How To Think About The NSA

Rick Hertzberg has a must-read. These indeed are the remaining, big, unanswered questions:

Has the N.S.A. program actually worked to uncover and thwart terrorist plots? If so, are there or could there have been alternate means that could have worked about as well or better at less cost—less cost in money and resources, less cost to civic trust and confidence? In what concrete ways does the program invade people’s privacy? Exactly how, if at all, does the program increase the government’s power to do bad things to good people? And how much does it add to the powers the government already has via information-gathering and police-like agencies such as the I.R.S., the F.B.I., and the Homeland Security apparatus? Is the marginal increase in government power that the N.S.A. program represents justified by the marginal increase in safety that it provides, if it does provide such an increase?

That’s a helpful via media between the defensive crouch of Washington and the hyperbole of Snowden – toward a rational testing of the policy’s costs and benefits. Yes, we pay a president to make that kind of call for us – but presidents are inclined to back the system, if only to protect their own political posteriors in an age of sporadic Jihadist terrorism. An independent review would be useful – unless the NSA did to it what Brennan and his former war criminal buddies are doing to the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on torture.