The NSA Controversy: David Sanger Speaks to the Balance Between Security and Privacy

June 26, 2013
By Jenny Li Fowler, HKS Communications

The U.S. government has now chased after Edward Snowden – the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents about American surveillance programs – through several countries, the latest producing a seeming impasse between the U.S. and Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Snowden has not committed a crime on Russian soil, and The U.S. and Russia currently does not have an international agreement on extradition.

We asked David Sanger, adjunct lecturer in public policy and chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times, for his perspective on what Snowden revealed about the NSA, leading to the manhunt.

Q: The President is defending the NSA program as a necessary trade off for security. How has his argument been articulated?

Sanger: The President faces a dilemma when justifying these programs because the details are so classified, he can’t discuss them in detail – even when many of the details have been leaked, thanks to the documents from Edward Snowden which have been published in recent weeks. So at the end of the day, the President’s argument comes down to some version of, “Trust us.’’ But he acknowledges that many Americans have doubts. Here’s what he said on the subject in early June:

“We’re going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place, that they have enough information about how we operate; that they know that their phone calls aren’t being listened into, they’re text messages aren’t being monitored, their emails are not being read by some big brother somewhere. They’ve got to feel that confidence and that it is not potentially subject to abuse because there are sufficient checks and balances on it, while still preserving our capacity to act against folks who are trying to do us harm.’’

I don’t doubt the President’s sincerity on that point.

The administration keeps running into the same problem time and again. Because it has decided to classify so many aspects of the surveillance program, it finds itself playing catch-up – and on the defensive – when the details come out. A good example is the program under which the government is collecting, and holding for five years, the “metadata’’ from all phone calls made inside the country, or between the U.S. and other nations. Metadata only tells you the kind of information that would be on your phone bill, the number where the call is originated, the number being called and the duration. The government insists that it does not touch that data except when there is a clear, articulable reason to search it, and then only with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

But until the recent disclosures, it never acknowledged collecting all that information in a government database. In fact, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told Congress in March that the NSA does not collect data on millions of Americans. When confronted with the recent evidence, he began to backtrack on that testimony.

Q: Civil libertarians have filed suit against the program, claiming that it violates Americans’ right to privacy. Is their argument being heard and supported by citizens?

Sanger:
It’s all a question of when you ask Americans about this, and how you pose the question. If you ask some version of, “Do you believe the government should take and hold the phone numbers you call each day – even if that gives it evidence about your business deals, your personal life, and your movements around the country," the answers are overwhelmingly negative. If you ask the question the government would like to frame, “Are you willing to let the government see the telephone numbers everyone dials if it helps prevent the next Boston Marathon bombing?’’ the answers are quite different. So read the polls carefully.

Q: Is there a chance that the NSA could change course and alter or cease the program altogether?

Sanger: I doubt it. There are several programs under discussion now. One is the telephone number collection program – there’s little question that it is legal under the revised Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but the politics of the situation may require the government to move to a different system in which the telephone companies, not the government itself, holds the data. (The government is resisting that change, saying it would slow the search for potential terror suspects.)Then there are programs to filter internet traffic – we know less about them, though I suspect that the recent disclosures will force more of those details into the public sphere.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California democrat who runs the Senate Intelligence Committee, says there will be legislation to limit the amount of access contractors have to classified information. That is a response to the Snowden affair. But it is easier said than done. Nearly a third of all top secret clearances in the country are held by contractors.

Q: Does the NSA now have a significant image problem? If so, what can be done to rectify it?

Sanger: The NSA does have a significant image problem and there’s only one solution I know of – far more transparency. It’s always been the most secretive of the major intelligence agencies. That goes back to the days when it was cracking codes, and any disclosure of those programs would alert the enemy. But those codes were held by foreign governments, and raised no privacy or domestic-policy concerns. We’re in a different age now, where the challenge facing the NSA is one of dealing with an interconnected, digital world where there are no meaningful national boundaries for information. Its collection of data will now regularly come into collision with privacy rights, and it will be the subject of constant press scrutiny and leaks. That’s just a fact of modern life – and the institution, I suspect, will have to adjust to the new era.

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David Sanger, adjunct lecturer in public policy and chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times

David Sanger, adjunct lecturer in public policy and chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times

Its collection of data will now regularly come into collision with privacy rights, and it will be the subject of constant press scrutiny and leaks. That’s just a fact of modern life...," said Sanger.