Has the NSA spying gone too far and what damage has been done?

November 7, 2013

by Sally Ashley-Cound

Following the latest revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Frontline Club’s First Wednesday panel on 6 November gathered to discuss Has NSA spying “reached too far”?

Have the NSA gone too far?

L-R: Owen Bennett-Jones, Julian Borger, James P. Rubin, Steven Erlanger. Photo: Sally Ashley-Cound

Chair Owen Bennett-Jones, a freelance journalist and a host of Newshour on the BBC World Service started off by asking if anyone really knows how much data has been collected?

Steven Erlanger, London bureau chief for The New York Times said:

“I’m not sure we know the answer to the question to be honest. Because these things have been kept secret and they remain secret.”

Julian Borger, The Guardian’s diplomatic editor, continued:

“There is an awful lot of material and it’s a very lengthy process figuring out what in it is of public interest…it’s the process of discussing with the government agencies involved about what it means and the balance between public interest and national security.”

James Rubin, a visiting scholar at Oxford University’s Rothermere American Institute and former chief spokesperson for the US State Department, added:

“I don’t think Snowden knows. He’s got 50,000 documents from the NSA. I took one of these documents and I actually know something about this stuff …it’s hard to understand even for those who know the code words.”

Nigel Inkster, director of transnational threats and political risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), who served in the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) from 1975 to 2006, had some praise for the NSA and GCHQ:

“We’ve got this huge explosion of communications. . . . They were confronted with this new reality which they had to make sense of and I have to say, in the circumstances I think they’ve done a rather remarkable job.”

An audience member asked if “the threats justify the methods”?

Inkster replied:

“We elect a government and this is one of the responsibilities that they are assigned. It is for the government of the day to judge on the basis of the best information it can, what the security environment it faces.”

The panel were asked if the release of these documents has changed anything – has damage been done?

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Rubin:

“We’ll never know what changed people’s behaviours. People’s behaviours are going to change.”

Inkster:

“We will never know how different would the course of WWII been if Bletchley park had not broken and read the material that was being transmitted over Enigma. How can we judge? You can never do a counter factual assessment.”

Erlanger:

“There’s another level of damage which is to trust, to international relationships; the United States has a big problem with its allies.”

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Christoph Scheuermann, London bureau chief for German weekly Der Spiegel, seemed surprised at the panel for thinking that anything had changed:

“I thought this was really naive, we don’t live in an age where terrorists…have to read The Guardian or Der Spiegel or the New York Times to know what intelligence agencies are capable of.”

Borger added:

“We share all of GCHQ material, names of everyone who works there, addresses, what they like to do at the weekend, with 850,000 Americans. Half of those people are private contractors. So the odds of that getting out are very high.”

After all this effort, disruption and political chaos, what were the benefits of the NSA gathering all the information?

Inkster:

“Knowing who’s in touch with who can be as – if not more important than – knowing what they’re saying to each other. This is a business that the bad guys are trying to hide the fact that they’re in communication.

“[Secondly] you can use analysis of big data to ascertain patterns of correlation, which are simply not discernable with lesser data sets. This has applications in all sorts of areas, in retail, public health…you can identify all sorts of things.”

One point the panel agreed on was that the world has completely changed from the days of phone bugging and code-breaking:

Watch the event: