Geoffrey Stone was a member of the Presidential panel tasked with reviewing the NSA's surveillance efforts -- the one that urged significant changes
to the program, some of which may actually happen. He was one of the more outspoken members of the panel concerning the importance of civil liberties, and after the panel's report came out he was vocal about how "shocked" he was that the NSA's phone record collection program was basically useless
Apparently he was recently asked to go speak to NSA staffers at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade about the work he did for the panel, and he's released his entire speech
. It's an interesting read. It opens with him explaining his long-standing and strong commitment to civil liberties, noting his connection to the ACLU and that he's been a long-term skeptic of the NSA. He then goes on for most of the speech to talk about how the investigation by the review panel opened his eyes to recognizing that the NSA actually had done some really amazing and important work in stopping terrorists, and similarly that it really did seem committed to protecting Americans -- including their civil liberties.
Instead, he pointed out that the real issue was not the people of the NSA, but the Executive Branch and Congress expanding what the NSA was able to do:
The Review Group found that many of the programs undertaken by the NSA were highly problematic and much in need of reform. But the responsibility for directing the NSA to carry out those programs rests not with the NSA, but with the Executive Branch, the Congress, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorized those programs -- sometimes without sufficient attention to the dangers they posed to privacy and civil liberties. The NSA did its job -- it implemented the authorities it was given.
But, he now has changed his opinion on the NSA, saying that it has been unfairly demonized:
It gradually became apparent to me that in the months after Edward Snowden began releasing information about the government's foreign intelligence surveillance activities, the NSA was being severely -- and unfairly -- demonized by its critics. Rather than being a rogue agency that was running amok in disregard of the Constitution and laws of the United States, the NSA was doing its job.
It pained me to realize that the hard-working, dedicated, patriotic employees of the NSA, who were often working for far less pay than they could have earned in the private sector because they were determined to help protect their nation from attack, were being castigated in the press for the serious mistakes made, not by them, but by Presidents, the Congress, and the courts.
In the end, however, Stone points out that even as he was impressed with the professionalism and the values that the employees of the NSA held, they should not be trusted
To be clear, I am not saying that citizens should trust the NSA. They should not. Distrust is essential to effective democratic governance. The NSA should be subject to constant and rigorous review, oversight, scrutiny, and checks and balances. The work it does, however important to the safety of the nation, necessarily poses grave dangers to fundamental American values, particularly if its work is abused by persons in positions of authority. If anything, oversight of the NSA -- especially by Congress -- should be strengthened. The future of our nation depends not only on the NSA doing its job, but also on the existence of clear, definitive, and carefully enforced rules and restrictions governing its activities.
In short, I found, to my surprise, that the NSA deserves the respect and appreciation of the American people. But it should never, ever, be trusted.
This is a really good point in many ways. One can argue over the various efforts and authorities, and whether or not they're legal. But, the issue is definitely targeted at the top -- and that includes not just the White House but the leadership of the NSA, as well as the FISA Courts and Congress. However, in following this debate since it began (even before that), I've seen little evidence that the public has been demonizing everyday NSA employees. Of course, some of the leaks suggest something that appears to be less than professional behavior
by NSA folks, but nearly all of the criticism I've seen has been directed at those actually responsible at the top of the chain -- not the day to day staffers.
Either way, Stone's final point is a good one. Even if the NSA employed the most morally upstanding people ever alive, we should not trust them. An agency like the NSA should never be merely trusted, not because anyone questions the morals of the people who work there, but because a democracy cannot function when an organization like that is allowed to function solely on trust. It needs real
oversight. At this time, it's not clear it has any of that.