David Simon, creator of The Wire, wrote a commentary on this topic that may help readers understand the purpose of the NSA database. I don’t know that Simon has any special knowledge – beyond his experience as a Baltimore police reporter. But I thought he did a good job explaining the basics of the why and the how. First David outlines the equivalent procedures used by the Baltimore police and drug enforcement apparatus. Then he draws the parallels with this excerpt:
(…snip…) The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. And it forever will, to a greater and greater extent. And therefore, the present-day question can’t seriously be this: Should law enforcement in the legitimate pursuit of criminal activity pretend that such data does not exist. The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised.
And to that, the Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection are noticeably silent. We don’t know of any actual abuse. No known illegal wiretaps, no indications of FISA-court approved intercepts of innocent Americans that occurred because weak probable cause was acceptable. Mark you, that stuff may be happening. As is the case with all law enforcement capability, it will certainly happen at some point, if it hasn’t already. Any data asset that can be properly and legally invoked, can also be misused — particularly without careful oversight. But that of course has always been the case with electronic surveillance of any kind.
Keep in mind that the FISA court was created as a means of having some definitive oversight into a world that previously had been entirely unregulated, and wiretapping abuses by the U.S. executive branch and by law enforcement agencies were in fact the raison d’etre for the creation of FISA and a federal panel of judges to review national security requests for electronic surveillance. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is it problematic that the court’s rulings are not public? Surely.
But the fact remains that for at least the last two presidential administrations, this kind of data collection has been a baseline logic of an American anti-terrorism effort that is effectively asked to find the needles before they are planted into haystacks, to prevent even such modest, grass-rooted conspiracies as the Boston Marathon Bombing before they occur.
So think for a minute about a scenario in which, say, a phone number is identified overseas as being linked to terror activity. It is so identified by, say, NSA overseas intercepts or through intelligence gathering by the CIA or the military. And say that there exists a database of billions and billions of telephonic contacts in the United States over a period of months or years. And say a computer could then run the suspect number through that data base and determine a pattern of communication between that overseas phone and several individuals in New York, or Boston, or Detroit. Would you want that connection to be made and made quickly? Or do you want to leave law enforcement to begin trying to acquire the call history on that initial phone from overseas carriers who may or may not maintain detailed retroactive call data or be unwilling to even provide that data fully to American law enforcement or do so while revealing the investigative effort to the targets themselves?
Keep in mind that law enforcement must still establish probable cause to then begin to actually monitor conversations on the domestic numbers, and that this request for electronic surveillance is then, of course, subject to judicial review by the FISA court.
Yes, I can hear the panicked libertarians and liberals and Obama-haters wailing in rare unison: But what about all the innocent Americans caught up in this voracious, overreaching dragnet? To which the answer is obvious if you think about the scale of this: What dragnet?
This is a longish essay – so you’ll profit from reading the whole thing. There are a few 4-letter words. If you are especially interested in this topic then you will probably find it very worthwhile to scan through the 430 comments to David’s essay. There you will find there is a good bit more nuance to his position than you might think.