Five reasons the NSA scandal ain't all that

3. Signals intelligence collection is hard to understand, and many, many news outlets, including some of the ones that revealed the documents, came to conclusions that have not stood the test of even a short period of time. No, the NSA does not filter a majority, or even a plurality, or even two percent of the world’s internet traffic. The 51 percent relevance test for foreignness does not mean that there is a 49 percent chance that the target might be a U.S. person; it is simply an add-on mechanism to determine where the lines are, precisely so that NSA can stay away from them. Yes, NSA actively audits every search. That’s how they know about and report about violations. It is eye-raising to base one’s objection to NSA’s self-reporting on the idea that there is no way to independently check what the NSA says. Well, of course. There is a logical problem here because someone or some entity will be at the bottom of the chain. It has always been difficult to establish transparent legal and formal mechanisms to make sure that agencies that secretly collect secrets don’t abuse their power. But it is easier now than it has ever been. The evidence suggests that NSA has MORE checks on its power now than ever before.

4. The reason why Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall know so much about NSA activities is not because of a whistleblower. It is because of NSA’s evolving self-disclosure. The reason why the intelligence committees defend the programs is because they know how they work, what happens when they don’t, and how NSA polices itself. This is not an example of a government agency lacking accountability. This IS accountability. If you begin your assessment of the NSA collection activities with the assumption that all government power is inherently corrosive, you will find ways to describe NSA collection in ways that advance and reify your assumptions.