The revelations to the Guardian of the NSA’s secret court orders to siphon metadata from the majority of Americans’ cell phone conversations launched wide-ranging concern over the program. That only increased with the disclosure of further programs from the agency — with codenames like PRISM and BLARNEY — that allow access to the content of information sent across some of the Internet’s most popular platforms. The response from privacy advocates across the political spectrum has been condemnation of the programs’ secrecy and overarching intrusiveness on the part of the federal government.
However, that focus on the potential violations of civil liberties is being undercut the more former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reveals. The shift began with the news that President Obama had signed off on a directive to begin planning for how the United States could bring to bear offensive capabilities in cyberspace and against whom. A summary of the directive had been made public months earlier, but the directive itself had remained classified and secret until it was first reported in the Guardian. While the previous leaks had been related to the public’s right to know about what actions the government was taking against U.S. citizens, the cyberwar document could not be considered the same.
Likewise, the next scoop featured what was touted as an all-seeing system through which the NSA could easily sort through where the communications data it collects came from — including the United States. Its existence has caused no small amount of trouble for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who had previously indicated to Congress that the NSA did not collect this type of information from Americans without a warrant. “Not wittingly, there are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly,” Clapper told Congress at the time. What the program — known as Boundless Informant — revealed, however, went beyond the information collected on U.S. citizens, instead also detailing the NSA’s collection work from networks in Iran, India, and Pakistan.
Since then, two more stories have brought to light how the U.S. government collects information on other countries, each revealed ahead of a major summit with said countries. Two weeks ago, Snowden — revealed as the leaker of the documents — told the South China Morning Press that the United States was most certainly spying on China, leaving Obama in the awkward position of decrying Chinese cyber-espionage during an informal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
On Sunday, the Guardian has brought to light cooperation between the NSA and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) — its British counterpart — to spy on its allies during summit meetings, intercepting large amounts of information from its allies in the Group of 20 meeting in 2009. The report also detailed how Dmitry Medvedev, then President and now Prime Minister of Russia, was targeted specifically during that meeting.
The problem with all of these revelations is not that they’re happening at all or that they’re being released at inopportune moments. Instead, the issue is that rather than exposing potential harm, they are now instead bringing to light clandestine activities the NSA is tasked under law to do. Spying on other countries may be morally questionable to some, including Snowden as he made clear in a question and answer session on Monday. But these actions are neither illegal nor counter to the Constitution. It’s entirely within the mission of the National Security Agency to do these things, and revealing them actually takes away from the focus on the agency’s more questionable practices.