During the 2001 assault on the World Trade Center, I was trapped in a train under Manhattan for hours. As news of the collapsing towers, the attack on the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania filtered down to the passengers, the conductor kept telling us this tunnel was the safest place we could be. Meanwhile, the tunnels were being searched for explosives.
I recall thinking, here we are in the commercial capital of the most powerful country on earth, with a zillion-dollar defense budget, and we couldn't see this coming. That's what the National Security Agency's massive data-combing program is supposed to do. See the next thing coming, and stop it.
So hard as I try, I can't fathom the manic outrage over the idea of a government computer raking through the metadata on Americans' phone calls and e-mails. Metadata is about e-mail addresses, numbers called and length of conversation. The computers don't look at content — what I say or what is said to me. Where's the big loss in privacy?
For eons, law enforcement has been able to tap the phone records of suspects. You know the line in "Law & Order": "Get me his luds (local usage details)."
John Schindler is an expert on intelligence and terrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. He spent a decade with the NSA. Do I understand the basics? I ask him. Pretty much.
First off, the front end, the collection of metadata, is all automated. The computer flags suspicious activity, but a human can't look further without a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrant. FISA warrants are granted for only two reasons: 1. Foreign espionage. 2. Foreign terrorism.
If that human finds that someone has been e-mailing a known terrorist to discuss fine points of religion, that person still wouldn't be a legitimate intelligence target, Schindler says. The conversation has to be about plotting terrorism.
Agencies investigating drug trafficking, cyberattacks and other criminal activity have long complained about being denied access to NSA intelligence data. That's because their searches are not directly connected to terrorism or foreign spying.
Is this how it always works?
"The media want to have a simple NSA," Schindler responded, but intelligence operations can be complex and tricky. Information might be passed to the FBI, CIA or foreign security services. This can be a multination operation. So the answer is no, not always.
"But the idea of 10,000 NSA agents looking at our pictures of cats and pornography is pure fantasy," he remarked.
Schindler has engaged in pointed Twitter exchanges with Glenn Greenwald, the left-wing journalist flogging heated conspiracy theories about the program. Schindler considers Greenwald badly misinformed.
Greenwald routinely hyperventilates against Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats supporting the program, accusing them of "channeling the warped language and mentality of Dick Cheney." He weirdly punctuates his denunciations with you-heard-it-from-me-first bursts of self-promotion.
Unsurprisingly, the paranoia has attracted allies on the far right. FreedomWorks issues dark mutterings, such as, "They (NSA) know you rang your senator and congressman right after taking a call from your local tea party chairman, on the very same day the local tea party started a campaign to stop their state's ObamaCare health care exchange."
Hide the cat pictures.
What holds the hard right-left alliance together is this: They hate Obama.
"It's become very apparent to me," Schindler adds, "that some of the real opponents don't want America to do intelligence at all."
Clearly, the program's been poorly explained to the public. Greater transparency is called for. And, of course, oversight is important.
But the bottom line is, there's no way to find the terrorist needle in the haystack of communications without combing through the haystack. After the next terrorist outrage, we won't be having this discussion. You can be sure of that.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)