The National Security Agency (NSA) is the largest intelligence agency of USA that gathers information to detect any potential threat to USA. Recently in 2013, it created a lot of buzz when Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, revealed to the media about the clandestine surveillance programs of the NSA (NCPA 2014). According to the documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA spies on over a billion of people worldwide by intercepting their calls. Not only that, the NSA has access to the phone records of all the American citizens for the purpose of mass surveillance. It was also revealed that PRISM, the most confidential NSA program, has been collecting data about the customers of some of the top-tier IT organizations including Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook directly from their servers (Givens 2013). The leaked documents also reveal that the number of phone calls and emails, intercepted between the time-period of October 2001 to January 2007, is 37,664. 8% of these are domestic including 406 email IDs and 2,612 U.S. phone numbers (Stray 2013). All of these activities have raised a lot of questions as regards to people's privacy, violation of human rights and security vulnerabilities of the targeted organizations, sparking off a heated debate as to whether or not the NSA is justified in invading the private space of people in the name of national security. The NSA surveillance programs have been severely criticized by the top national daily like New York Times. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the constitutionality of the phone tracking program carried out by the NSA and filed a lawsuit. Condemned as "obscenely outrageous" by the former Vice President Al Gore, the NSA surveillance programs have also been frowned upon by Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the original authors of the USA PATRIOT Act. But there are also people who voiced their support for the program. Senator Lindsay Graham, for example, gave his support to the NSA by stating "it doesn’t bother me one bit for the NSA to have my phone number" (Givens 2013). The result of a Pew Research Center poll showed that a significant number of American people rooted for the surveillance efforts of the NSA. Taking into account both sides of the debate, this paper would argue that the NSA is justified in conducting the surveillance programs in order to protect the nation from potential threat of terror attacks and that such programs are legal and constitutional because the absence of these programs would severely harm the security of American citizens.
Legality of the NSA Surveillance Programs
The critics of the NSA question the legality of the surveillance programs being carried out by the NSA. They believe that such surveillance activities are not legal because they violate the human right to freedom and privacy. But in the wake of potent threats directed at USA, it is important to have a channel through which confidential information regarding the activities of those plotting to harm the nation could be funneled out (NCPA 2014). The NSA is an intelligence agency which serves as that channel by tapping and collecting intelligence about people who pose a security threat to the nation. Since prevention of the terrorists attacks are more important than the preservation of human right to privacy, the NSA is justified in doing what it does to make the nation and its people safe from threat.
Under the section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the metadata collection of the phone calls of Verizon customers is legal. The USA PATRIOT Act was formed in 2001 as a retaliation to 9/11 attack. In compliance with the USA PATRIOT ACT, the NSA through Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) issued a top secret order to Verizon to disclose information related to the calls made by their customers. Not only Verizon, other phone companies like Sprint and AT&T also have reportedly submitted information related to their customers and the pattern of their calls regularly to the NSA (Stray 2013). The tracking of these calls help the NSA in the detection of many suspicious plotting against USA.
For more than a decade, the NSA has been conducting surveillance programs in order to deter potential terror attacks on the country, and it has been successful in its mission because apart from the Boston bombing in 2013, no terror attack has taken place since 2001 in the country. The title II of the USA PATRIOT Act allows the US government agencies and bodies to monitor suspected terrorists, secret agents of a foreign power involved in clandestine activities and also those involved in the cyber fraud or abuse. The Act also allows the government agencies to retrieve foreign intelligence information from both the citizens and non-citizens of USA (DOJ 2014). In compliance with the USA PATRIOT ACT, the NSA is allowed to intercept and record the communications of non-American citizens without any warrant if one end of the conversation is outside the territory of USA. It also can record the conversations of American citizens if they are outside the territory of USA. In the case of US citizens, however, the NSA has to get a warrant first (Stray 2013). In the light of these facts, the surveillance activities undertaken by the NSA are completely justified and legal.
Civil Liberty versus National Security
The fierce debate on the surveillance programs of the NSA has raised a dilemma on civil liberty versus national security. The quote of Benjamin Franklin, "Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one" is often cited by the critics of the NSA (NCPA 2014). It is true that by intercepting the personal phone calls of all the US citizens, the NSA is encroaching upon the privacy of people and obstructing their freedom. But it is difficult to choose between freedom and security, especially when security is under perpetual threat. According to John Bolton, the senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, liberty and security are inversely proportional. When one of them increases, the other decreases (NCPA 2014). The invasion of privacy might be uncomfortable for people to deal with, but it is far better than the catastrophe that a slight security breach can bring upon.
The national security of USA is constantly threatened by different terrorist organizations that are relentlessly trying to harm the peace of this country. According to the data of the Heritage Foundation, at least 60 terrorist plots have been designed against the USA. Out of these 60 plots, 49 are homegrown terror plots involving perpetrators who are either American citizens or legal permanent residents (Zuckerman, Bucci and Carafano 2014). As per the record of the NSA, they were able to detect and stop 54 terror plots due to the success of their surveillance programs. The statement of the NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander, is worth consideration in this regard, "what would have happened in the world if those attacks — 42 of those 54 were terrorist plots — if they were successfully executed. What would that mean to our civil liberties and privacy?” (NCPA 2014).
Besides, Espionage is also a potential threat to the country. Espionage refers to the foreign secret agencies trying to steal the secrets of USA and smuggle dangerous weapons and other harmful materials within the country. America faces a constant threat of espionage from the foreign secret agencies that could harm the nation by selling critical information of the national security to those who want to inflict harm. It is important to track confidential communications in order to track down and deter the foreign spies. Writer Marshall Honoroff has stated it rightly that "You can have total privacy or total national security, but you cannot have both." (NCPA 2014).
Constitutionality of the NSA Surveillance Programs
The critics also argue that the surveillance programs of the NSA must be repealed because they act against the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution which preserves “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” (US Courts 2014). But the NSA surveillance programs cannot be called unconstitutional on this ground because the NSA does not invade someone’s personal property for unwarranted searches or confiscate things. Unless someone is extremely suspicious, the NSA does not hack into anyone's personal computer to steal data. It conducts its surveillance program by retrieving data from the phone companies, internet providers and e-mail providers that people use for their communication. The 'Terms and Conditions' of the phone companies, internet providers and e-mail providers touch upon all such probabilities in their agreement with the customers, and the customers sign the agreement in full cognizance of such possibility (NCPA 2014). Since the phone companies are not protected under the Fourth Amendment, the act of retrieving data through them cannot be counted as a violation of the Constitution. Moreover, as long as the NSA does not come knocking at people's door for random searches and seizures, it cannot be regarded as unconstitutional.
The National Security Agency (NSA), which is the largest intelligence agency of USA, has come under a severe attack of criticism when Edward Snowden revealed to the public about the clandestine surveillance programs of the NSA in which the agency intercepted the phone calls and emails of more than a billion people worldwide. The documents leaked by Snowden also revealed that the NSA has access to the phone numbers and records of all the US citizens. Since the revelation, a lot of questions have been raised by the critics who believe that the surveillance programs of the NSA are illegal and unconstitutional because they pose threat to the privacy and freedom of people and act against the Fourth amendment of the US Constitution. But taking into account that the US is constantly under the threat of terror attacks, such intrusion into the privacy of people is justified because such invasion of privacy might only make people uncomfortable whereas a slightest security breach might evoke a national catastrophe putting the lives of many innocent civilians at stake. Besides, the USA PATRIOT Act allows the NSA to conduct such secret operations for preventing terror attacks, and the success of the NSA lies in its stopping 54 terror plots through its surveillance programs. Therefore, I believe that as long as the national security of the US remains under threat, it is justified for the NSA to protect the countrymen and the nation at the cost of people’s privacy.
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