With Edward Snowden secure for now in Russia, the focus has shifted from the "Where's Waldo?" search for the rogue National Security Agency systems analyst to the NSA itself, which is where the focus belongs. The picture that is emerging is not so much of a diabolical agency spying on Americans but of an organization that, as in some cautionary science fiction tale, lost control of its own machines.
The release Tuesday of previously classified NSA documents, shaken loose by lawsuits brought by two advocacy groups, reveals a surveillance machine so mammoth that those in charge of running it couldn't do so effectively. Compounding matters, the machine's operators didn't communicate well with one another. NSA analysts charged with collecting the phone data of every American in the pursuit of potential terrorists looked into databases they were not legally allowed to look into and shared that data with people who were not legally allowed to see it. By the time the problems were tracked down in 2009 after a three-year search through the electronic maze, it was determined that only about 10 percent of the phone numbers on the NSA's terrorist watch list -- which means they were supposed to have met the legal standard of "reasonable, articulable suspicion," -- actually met that high standard.
When asked in 2009 by federal Judge Reggie B. Walton to explain how this debacle could have happened, NSA lawyers made the remarkable confession that "there was no single person who had a complete technical understanding" of the surveillance operation. Judge Walton wrote, according to the released documents, that he had "lost confidence" in the NSA's ability to legally operate its own program.
That no evidence has emerged of NSA spying on Americans for political purposes, as the FBI did to civil rights leaders and anti-war protesters in the 1960s, is of no consolation. The fact that abuses did happen accidentally means that they could happen intentionally. Advances in technology in the last half-century also means that there is far more data to be collected far more easily on people than back in the day when J. Edgar Hoover was harassing his political enemies. NSA Deputy Director John Inglis' assertion before Congress that new checks to protect data have been put in place began to ring hollow when Mr. Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor, walked out of the NSA carrying flash drives packed with highly classified documents.
Because the federal government is charged in this case with monitoring a federal agency, the NSA's claims of reforms invited skepticism even without Mr. Snowden's puncturing of those claims. Rectifying this daunting problem begins with the creation of an independent group to monitor the NSA. Next comes a revision if not outright repeal of the USA Patriot Act, which put the U.S. government in the business of spying on Americans. And at some point, the NSA must get a "complete technical understanding" of the surveillance monster it has created.