The Curious Case at NSA

October 20, 2014 • Columnists, Tateishi

By John Tateishi,

‘Curiouser and curiouser,” says Alice as things become topsy-turvy in Wonderland.

And that pretty much sums up the case of Edward Snowden and the NSA.

At first, I wondered why Snowden was placed on America’s Most Wanted list (and at No. 1, no less) when it was the NSA, in my view, that had committed the greater transgression by its secret program of collecting phone and email/Internet records of American citizens, USA Patriot Act or no.

Shouldn’t it have been the NSA that was on the carpet for violating the privacy rights of American citizens? We may have gotten used to having our civil liberties chipped away during the Bush-Chaney terror-chasing years, but really, this breach of our private lives is too much. It’s more than merely troubling.

Granted, the nation’s intelligence services need some latitude to sniff out potential terrorists, but there’s always a cautionary tale to the boogeyman-out-there-somewhere mentality that was so pervasive in the Bush Administration.

Maybe it was hoping for too much that President Obama would use his exceptional intelligence to see beyond the let’s-get-’em attitude that comes from dark corners in the minds of some in Washington and on the fringes as well.

But as we began to learn just how damaging some of the information released by Snowden was, I for one began to rethink the whole sorry mess. Some files, it turns out, have seriously compromised U.S. intelligence, we’re told, and irreparably damaged our relationships with some of our allies. This I believe.

So, maybe Snowden deserves — as the government wants — to be hunted down like an animal wherever he is (Russia for now).

Or maybe, just maybe, Snowden is nothing more than an honest whistle-blower who thought he was doing the right thing (as any good citizen would and should do) by reporting and exposing what most of us would see as governmental misdeeds.

After all, the snoops at the NSA were snooping on our private lives by collecting the metadata of millions of American citizens.

Honestly, the vast majority of us have nothing worth snooping into, I’m sure, so why bother? Isn’t this casting an awfully wide net just to include even the littlest of fish? On the other hand, maybe those who have lust in their hearts may get a little nervous knowing that someone or something out there somewhere has those nasty emails and photos of you stored in a safely kept cyber vault, hidden from peeping eyes. Safe, that is, until some clever hacker (probably a 12 year old) finds his or her way in and penetrates the invincible firewalls surrounding all that metadata. That would be a good time for you to begin to worry. On the other hand, that may be years from now, and who knows, you may even want those photos of a younger you back so you can admire who you used to be!

So, who’s to blame, and who’s in the right? Not to worry, says four-star Army Gen. Keith Alexander, who is in charge of the U.S. Cyber Command and responsible for the NSA program. In a “60 Minutes” interview on CBS, he assured the American public that this most secret of agencies does nothing more than collect the data and never actually listens to telephone conversations or reads emails. They look for patterns of phone numbers because they’ve figured out how terrorist cells work, explaining that call patterns are one of the best sources for detecting possible terrorist activities.

Really? Did he actually reveal how the NSA hunts for and finds terrorists, how it prevents (and has prevented) potential attacks? Any smart (or even dim-witted) terrorist learned from that interview to take certain measures to avoid detection. Hard to believe it’s that simple to find out how our most secret agency conducts business. Granted, Alexander may have been playing a game at it, which I’m inclined to think.

But the niggling fact remains that the NSA is allowed to probe secretly into our lives, whether by legal or judicial authority. Theoretically (because some things about government protections of our rights seem only theoretical nowadays), our rights to privacy are not(underline) being violated by this NSA program. Or so they(ITAL) tell us.

Assure me as they will, I’m uncomfortable with the thought that the government can carry out this metadata mining and get away with it with not so much as a whimper from the civil rights community. The ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the NSA program (and I hope we had the wherewithal to join that suit as an amicus(ITAL)), but otherwise there is a resounding silence from the civil rights community.

Frankly, in this regard, I don’t give a hoot what the other organizations have or haven’t done about the NSA revelations, but I’m curious to know where the JACL stands on this matter. Is this intrusion on our protected right to privacy as Americans not a compelling civil rights concern? Is this not even worth a debate?

Or is this for us just not the sort of issue we concern ourselves with anymore? We, a founding member of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and we who were once at the heart of the civil rights community?

“Curiouser and curiouser,” says Alice.

Originally published on February 21, 2014

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