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Stephen M. Walt

What to Do with the NSA

Last week President Barack Obama proposed some modifications to the National Security Agency’s program of domestic surveillance, but he missed a golden opportunity to build political support for the various programs that have been secretly vacuuming up phone records with little or no restraint. In particular, he could have directed the NSA to use all ...

Photo thumbnail: Lambert/Getty Images
Photo thumbnail: Lambert/Getty Images

Last week President Barack Obama proposed some modifications to the National Security Agency’s program of domestic surveillance, but he missed a golden opportunity to build political support for the various programs that have been secretly vacuuming up phone records with little or no restraint. In particular, he could have directed the NSA to use all the information in a way that would benefit all Americans and make them appreciate what the NSA is up to.

What should he have done? Simple. Right now, Americans are routinely pestered by endless phone calls from marketers, political campaigns, nonprofit organizations, alumni fundraisers, and all sorts of other scummy people who don’t mind interrupting you throughout your day. Signing up for the Federal Communications Commission’s “do not call” registry doesn’t do much good, as fly-by-night phone bank operators and robocallers routinely ignore these restrictions. I know: We probably get a dozen or more of these robocalls every day, and often at the most inconvenient times. You probably do too.

Here’s an idea: Use the NSA’s vast trove of phone information to put these guys out of business. If the NSA really does have access to all that phone data and is good at using computer algorithms to sift and sort it as everyone seems to think, why not use it to build an unassailable case against the organizations and businesses that are violating all those “do not call” laws? I mean: If the NSA really can eavesdrop on an al Qaeda conference call, surely documenting abuse of the “do not call” law would be child’s play.

I know, I know: The NSA isn’t supposed to do “domestic surveillance” or get involved in prosecuting Americans for domestic crimes. But it erased that line a while back, didn’t it? If the NSA were used to put robocallers out of business, at least Americans would see some tangible, positive benefit for all the money spent spying on them.

Postscript: I hope you didn’t miss the irony in Obama’s announcement that the NSA’s surveillance practices need to be modified. Had Edward Snowden not brought the NSA’s current abuses to light, Obama (and the country) would never have recognized the need for a policy change. In other words, Obama was tacitly acknowledging that Snowden did us all a favor by revealing how out of control the NSA programs had become. But instead of getting our thanks (or at least granting a presidential pardon for the laws Snowden may have broken), Obama has moved heaven and earth to try to apprehend him. Ironic indeed.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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