Is the NSA Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ watching us or our big brother looking out for us?

May 6, 2014

By Aaron Lee
NNAF News Fellow

There is irrefutable evidence U.S. citizens are being watched, thousands, perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, daily. The only questions remaining unclear are: Who is doing the watching? And are the rights of everyday, law-abiding Americans being violated?

To date, the National Security Agency has identified itself as one of the government’s watchers—electronically monitoring everything from cell phones to social media and more. And it contends it is doing so with good reason.

“It’s the NSA’s job to give our elected leaders, our military folks, our partners, the intelligence community, the Defense Department—the information advantage, and that is to know what those bad guys are doing ahead of time,” said Bill Combs, technical director of public affairs office at the NSA.

It seems clear, based on statements from Combs during interviews, the NSA is doing everything in its ability to protect its own secrets. But what about the secrets and, moreover, the privacy of U.S. citizens?

The NSA was unclear as to what exactly qualifies someone as a potential “bad guy.” One would believe that domestic acts of terrorism such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2012 were committed by “bad guys.”

In both cases, those responsible for inflicting these tragedies were American. And both went undetected by surveillance operations.

Combs was quick to dismiss the notion of Americans being tracked or unfairly deemed as the “bad guy,” explaining NSA tracks foreign terrorists.

So, if “foreign terrorists” are the target, who let the Boston Marathon bombers slip through the cracks? Who is making the judgment calls?

Not everyone agrees with NSA practices. Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said the NSA has the ability to track Americans through what is known as the metadata program—a program that can reveal the logistics of our phone calls, but not the actual messages from those calls.

“It says it has all our phone calls for what, the last five years. To, from, date, time—duration,” Blanton said.


Snowden—Hero or villain?

“Edward Snowden broke his own oath. He broke his security clearances,” Blanton said. “He broke every vow and promise he made. He broke his word to his fellow colleagues whose passwords he basically stole under false pretenses. We know that.

“But he’s also a hero … because his revelations come after the government directly lied,” Blanton said. “When the government lies, as citizens we have a duty” to point that out.

U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-IL 7, agreed with Blanton regarding the duty of citizens amid government wrongdoing or abuses. Davis recalled a time in his early years as a politician when he was the subject of government surveillance. Davis said he made that discovery after requesting his Red Squad file. Red Squads were law enforcement units during the 20th century that gathered information and counter intelligence on political and social groups.

Although Davis said the money the government has spent to track him was essentially a waste, he does believe there is a need, within reason, to gather information for national safety.

“I think there is a need for information gathering. I think there is a need to try and keep our country as safe and as secured as we can possibly be,” Davis said. “But I’m not sure we have to violate the individual rights of the citizens.”

But it remained unclear if the U.S. could achieve a nationally acceptable balance between safety and the preservation of privacy.