Bart Gelllman confirms the value of NSA intercepts

Bart Gellman and his colleagues at the Washington Post’s shadow NSA have produced another breathless article purporting to show the threat to civil liberties posed by the NSA’s interception of private internet communications. Ultimately, though, the article succeeds only in confirming the value of the NSA’s practice in combating the threat to our safety posed by terrorists.

Leftists like Glenn Greenwald have persistently maintained that NSA’s electronic spying is basically worthless in countering terrorism. This claim was always absurd on its face, and the Post’s story debunks it:

Months of tracking communications across more than 50 alias accounts, the files show, led directly to the 2011 capture in Abbottabad of Muhammad Tahir Shahzad, a Pakistan-based bomb builder, and Umar Patek, a suspect in a 2002 terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali. At the request of CIA officials, The Post is withholding other examples that officials said would compromise ongoing operations.

In addition the intercepted communications contained “fresh revelations about a secret overseas nuclear project, double-dealing by an ostensible ally, a military calamity that befell an unfriendly power, and the identities of aggressive intruders into U.S. computer networks.”

What’s on the other side of the ledger? Gellman’s lead complaint is that 9 out of 10 of the email accounts in the cache of communications supplied by Snowden to the Post belonged to individuals not targeted by the NSA, but rather “caught up in the net the NSA cast” for various targets.

It’s unavoidable, rather than surprising, that tapping into a target’s emails has such an effect. Whether the ratio actually is 9 to 1 depends, however, on whether the communications provided by Snowden are representative. Snowden has an obvious interest in making NSA seem overreaching.

But regardless of the ratio, what harm arises from the NSA obtaining communications from non-targets that is serious enough to cause a rational government to consider curtailing the program?

A pattern of misuse of the information obtained to the detriment of individuals not involved in terrorism might well suffice. But Gellman is unable to point to any such pattern; indeed, he fails to identify a single instance of such abuse.

Instead, Gellman informs us:

Scores of pictures show infants and toddlers in bathtubs, on swings, sprawled on their backs and kissed by their mothers. In some photos, men show off their physiques. In others, women model lingerie, leaning suggestively into a webcam or striking risque poses in shorts and bikini tops.

So what? Are we supposed to worry that the government might blackmail Americans with pictures of them in shorts and bikini tops? Is there evidence that the government has tried to use information of any sort against those “caught in the net” cast by the NSA for terrorists? I think not. If there were, Gellman would be writing about it.

Gellman goes on for paragraphs about a woman who had an affair with a man who went to Afghanistan looking to join the Taliban. The NSA intercepted hundreds of pages of emails between the two. Collectively, they present a sad picture of a failed relationship.

But the NSA should be tracking the communications of those who are seeking to join the Taliban. Even the woman whose intimate private messages were intercepted understands this. Although she says (understandably) that she feels “violated,” she told the post she is “not against the fact that my privacy was violated in this instance.”

Given the benefits of the NSA’s program, we shouldn’t be troubled by it either.

I’m a bit troubled, however, that Bart Gellman and company read the private communications of this women. What benefit accrues from this intrusion into the woman’s privacy or the privacy of the bikini-top wearers?

The NSA’s intercept program is enabling us to capture deadly terrorists, learn of secret nuclear weapons projects and aggressive computer hackers, and discover the double-dealing of purported allies. It should not be shut down. Instead, Bart Gellman should shut down his shadow spying program, which produces no such benefits.

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