Securing America

The National Security Act became law on this day in 1947, President Truman signing off on the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, as well as a reorganization of the military under the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cold War politics led to the formation of the National Security Agency in 1952; since 9/11, its mandate in signals intelligence has produced so many petabytes of data that it needs a warehouse, says James Bamford in The Shadow Factory (2008), that is “almost the size of the Alamodome”:

The principal end product of all that data and all that processing is a list of names — the watch list — of people, both American and foreign, thought to pose a danger to the country. Once containing just twenty names, today it is made up of an astonishing half a million — and it grows rapidly every day. Most on the list are neither terrorists nor a danger to the country, and many are there simply by mistake. Some of the many innocent people on the list may discover their situation when they are tossed off a plane…. Others, however, may never know. Instead, their application for a Small Business Administration loan may be turned down without their being given a reason; or the application of a bright son or daughter for admittance into one of the military academies may be rejected without explanation; or, because the names are shared with foreign governments, a person could be turned away after landing in London for a vacation or business trip — without being told why.

While some defend the growth of the NSA, or accept its flaws as bureaucratic growing pains, Bamford regards the surveillance explosion as not only wrong but counterproductive. “The problem is,” he said in a recent interview for San Francisco Gate, “the bigger you build the haystack, the harder it is to find the needle.” Bamford goes on to note that the NSA watch list is now at 875,000 and to endorse the actions of Edward Snowden, who must now be among the most watched:

With regard to the information he released on domestic surveillance, I consider him a whistleblower. He revealed details of massive violations by the NSA of the privacy rights of all Americans.… It’s time government officials are charged with criminal conduct, including lying to Congress, instead of going after those exposing the wrongdoing.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.