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Should the NSA be reformed? Fierce debate rages

Ellen Messmer | Nov. 14, 2013
Edward Snowden leaks have fueled calls for change by lawmakers, industry, U.S. allies.

Many people see government cyber-spying by any government as a human rights violation.

The NSA targets and monitors "foreigners," as Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at Finland-based F-Secure noted in his recent keynote about "the surveillance state" at the TED Conference in Brussels.

"I'm a foreigner, you're a foreigner," said Hypponen. "It's wholesale blanket surveillance." No one wants to think everything they do online is being monitoring by a foreign government, he said. The balance isn't close, with the world using much American-made services but Americans by and large not using non-American services.

"It's about doing surveillance on people they know are innocent," said Hypponen. U.S. intelligence agencies are "running Loose" and "they're completely out of control." There are terrorists that need to be discovered and monitored via the Internet, he noted, but they aren't likely to be found spying on members of parliament. But if there's excess in NSA practices, it's worth remembering that "the U.S. intelligence agencies are doing their jobs, this is what they've been told to do," he adds. "Are the Americans ready to throw away the Constitution?" and human rights and privacy, he passionately said.

This goes directly to the question of possible NSA reform. What does America want the NSA to be and do?Gen. Alexander actually holds two posts: head of the signals intelligence operation conducting cyber-espionage and secondly, the head of Cyber Command, the unit set up in 2010 as the military's cyberspace strike force. Here too, discussion has begun in Washington's government circles about whether to separate the signals intelligence and Cyber Command functions, or choose a civilian rather than a military leader to head NSA.

One Washington insider says Admiral Mike Rogers would be the top candidate for the NSA  "under the usual process." But for the NSA, nothing is as usual these days, with the world stunned by what the media, particularly the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian, tell the world on almost a daily basis now about NSA surveillance and data collection practices. The NSA and the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, have done little to refute these media stories, and sometimes even appeared to confirm them. With that as a backdrop, the question is how and should the NSA be reformed in organization and practice?

Does the NSA serve any useful purpose?

It would be hard to meet two individuals with more opposite views on that than James Bamford and Stewart Johnson, who each have formidable knowledge about the NSA and long careers that have focused on the secretive NSA's operations.

Bamford is a  former naval intelligence officer, a lawyer by training and college professor who has written three best-selling books about the NSA, "The Puzzle Palace," "Body of Secrets," and "The Shadow Factory." Stewart Baker is a tech-savvy lawyer who is partner at Washington, D.C.-based law firm, Steptoe & Johnson, and whose long career includes stints as the first assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security and general counsel at the NSA.

 

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