSA staff? Yes
    – Do we need better oversight and transparency, with potential for real change, for TSA/ASA complaints and abuses? YES