Sure, the National Security Agency has been getting some bad press lately. Sure, an internal audit by the NSA found that the agency broke privacy rules thousands of times a year, as The Post reported Thursday. But, hey, they’re only human.
Among the violations?
A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a “large number” of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt, according to a “quality assurance” review that was not distributed to the NSA’s oversight staff.
Cited in 21 violations in the first quarter of 2012 alone was “typographical errors or overly broad search terms.” Cited in 60 was “operator error.”
We all know operator error. This is why somehow the NSA wound up with every e-mail sent to or from the state of Georgia, after that same programming error mistook it for the former Soviet republic. The same programming error that swapped 20 and 202 also picked up every e-mail sent to or from President Obama, after mistaking him for Osama bin Laden in what the NSA probably described as a “really, really embarrassing mix-up after which the programming error had to undergo intense sensitivity training.” The NSA also picked up, in a combination of operator error and typographical error, every e-mail from Cincinnati after someone mistyped “al-Qaeda” as “Cincinnati,” all communications relating to NSA employee Dave Mittne’s ex-wife after someone mistyped “Yemeni al-Qaeda leader Saeed al-Shihri” as “Kim Mittne,” every e-mail from Kim Mittne’s new husband after an even more confusing typographical error, and all of George Lucas’s private communications, because someone described him as “destroying the integrity of Star Wars,” and the NSA thought that maybe it was aimed at Reagan’s missile defense program. Also every e-mail from Ke$ha “because that is clearly a made-up name.”
See, there’s a simple explanation for all this excessive data collection. Basically, somewhere, someone in the NSA meant to type ‘All Terrorist E-mails’ but he accidentally didn’t type the word “terrorist.”
A senior NSA official told The Post, as an excuse, that “we’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” which is a) exactly what a malevolent, self-aware, data-hungry computer posing as a senior NSA official would say and b) the worst excuse I have ever heard for anything. “We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment” describes literally every agency ever, including ones that do not routinely violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “If they would just let Skynet take over running this agency as it should have years ago,” the agent complained, unzipping his skin suit, “things would be SO MUCH SIMPLER FOR ALL YOU PITIFUL MEATSACKS.”
The agent went on to note that “You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day,” he said. “You look at a number in absolute terms that looks big, and when you look at it in relative terms, it looks a little different.” I am not making this up. I am making up the follow-up statement in which he observed, “You know what’s kind of uncool? Thousands of violations. You know what would be really uncool? A billion violations!” or tried to add into the record the statement: “For instance, the earth has been around for millions of years, yet we only have been indiscriminately and problematically gathering data from the miniscule fraction of human history in which people have been sending e-mails.”
But remember, we should not be concerned. After all, the NSA means well, and we have congressional oversight, which means a few security-cleared members are allowed to read notices of the violations (which otherwise just appear as big pages of redactions under the heading “Statistical Data Relating to Compliance Incidents”) in a “special secure room,” but they are not allowed to take notes. This is really helpful! (If they want to take notes out, the members must first be initiated into the Top-Secret Data-Eaters society, and the few members who did venture this far complained that it was difficult to focus on the data over all the chanting, that the dripping skull of goat blood kept ruining the pages and that after taking the Dark Mark they found it physically painful to share their findings.)
In other words: Don’t worry. The NSA has things in hand. If they could just fix this pesky “human beings who make mistakes run the program” problem, we could be both safe and secure in the knowledge that our privacy was not being violated. And I’m sure that will happen any day.