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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: The NSA's data dragnet in clearer focus

A sign outside the National Security Administration (NSA)

A sign outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., on June 6, 2013. Credit: AP / Patrick Semansky

More than a year after the initial revelations about the National Security Agency's data-collection program exposed by fugitive ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the debate sparked by the scandal rages on. Is Snowden a patriot or a traitor? Is surveillance an essential tool for protecting national security, or the epitome of intrusive government? How much surveillance is too much -- and who decides?

So far, here's what we can conclude.

Broad sweep

Surveillance programs have a broad sweep and do not adequately protect the innocent. A recent investigation by The Washington Post based on Snowden's files shows vast numbers of bystanders were caught in the dragnet due to contact with surveillance targets. Emails were intercepted and stored. Some say Snowden, not the NSA, violated these people's privacy by giving the files to the media; but the storage of such data, with no national security relevance, is problematic by itself. Even if absent of government-sanctioned abuses, the data could be obtained by a hacker, or used by a rogue employee for blackmail or other nefarious purposes.

Valuable tool

Data collection is a valuable national security tool. The same Post article that lays out strong evidence of surveillance overreach also notes that the programs uncovered important intelligence materials, leading (among other things) to the capture of at least two terrorists and the prevention of cyber-attacks. Largely overshadowed by these revelations was a report from the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, released on July 1, which affirmed that the foreign data collection was legal and effective (but the board recommended changes that would reduce unwarranted privacy intrusions).

Liberty concerns

Surveillance defenders tend to be cavalier about liberty concerns while opponents tend to be cavalier about security concerns. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has dismissed the Post's recent revelations by pointing out that "we're at war with radical Islam." Atlantic columnist Conor Friedersdorf has dismissed the terror threat as "an infinitesimal chance" of being killed, invoking comparisons to far more numerous deaths from routine accidents. But there are many reasons that terror attacks -- particularly on a mass scale -- have an impact far beyond individual risk of death or injury. To change that would require changing the human psyche. A few successful attacks with major casualties would almost certainly create a civil liberties disaster far beyond anything the NSA has done to date.

No political abuses

It is very unlikely that NSA surveillance has been abused for political purposes. Some right-wing blogs have speculated that the Obama administration has used the program to target the opposition or even blackmail Supreme Court justices; there were similar rumors on the left in the Bush era. None of the material released so far corroborates this. A new article by Snowden associate Glenn Greenwald raises questions about prominent American Muslims being targeted for spying. But this is less about surveillance techniques than religious profiling, a troubling issue complicated by the fact that some U.S. Muslim groups have had extremist ties.

Regardless of Snowden's motives, methods or ethics, the current examination of national security policies is important. Unfortunately, as with most political debates today, each side is prone to demonizing the other: NSA defenders are caricatured as would-be authoritarians, its opponents as "useful idiots" for America's enemies. We could start by acknowledging that both sides have valid goals and concerns -- and moving toward better security with better safeguards.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.