NSA Scutinized, Not FBI? | Charles Duelfer

NSA Scutinized, Not FBI?

There has been much discussion about NSA and whether it is collecting too much data (especially on American citizens) and whether the procedures and authorizations by which it operates should be revised. This debate will not be resolved anytime soon for at least two reasons.

One is that we don’t know how big the threat is to the livelihood of the United States. When the Soviet Union was the primal threat, we could come up with analytic models to estimate of the size of the threat. Not so with terrorism. And frankly, how much money and privacy are we willing to give up to protect against attacks that may be horrible, but not really a threat to our national security? The Boston bombing was tragic, but how many more billions should we spend on intelligence and law enforcement as a result? Osama bin Laden bragged that he caused the United States to divert hundreds of billions of dollars as a result of his attack which cost less (much) than a million.

The second aspect of this debate is that while the focus has been on NSA, it is really the FBI that is the consumer and guide of domestic data. Their objectives and bureaucratic incentives have not been carefully reviewed, at least not publicly. People get put on no-fly lists and some are subject to other consequences. There is little or no review and no mechanism for an appeal. (I wonder if eventually we will all be on the no-fly list.)

No one in the system ever wants to make a decision to do less. Yet, at some point the cost in dollars and individual freedom must be taken into account.

Underlying all this is a suspicion that the government, even with good intentions, is prone to misusing any powers it has.

Maybe Vladimir Putin will bring back the old Russian threat which is easier to calculate and design defenses against.

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