***As a former employee (US Navy analyst at NSA), I must say up front "I can neither confirm nor deny any comments made for or against NSA and their collection efforts both internal and external to the US. All questions should be directed to the Public Affairs Office at Ft. Meade, MD."***
Now that I have parroted the official party line, lets talk.
Today I read an very well written, but sad, article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Missteps Doomed Civilians As Chemical Attack Loomed." The article outlines a series of steps leading up to the mass chemical attacks in Syria on August 21st. Due to efforts of the US collection system (probably NSA and/or CIA), Syrian troops were know to be using chemical weapons on the population prior to this occasion. These attacks led to the death of a small number of civilians, but were unconfirmed by independent sources. Then on the 21st, an order was giving by a senior level person to perform a mass attack on rebel held locations and the civilian population in the area.
"Sources" stated that the communications intercept (the order) was not immediately translated and reported because these attack had become commonplace. It was not until the death toll kept climbing up that the full weight of the intercepted order came to light.
I do not blame the analysts who intercepted, translated, and reported this occurrence. I blame the the 3 branches of the govarnment for this. You see, it was Congress who voted in the shambles of a law known as USA PATRIOT ACT. It was President Bush who approved the law with his signature. It is President Obama who has taken the collection requests to an absurdly high level (the number of collection requests on US citizens met a "critical mass" before the administration decided to stop reporting the numbers.) I also blame the Judicial Branch for slowly eroding the power of the Constitution and Bill of Rights over the years.
I mostly blame the Executive Branch of the government for endangering the US. You see, NSA has a military commander who receives collection orders from the Executive Branch. I don not advocate replacing DIRNSA with a civilian because a civilian would still receive orders from the same source. When orders are given, resources in the already strapped NSA are stretched further. This is simple supply and demand. You have a set number of resources. When you add tasking, something else has to stop being collected and analyzed. In this case, it appears that the Executive branch ramped up tasking on the US populace in a vane attempt to prevent terrorism at home. This left us with fewer resources to stop terrorism abroad.
***Side note - We homeschool. My wife spends a lot of time discussing the law of unintended consequences and their effect on our country. I am beginning to understand the value of this approach.***
Could the mass slaughter of a civilian population have been avoided in Syria? The simple answer is probably not. The long answer is that the Executive Branch already had knowledge of "low level" use of chemical weapons in Syria and did nothing about it. Worse, the Secretary of State opened the door for Russia to step in and solve the chemical weapons dilemma. Finally, the Presidents inability to lead the World (much less the country) in this matter is abysmal.
This leads me to the discussion of what many people are asking of the US government. Many are calling for the dismantling of the NSA and its collection methods. These people don't usually stop there. They often times complain that we monitor (spy) on other countries, including our partners. I say this is the direction we need to move in. The charter of the NSA was to collect on foreign communications and, at one time, were forbidden to spy on US persons. The collection of US persons was not actually forbidden, but the burden of proof and the need to collect on US persons was heavy.
Anyone who says we should NOT be spying on other countries is naive. Just because you are our friends today does not mean you will be our friend tomorrow. Not only this, you will NEVER have a utopian society in which all peoples are friendly to each other. The reason for this is human nature. Ask my 7 year old why communism is such a bad idea and he will tell you it is a great idea until you introduce the human element. After all, if we can't overcome racism, how do you ever think we will reach utopia?
In conclusion, the current "policy" on spying on US persons is stretching already thin resources to a breaking point. This does not allow the NSA to effectively perform its chartered mandates in the collection and analysis of signals from non-US persons. This endangers US interests and persons by requiring poor asset management.
Please feel free to comment.