This past weekend, a new set of Snowden documents hit the wires which report that of the 160,000 messages intercepted by the NSA between 2009 and 2012, a mere 10 percent were actually valuable to the agency and the investigations they were involved in at the time.
This proves several suspicions the general public have had about Snowden’s level of access since he made off with the documents that would eventually be the NSA’s undoing, including the fact that he was able to read the content of actual intercepted communications, rather than just documents which describe internal operations of the NSA and little more.
It seems the government is playing their own game of “Six Degrees of Separation” here, using the relation of a relation to finger culprits who might be guilty of either planning an attack or even participating in a terrorist cell by association alone. The problem of course is much the same one you would see in any other investigation: just because your cousin deals drugs, doesn’t mean you’re the one planning drops for him down at the docks.
Granted, it seems from what the Post could gather (but not elaborate on any further beyond a rough summary), there were significant pieces of information that could justify surveillance of an individual or a particular nation state, including nuclear threats from previously unknown parties, as well as double-dealings from supposedly close allies which would put the safety of millions at risk had the communications in question been hoovered up by programs like MUSCULAR or the highly-controversial XKeyscore.
“[F]resh 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 US computer networks.”
Snowden pulled no punches when asked how he felt about the way the NSA was gathering this sort of data though, telling Brian Williams for NBC News that he felt a civic duty to release this information to the public, regardless of his personal politics on the matter overall.
“While people may disagree about where to draw the line on publication, I know that you and The Post have enough sense of civic duty to consult with the government to ensure that the reporting on and handling of this material causes no harm,” he said.
In Snowden’s view, the PRISM and Upstream programs have “crossed the line of proportionality.”
“Even if one could conceivably justify the initial, inadvertent interception of baby pictures and love letters of innocent bystanders,” he added, “their continued storage in government databases is both troubling and dangerous. Who knows how that information will be used in the future?”
Legal and ethical grey-areas aside, the United States has no problem utilizing these tactics against those they deem “potential enemy combatants”, which showcases just how rough, imprecise, and brazen a majority of their surveillance operations have become under the wide-cast net that the NSA has thrown out for them to use to fish for leads.
If we’re to envision a world where these types of programs are no longer necessary, the NSA and its goons would be a great place to start trimming away the fat, granted our Congress actually has the gumption to do something about it at some point before the end of the next century.