Why the NSA undermines national security

By Eileen Donahoe
March 6, 2014

Questions about the legitimacy and efficacy of the mass-surveillance techniques used by the National Security Agency continue to swirl around the globe. The debate in the United States has mostly focused on a misleading trade-off between security and privacy.

“If you don’t have anything to hide,” goes the refrain, “you shouldn’t mind if the government collects information to prevent another terrorist attack.” In this trade-off, security will always trump privacy, especially when political leaders rightly see preventing terrorist acts as their top national security responsibility.

But this zero-sum framework ignores the significant damage that the NSA’s practices have done to U.S. national security. In a global digital world, national security depends on many factors beyond surveillance capacities, and over-reliance on global data collection can create unintended security vulnerabilities.

There’s a better framework than security-versus-privacy for evaluating the national security implications of mass-surveillance practices. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “smart power.”

Her idea acknowledges that as global political power has become more diffuse, U.S. interests and security increasingly depend on our ability to persuade partners to join us on important global security actions. But how do we motivate disparate groups of people and nations to join us? We exercise smart power by inspiring trust and building credibility in the global community.

Developing these abilities is as important to U.S. national security as superior military power or intelligence capabilities.

I adopted the smart-power approach when serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Our task at the council was to work with allies, emerging democracies and human rights-friendly governments to build coalitions to protect international human rights. We also built alliances with civil society actors, who serve as powerful countervailing forces in authoritarian systems. These partnerships can reinforce stable relationships, which enhances U.S. security.

The NSA’s arbitrary global surveillance methods fly in the face of smart power. In the pursuit of information, the spy agency has invaded the privacy of foreign citizens and political leaders, undermining their sense of freedom and security. NSA methods also undercut U.S. credibility as a champion of universal human rights.

The U.S. model of mass surveillance will be followed by others and could unintentionally invert the democratic relationship between citizens and their governments. Under the cover of preventing terrorism, authoritarian governments may now increase surveillance of political opponents. Governments that collect and monitor digital information to intimidate or squelch political opposition and dissent can more justifiably claim they are acting with legitimacy.

For human rights defenders and democracy activists worldwide, the potential consequences of the widespread use by governments of mass surveillance techniques are dark and clear.

Superior information is powerful, but sometimes it comes at greater cost than previously recognized. When trust and credibility are eroded, the opportunity for collaboration and partnership with other nations on difficult global issues collapses. The ramifications of this loss of trust have not been adequately factored into our national security calculus.

What is most disconcerting is that the NSA’s mass surveillance techniques have compromised the security of telecommunication networks, social media platforms, private-sector data storage and public infrastructure security systems. Authoritarian governments and hackers now have a roadmap to surreptitiously tap into private networks for their own nefarious purposes.

By weakening encryption programs and planting backdoor entries to encryption software, the NSA has demonstrated how it is possible to infiltrate and violate information-security systems. In effect, the spy agency has modeled anarchic behavior that makes everyone less safe.

Some have argued, though, that there is a big difference between the U.S. government engaging in mass-surveillance activities and authoritarian governments doing so. That “big difference” is supposed to be democratic checks and balances, transparency and adherence to the rule of law. Current NSA programs, however, do not operate within these constraints.

With global standards for digital surveillance now being set, our political leaders must remember that U.S. security depends upon much more than unimpeded surveillance capabilities. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of President Barack Obama’s most trusted international partners, has wisely reminded us, just because we can do something does not mean that we should do it.

National security policies that fail to calculate the real costs of arbitrary mass surveillance threaten to make us less secure. Without trusted and trusting partners, U.S. priority initiatives in complex global negotiations will be non-starters.

The president, his advisers and our political leaders should reassess the costs of the NSA’s spy programs on our national security, our freedom and our democracy. By evaluating these programs through a smart-power lens, we will be in a stronger position to regain the global trust and credibility so central to our national security.


PHOTO (TOP): A mobile phone simulating a call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel next to a tablet computer showing the logo of the United Staes’ National Security Agency is seen in this multiple exposure picture illustration taken in Frankfurt, October 28, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Antennas and suspected covered windows (L) are pictured in a thermal image taken with an infrared camera on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Berlin October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A National Security Agency data gathering facility in Bluffdale, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Salt Lake City, Utah, December 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart


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More naive nonsense. Smart Power? Ha! If you have a database of telecom metadata for a big chunk of the world, or at least… the regions that you are most interested in… You have an amazingly powerful tool.

Lets say you storm into some building in Afghanistan and find a guy that is known to be associating with other terrorists. They find a cell phone is his possession that was not known. They take that phone and send it back to the intel community in the US. Once they have that number, a single person could sit down at a work station, enter that number, and then come up with a potential record of who that guy had been talking to, for however long he had the phone… which could then lead to higher level players. Huge amounts of intel could be collected from this. How exactly does “smart power” accomplish this? Do you go up to the guy and give him a big hug, then ask him politely, who he’s working with? Do you approach every government and telecom company around the world, and ask them to divulge that data, out of the goodness of their hearts?

How does the public suffer from this? They’re not being physically monitored. They’re not being controlled. All it amounts to, is having some old phone bill data shoved in some innocuous server farm for a period of time, which no human will ever look at, 99.9999% of the time. Who cares.

As far as officials from other countries… If you think that other countries aren’t involved in attempted signals intel and hacking, you’re kidding yourself. A huge chunk of the online fraud and hacking, has been proven to be foreign state sponsored in many cases. Only 60+ years ago, the Germans systematically murdered 6 million men, women and children. The only reason why they even have a nation now, is because of the US. They’re whining that some calls MAY have been listened in on? If I was them, I think I’d just keep my mouth shut.

The overwhelming majority of people complaining about this, have no idea how it even works. They read a bunch of sensationalistic headlines about “monitoring” and then they act like a bunch of paranoid sheep.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

I fail to see how not knowing everything possible about double-dealing back-biting “allies” such as Karzai and those wonderfuk folks in Iraq, Syria, China, Iran, North Korea puts the United States in a “…stronger position to regain the global trust and credibility so central to our national security”. We don’t NEED their trust.

We DO need their cooperation on issues of common cause, and frequently the only way to discover and/or verify significant differences in what they say and what they do is by sucking up all domestic and international communication”chatter” and having computers review same looking for appropriate “key words” for further review.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

1… No secret stays a secret forever. Especially in international spy vs spy games. What was NSA’s plan for *AFTER* they got caught listenning in on on every phone call in the world ? I’ll tell you. They had none.

2… Secret Laws *Requiring* every US Corperation to act as an agent of the NSA ? What was your plan for *AFTER* that got out ?

3… Trust is easy to break. Hard to Fix. And no one trusts US Corperations any more. For some reason , they seem to think all US Corperations and the NSA are all in bed together ?

4… so , given that all secrets eventually come out , and that Blaming Edward Snowden isn’t going to help much since he doesn’t have the ability to undo it all , what is your plan now ?

Posted by koconnor100 | Report as abusive

Two forces are at work here. The first is the power of the silicon chip – which like the power of the split atom – is something we have to now wrestle with as force in the world. The second force is the longing of each man that he remain free and not enslaved by others. Recent history tells us that this is not an idle threat – see inter alia the USSR as functioning but freedomless example. I for one do not have endless trust in those with personal power over me (power corrupts, absolute power… etc) and will embrace a slow and steady move away from US based technology platforms – whether Hardware (Apple, Android), software (Microsoft) or Networks (Google search, Facebook.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Secrets are the worlds true currency, always have been. They are the source of financial strength, which creates political power that protects financial strength and the sacred status quo. Terrorism makes global communication surveillance an absolute necessity and in doing achieves its strategic goal. As all other advancements, our eavesdropping ability’s will soon be held by others in an ever growing number. The world keeps getting smaller and it will never be Mr. Rodgers neighborhood. Would you rather ask forgiveness or beg for mercy? The US has abused its strength as all other great powers have done though history. The actions of the NSA are a violation of privacy, trust, and protect the defenseless. The NSA is in the business of secrets, transparency is not an option. Nothing justifies the misuse of power but what is the consequence failure. Benjamin Franklin said; When you give up your liberates to protect your freedoms you forfeit both and deserve neither.) Shared freedoms are a product of shared responsibilities and those efforts define what you deserve.

Posted by nozone | Report as abusive

I don’t have the fear yet. I fear neither being killed by terrorists or or being eaten by a shark, both of which are approximately equally probable. I may not have a choice when everyone else is inflicted with the imaginary fears. In 1984 the main character was broken by his fear of rats. When the computers know all that we do, they will have ways of discerning our individual weaknesses and creating the fear that is needed to control us. Eventually someone will use the information to develope a control process. I suspect they will pit younger less experienced people against the old, probably by first destroying families (tough love) and then further by creating identifications amongst generations. They’ll probaly call some boomers or something and others gen-xers and others millenials or some such thing and then they can get the younger groups to take out those older people. Of course consumption will be key and all will identify with that, as “consumers”. Of course, that’s more like “a brave new world”, but either way, because they lack real creativity they will use these novels as field guides to control and dominance.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Great article. Thanks Eileen…if there were only more Americans sharing your opinion…

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

They can track the cows and monitor every transaction or communication, but they can’t track money and how it is spent in the Military Industrial Complex. I SMELL A GIANT RAT!!! L.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

> Why the NSA undermines national security
Ok that’s the security argument.
Now here is the constitutional argument.
This country was built on the constitution, ignore the constitution this country was built on and you have no country.
Very simple. Follow your oath to the constitution.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

[…] retaliation. A former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Eileen Donahoe, forcefully warned against the risks of these NSA activities to U.S. national security: “In a global digital world, […]