Five ways the NSA can regain Americans' trust

There’s the scene in Dr. Strangelove when the president lets the Russian ambassador into the war room so that he can see the common predicament of both superpowers, and the Air Force chief of staff (played by George C. Scott) sputters, “But he’ll see the Big Board!”

That’s the situation in which the NSA chiefs now find themselves. They have to show us the Big Board—not all of it, or maybe they don’t have to show it to us (i.e., to you and me). But the secrecy has been too tight, the few public statements on the matter have been too vague or deceptive, the level of distrust is rising so steeply that the program itself is in jeopardy. A recent amendment to cancel the program lost in the House of Representatives, 217–225, a startlingly narrow margin. Those who manage or support the program should be the keenest to open the curtains.

It’s easy to see the logic by which the NSA managers widened the scope of their surveillance. At first, they focused on tracking traffic patterns. Some phone number in the United States was calling suspicious people or places in, say, Pakistan. It might be useful to find out whose phone number it was. It might then be useful to find out what other people that person has been calling or emailing, and then it might be useful to track their phone calls and email patterns. Before you know it, they’re storing data on millions of people, including a lot of Americans. Then maybe one day, they track someone—a phone number or email address they’d never come across before—engaged in some very suspicious activity. They wish that they’d been tracking this person for some time, so they could go back and see if a pattern exists without having to wait for one to emerge. Then they learn that they can do this; new technology makes it possible. So they scoop up and store everything from everybody. They even convince themselves that they’re not “collecting” data from American citizens (as that would be illegal); no, they’re just storing it; the collecting doesn’t happen until they actually go retrieve it from the files. (James Clapper, director of national intelligence, actually made this claim.)