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Opinion: Columnists

A deceptive letter to the NSA's spy family

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Congress,Gene Healy,Columnists,CIA,NSA,Surveillance,Analysis,Spying

“Dear NSA/CSS family,” begins a Sept. 13, 2013, letter to employees and “extended family” of the nation’s largest spy agency from NSA director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the boss of the family (CSS stands for Central Security Service, an NSA subagency).

In the missive, published Thursday by Kevin Gosztola of Firedoglake.com, Alexander and his lieutenant, John C. Inglis, fret that: “Our agency has frequently been portrayed in the news as more of a rogue element than a national treasure.”

If each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, the source of domestic strife for the “NSA family” is particularly unusual. Rollicked by former family member Edward Snowden's exposure of secret domestic surveillance programs, NSA is suffering Watergate-era “flashbacks,” and morale “has plummeted,” the LA Times reports.

But these troubles are self-inflicted — and a letter packed with distortions isn’t likely to help.

The “Dear Family” letter repeats what the agency told Congress this summer that NSA has kept “the nation and its allies safe from 54 different terrorist plots ... just part of the great work that your family members are doing every day.”

But as Gosztola points out, pressed on that claim by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., back in August, Inglis retreated, conceding that the secret programs were instrumental in only one case, a 2009 New York subway bombing plot.

Even there, the program in question (PRISM, an email and web-traffic monitoring tool) was unnecessary, since the FBI already had ample justification for a warrant.

When it comes to the call-records dragnet, the Washington Post reports, “The case that the NSA points to as its primary example of the program's usefulness” wasn't an interdicted terror plot -- it involved a Somalia-born San Diego cabbie who sent $8,500 to a terrorist group in his home country. The NSA hoovered up every American's calling records and all we got was one lousy cabdriver.

“We self-report [our] mistakes,” the letter boasts. But as Marcy Wheeler notes, “the most shocking disclosure from” an internal NSA audit leaked by Snowden, “that an analyst tried to pull up Egypt’s calls but got D.C.’s instead—had never been disclosed” to the FISA court.

Gen. Alexander may think it’s media bias that’s made Americans fear an NSA gone “rogue.” But Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admits “our history is regretfully replete with abuse.”

Clapper said, “There is some substantial basis for people to be suspicious,” in an interview for Mark Ambinder’s 2013 book Deep State—the “record of the community isn’t all that good.” Not long after that, Clapper illustrated his own point by lying to Congress about whether NSA collects data on millions of Americans.

As the Senate’s “Church Committee” hearings revealed in the 1970s, among other abuses, the CIA and the National Security Agency illegally instituted programs for the interception of international communications to and from American citizens, primarily first class mail and cable traffic.

In the surveillance state’s Cold War-era infancy, federal spies had to gather data the old-fashioned way: via physical informants, hidden microphones, black-bag burglaries, and steaming open envelopes.

With modern processing power, now it can be done from a desktop — or, perhaps, from the “captain’s chair” in the facility Gen. Alexander built, with the help of “a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise.”

“Over the coming weeks and months, more stories will appear,” the letter warns. What we're learning about the “family business” isn't comforting -- and there's more yet to come.

GENE HEALY, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president at the Cato Institute and author of "The Cult of the Presidency."
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