The Limits of Signals Intelligence


When scary geopolitical events happen, Americans are particularly likely to speak favorably about the national-security state. This is understandable: The national-security state encompasses a lot of hardworking men and women engaged in legitimate efforts to protect us, sometimes by putting their lives at risk. But it is doubly important to think critically in moments of crisis, for history shows such moments are exactly when abuses, excesses and missteps are enabled.

This permits the dark side of national security to get out of control, as it has so many times in American history, including the period after the attacks of 9/11.

As a new crisis unfolds in Iraq, Andrew Sullivan is mostly heeding this wisdom: He is skeptical about American intervention because he sees that national-security officials are not capable of doing much of anything with predictable results. But he did offer one aside about the role the NSA might play that I want to flag:

If there is something we can do, it should be to ratchet up our ability to monitor these groups—sorry, NSA-haters, but spying is one of our strongest and least disruptive tools in preventing attacks on the homeland—and to provide as much diplomatic and political advice, if asked, as to how to render the situation less volatile.

This gets a few things wrong that matter very much to the ongoing debate about the NSA. First off, note that not even the staunchest critics of the NSA, from Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald to Senator Ron Wyden to Representative Justin Amash, want to eliminate the agency or prevent it from spying on foreign terrorists or soldiers. Without presuming to speak for any individual, the typical “NSA-hater” would love nothing more than for the NSA to focus its intelligence capabilities on war zones where anti-American fighters plausibly threaten the lives of soldiers or diplomatic personnel, and away from Angela Merkel and every cell-phone call Americans make. Spying on..

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