Up to now, the debate about the NSA has focused on the balance between discovering information about terrorists and protecting the rights of citizens. This is understandable, as the legal basis for the NSA programs is the Patriot Act, and because the White House justifies metadata collection on the same grounds. But characterizing the issue as a choice between counterterrorism and civil liberties is simplistic and misleading. The review group admirably stresses that there are security concerns that go beyond terrorism, but it then fails to consider the value of metadata in addressing a host of challenges the intelligence community is facing. Efforts to combat state-sponsored industrial espionage, for example, require painstaking counterintelligence work. Efforts to break up transnational proliferation networks are also likely to benefit from metadata collection; this is a logical way to map the networks and see how they operate, which may be one reason why the Obama administration is fighting so hard to keep the NSA programs alive.
What’s more, despite some fears that the NSA could use metadata to create a “mosaic” of someone’s activities, in reality, this is a pretty inefficient way of encroaching on anyone’s privacy. In the past, when the intelligence community has violated civil liberties, it hasn’t bothered with such a roundabout approach. In the 1960s-1970s, for example, the CIA infiltrated various domestic political organizations, and the NSA intercepted the telegraphs of individual citizens. We have plenty of experience with intelligence agencies behaving badly, and they haven’t been very subtle about it. Collecting and storing metadata is thus very different from what we’ve seen in the past -- and, in fact, Occam’s Razor suggests that it is not a violation of civil liberties at all.
Ultimately, while generated with an admirable desire to preserve people’s rights and privacy, the flawed recommendations in the review group’s report threaten to do more harm than good. As the Obama administration considers reforming the NSA, it would do well to ignore them.