Is the NSA subject to enough oversight? It’s supporters would continue to have you believe that to be the case, including President Obama.
In a recent interview with CNN, the president addresses the recent declassified court order that said the NSA collected thousands of “wholly domestic” emails in 2011. He said that this particular case is proof that the safeguards put into place work:
“This latest revelation that was made, what was learned was that NSA had inadvertently, accidentally pulled the emails of some Americans in violation of their own rules because of technical problems that they didn’t realize. They presented those problems to the court. The court said, ‘This isn’t going to cut it. You’re going to have to improve the safeguards, given these technical problems.’ That’s exactly what happened. So the point is, is that all these safeguards, checks, audits, oversight worked.”
Of course, the president neglects to mention the two other very important aspects pertaining to this particular court order. The first is that the NSA had been collecting these “wholly domestic” emails for a few months before they brought it to the attention of the FISA court. He can talk all he wants about congressional and judicial oversight, but the NSA is still its own master at the end of the day. Even the FISA court said that it “does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance.”
The second is that the court order in which Obama alludes to includes a footnote where the judge says that the agency’s violation in 2011 “mark[s] the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program.” In other words, the judge says that the NSA has lied to the court three times in the past regarding its collection programs. That’s not oversight – that’s an agency getting to choose when it tells the court it violated the law.
Even with all the bad, some good came out of the interview with CNN. The President said that the NSA could do better and that he hopes future technology allows the agency to better filter out Americans’ communications. On the flip side, this new technology could make it easier for the NSA and other intelligence agencies around the world to spy on their citizens. We can only hope that the former is the case.