The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NSA scandal or near-perfection?

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On Friday I questioned how large the National Security Agency error problem really was.

The New York Times reports that it is actually tiny:

The top National Security Agency official charged with making sure analysts comply with rules protecting the privacy of Americans pushed back on Friday against reports that the N.S.A. had frequently violated privacy rules, after the publication of a leaked internal audit showing that there had been 2,776 such “incidents” in a one-year period.
The official, John DeLong, the N.S.A. director of compliance, said that the number of mistakes by the agency was extremely low compared with its overall activities. The report showed about 100 errors by analysts in making queries of databases of already-collected communications data; by comparison, he said, the agency performs about 20 million such queries each month.

This is extraordinary. If there are 20 million inquiries each month over a year span that works out to 240,000,000. That equates to an error rate of .00001156666. If the NSA figures are accurate this is the most airtight surveillance program in history. The error rate isn’t simply “extremely low”; it is virtually nonexistent.

The NSA also gives us some more information as to what sorts of errors occurred:

Mr. DeLong emphasized that the majority of the 2,776 incidents — 1,904 of them, according to the audit — were in a category that did not involve Americans, but rather foreigners abroad whose cellphones were being wiretapped. When they traveled to the United States, where individual warrants are required, the system did not immediately stop recording the calls.
With such “roamers,” he said, the agency would try to detect the change “as soon as we can,” and then stop recording the calls and remove the information from its databases, “such that analysts may never see information collected while that person was in the United States.”

So about 800 Americans were the subject of some sort of error. Over a full year. Involving 240,000,000 inquiries.

I am having trouble mounting outrage over this. Moreover, it is not clear what an error really involved. The NSA hasn’t been forthcoming as to whether, for example, 800 Americans  had an e-mail read or if, for example, only an individual’s identity for an e-mail was obtained. We still don’t know if the information derived from the errors was isolated and purged from the system.

As for congressional oversight, although this specific NSA report wasn’t sent to Congress, the NSA says it was “used to generate other reports for outside overseers that contained much of the same data.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee makes an remarkable claim: Her committee “has never identified an instance in which the N.S.A. has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes.”

If the NSA wasn’t hiding the ball and there were no instances of intentional misconduct in 240,000,000 inquiries then NSA should be given a gold star. Perhaps the NSA report isn’t accurate or we don’t have a complete picture, but right now it seems that the reaction to the report is hugely disproportionate to the problem.

That this has become an hysterical  “scandal” about the NSA spying on Americans suggests, however, the NSA deserves an F in communications. As for the media and lawmakers, they owe Americans some perspective.