Halloween is upon us and soon we’ll hear the knock on our door signalling–we hope–the arrival of children dressed in all sort of seasonal costumes begging “Trick or Treat!”
A more frightening prospect is the apparition of two persons dressed in black, wearing sunglasses, and flashing NSA badges. “We’d like to ask some questions about your telephone and Internet communications,” they suggest and the October cool evening fails to stanch the flow of perspiration that covers your forehead and begins to roll down your back.
It’s a fairy tale, of course. It won’t happen. But the paranoid purveyors of Federal Government conspiracy fears would have us believe that Big Brother is eavesdropping on every one of our phone calls and spying on every moment of our Internet activity. Motion picture and television dramas show menacing U.S. spies wearing earphones peering at computer screens and taking rapid, copious notes in some colorless, hidden structure.
This is reminiscent of the Orson Wells “War of The Worlds” radio drama the evening of October 30, 1938 that reportedly panicked parts of the nation with its realistic portrayal of an invasion from Mars. It was fiction then, and the NSA scare is fiction today.
The furor among American citizens and politicians erupted following revelation of NSA electronic surveillance by British journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian who received secret files from former NSA computer analyst Edward Snowden. Recent stories by other news media have focused on NSA spying on French, Spanish, German and Brazilian politicians and citizens.
Not surprisingly, the uproar includes demands from some on Capitol Hill for an NSA explanation. Other members of Congress are proposing new legislation to curb the scope of government surveillance that the Obama administration defends under terms of the USA Patriot Act.
Civil rights activists accuse the government of trampling Americans’ protections by ignoring the U.S. Privacy Act.
As always, the specter of Uncle Sam watching our every move is overblown. And this emotional outburst serves only to obfuscate the truth and cloud our judgment. Let’s step back and set the record straight.
SCOPE OF NSA SURVEILLANCE: Yes, it’s extensive but not intrusive. A Wall Street Journal investigation reports that NSA can collect nearly three-quarters of all U.S. Internet and email traffic. That means the agency has access to 184-million American Internet users, 110-million telephone lines, and 225-million cell phone calls. That is hardly universal surveillance.
HOW MANY SPIES: Take the numbers above and add the collection of 60-million alleged telephone calls monitored in Spain and 70-million wiretapped calls in France, and you have an unmanageable quantity data. How many earphone-wearing, computer-peering employees does NSA have to note every single second of every single phone call? Every one of the 313-million men, women and children in the United States would have to be on the NSA payroll.
WHAT ABOUT OUR FRIENDS: Has America spied on our allies as foreign leaders recently have complained? Of course. Critics would have us believe this is relatively knew. Some blame President George W. Bush, others argue it’s the legacy of World War II. The truth is that we’ve been spying on our friends since the first days of our republic. George Washington didn’t have today’s electronic tools, but our young nation had note takers doubling as ambassadors mingling with the leaders of Britain, France and other European nations.
IF YOU’RE SO GOOD: Where was NSA surveillance before Aaron Alexis entered the U.S. Navy Yard on September 16 and gunned down 12 persons?
Who was monitoring Adam Lanza in the weeks before he massacred 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December?
Why didn’t our spies catch James Holmes before he murdered a dozen moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado in July 2012.
An Army psychiatrist killed 13 persons at Fort Hood, Texas four years ago. His internet presence revealed he was a troubled soul but NSA didn’t stop him.
NSA didn’t prevent the deaths of 33 when Seung-Hui Cho stormed into classrooms in April 2007 at Virginia Tech University. Was anyone listening?
The conclusion is obvious. America has been spying at home and abroad for centuries. Our intelligence-gathering agencies have sophisticated surveillance equipment capable of collecting millions of data on Americans, our international allies and enemies. But government monitors are not so extensive and intrusive or effective as to worry us. And this latest Halloween scare is excessive and unwarranted.
I’ll be handing out candy to the neighborhood children tonight. There won’t be any government spooks at my house. And you won’t hear them knocking at your door either.