American Elephants

Surveillance and Privacy: Questions and Answers. by The Elephant's Child


The New Yorker has published a long Q.& A. session with General Keith Alexander who retired in March after eight years as the director of the NSA. Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance have alarmed many Americans about potential intrusions into their private lives.

The intelligence community is unaccustomed to explaining itself in public. A voluminous body of popular thrillers in both books and movies is not an accurate or even reasonable approximation of what it is the intelligence community does, but it leaves indelible impressions, inaccurate as they may be. We don’t know how it really works, and that is a little scary.

The article consists of excerpts from the interview, and I would recommend reading the whole thing. General Alexander is attempting to illustrate for a general audience what the intelligence people are trying to do, and he does it well.

In January, President Obama claimed that the NSA bulk-metadata program has disrupted fifty-four terrorist plots. Senator Patrick Leahy said the real number is zero. There’s a big difference between fifty-four and zero.

In an era of increasing terrorism, everybody dealing with it wants more information. You have different agencies looking at different parts of different pictures, trying to solve a puzzle, but the CIA is looking at a different picture solving a different puzzle. There are thousands at any given time.

Metadata is the least intrusive, most efficient way to do it. You don’t want to translate millions and millions of calls; you want to get to the most efficient approach. Then, once you know that’s a terrorist, then you can go and get content. So how can you do that in the U.S.? The first thing that people will say is: if you take our data, you’re going to be looking at what we’re doing. You’ve entered into a huge debate—a constitutional debate. You’ve got the Fourth Amendment. So the Administration and Congress set up a program where all three branches of government agree to the approach, such that it comports with the Constitution. …

The number of terrorist attacks in 2012—do you know how many there were globally?

How many?

Six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one. Over ten thousand people killed. In 2013, it would grow to over ten thousand terrorist attacks and over twenty thousand people killed. Now, how did we do in the United States and Europe? How do you feel here? Safe, right? I feel pretty safe.

General Alexander does a fine job of explaining what they do, how tedious the work is and how difficult to dig out actionable intelligence, in a clear way that should allay the fears of anyone about their personal affairs. “This is the most overseen program,” he said,”I think, in our government.”

The article, however, prompted thoughts of just how much the Obama administration has damaged our trust in government. All presidents have issues that they feel should not be made public. All administrations do things  which we disagree. There are some real disagreements in the Democratic Party with actions that the president is taking, but they have learned to keep their disagreements out of the public eye. Obama’s attempts to please his audience with what he says — rather than be straightforward— have left many no longer believing what officials say.

Obama wants to put his actions in the best possible light, which is understandable, but when it is false, it destroys trust. When he exaggerates numbers to make them seem positive, and it is not true, it destroys our trust in government. Republicans don’t have a lot of faith in big government to begin with, whoever is promoting it. We expect accountability, and demand that agencies do their assigned jobs rather than play politics at the whim of the administration.

If Americans do not trust their government, Obama has only himself to blame. If the IRS cannot be trusted, Americans are more reluctant to be taxed. If the Veterans Administration cannot be trusted to care for the veterans who they serve; it points the way to what can be expected from ObamaCare, and that expectation is unavoidable. If the State Department cannot protect the men they selected to serve in difficult countries, we need a new State Department who will.


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