NSA isn't evil, says noted civil libertarian

Geoffrey Stone says the beleaguered agency has successfully thwarted multiple terrorist plots since 9/11

Civil liberties and privacy groups have long criticized the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), but those critics became louder last summer after details of the agency's data collection activities were disclosed in classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

Amid the criticism is a surprising take on the NSA by Geoffrey Stone, a civil libertarian and member of the National Advisory Council of the American Civil Liberties Union. In a blog post on the Huffington Post news site, Stone defended the agency, and its data collection,

Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago and former chairman of the American Constitution Society, was a member of the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies established by the White House last summer to review the NSA's surveillance practices in light of the Snowden incident.

The group's 300-page report, released last December, recommends dozens of changes to limit NSA data collection efforts and to adopt greater oversight of the agency.

Stone's blog post is the summary of a speech he gave recently to NSA staff at the agency's Fort Meade headquarters.

Stone's remarks came just a couple of days after the Obama Administration temporarily -- 90 days -- renewed the NSA's controversial authority to collect phone metadata records on U.S. phone customers. The authority to extend the program, granted under Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, has been the subject of intense criticism over the past several months prompting the White House to order changes in how the phone data is collected, stored and used.

Stone says that when the review started, he was deeply skeptical of the NSA. He continues to say that there's little doubt the NSA should be subject to "constant and rigorous" scrutiny. He supports more checks and balances to ensure that the agency's activities don't infringe upon civil rights.

"To be clear, I am not saying that citizens should trust the NSA," Stone writes. "They should not. Distrust is essential to effective democratic governance."

At the same time, though, he said it's important that the NSA not be demonized. Contrary to public and media perception, the spy agency operates with a high degree of integrity and a deep commitment to the law, Stone said.

While the NSA has made mistakes, there's little evidence that agency officials knowingly engaged in unlawful activities. "To the contrary, it has put in place carefully crafted internal procedures to ensure that it operates within the bounds of its lawful authority," Stone said.

Stone says that most NSA agents are hard working, patriotic people working for far less pay than they would be able to earn elsewhere. They are being unfairly castigated for mistakes made by successive Administrations, the Congress and the courts.

In many cases, the NSA is simply implementing programs it was directed to carry out by the executive branch, lawmakers and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, which authorized programs without always paying sufficient attention to privacy and civil rights implications. None of the programs the review board looked at were blatantly illegal or unconstitutional, according to Stone.

The NSA's willingness to engage with the Review Board to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of its various programs was refreshing, he said. NSA leaders were candid about their programs and open to incisive questioning. They were not, he said, "reflexively defensive."

Stone said there's little doubt that the NSA has thwarted numerous terrorist plots in recent years, and the agency "deserves the respect and appreciation of the American people."

Stone echoed recent remarks by NSA director General Keith Alexander and other officials responding to the Snowden leaks.

In a speech at the Black Hat security conference last year, Alexander contended that how assumptions about the NSA rampantly spying on people are wrong.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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