Let's be clear, as I wrote last week, no one who has paid even the slightest attention to political and technology news over the last few years could be surprised at the revelations of the NSA's secret surveillance programs. The NSA's history of intelligence activities goes back to 1952 and we know that over that period the agency didn't sit around twiddling its thumbs.
Over the course of the agency's history the biggest impact on their activities has been technological, starting with the global spread of the telephone system, the incredible evolution and expansion of computer technology, the rise of the Internet and, critically, Sept. 11, 2001.
As a result of 9/11 the NSA's authority and budget expanded incredibly and the agency was central in a large number of warrantless surveillance programs, including the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the President's Surveillance Program, the Trailblazer Project, the Turbulence project, and Stellar Wind, most of which were revealed by leaks in 2005.
Apparently, these only impinged on Joe Sixpack's consciousness in the most fleeting way, and the recent revelations and the hyping by the mainstream news of the NSA surveillance programs have sent the horror and outrage level of the average American citizen to stratospheric levels.
The agency's deviousness was underlined when we discovered that the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had delivered a bare-faced lie to an open congressional hearing back in March. At the hearing Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), in what we can now see was devious political maneuvering (as a member of the Senate Intelligence committee Wyden already knew the answer), asked, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"
Clapper had three choices: Tell the truth and reveal a national secret, refuse to answer which would have amounted to the same thing, or lie. Clapper opened door number three and responded, "No sir ... not wittingly."
Despite various members of congress and the administration now claiming that they want transparency in what the NSA and other agencies do in intelligence gathering, it's more or less certain that we will never have a picture of the full extent of what the NSA — let alone the the CIA, the FBI, and all the other Three Letter Acronym agencies — are up to. That's just not how the U.S. government operates and anyone who thinks that could change in our lifetimes or even our children's lifetimes would have to be monumentally ignorant and biblically optimistic.
On the other hand, if, as Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, asserted in his first congressional testimony on June 12, that "dozens" of attacks had been foiled by the agency's large scale intelligence gathering, then perhaps there is a payoff. Unfortunately not everyone believes Gen. Alexander. For example, Sen. Wyden is one of those who argues that any attacks foiled by the NSA were achieved by conventional intelligence operations and not by the large scale surveillance programs.
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