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Connecting the dots

Dallas Morning News

Published: Monday, Aug. 26 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The following editorial appeared recently in the Dallas Morning News:

Intelligence gathering is often described as "connecting the dots." A call here, an email there, this bit or that one, who said what when and to whom.

And there are billions of dots to connect. U.S. inability to predict and prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been largely attributed to agencies' failure to sift and share information. You know today because someone in government told you so.

Which brings us to the National Security Agency and its defenders in Washington. Here are the dots Americans must connect, with too little help from their government:

Start with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and his many leaks of classified information.

Proceed to President Barack Obama, his aides and prominent members of Congress from both parties. They would assure you that whatever the NSA is doing is extremely valuable to your safety and not much to worry about otherwise.

In June, after promising to explain the NSA's record in "as transparent a way as we possibly can," Deputy Attorney General James Cole spoke of extensive safeguards and oversight intended to check the agency. "Every now and then, there may be a mistake," he told Congress.

Next dot: The Washington Post reports that Cole's "every now and then" means about 2,800 incidents over 12 months of "unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications."

And finally, from Wednesday's Wall Street Journal: Despite NSA assurances to the contrary, the super-secret spy agency has built a surveillance network with the capacity to access roughly 75 percent of Americans' Internet communications.

One argument, and it has its merits, is that with so many data points to sift, so much metadata to analyze, there will be mistakes. "We're a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line," one NSA official told The Post.

Even the NSA's harshest critics would — or should — concede that the connecting of so many dots will never be perfect. Yet the NSA's supporters must allow that it's tough for the non-intelligence pros among us to have full confidence when the story changes so regularly.

At the heart of The Post's report on the NSA audit were two key factors:

The May 2012 audit counts only incidents at the NSA's Fort Meade, Md., site and Washington-area facilities; the number probably would be substantially higher if it included other collection centers. And while the NSA's violations weren't always intentional, the agency did take steps to obscure at least some bad news from the people charged with oversight.

So as we struggle to connect the dots, we must conclude that blinding the overseers makes a program ripe for abuse and that self-policing is no way to manage anything with the size, breadth and scope of the NSA's data-gathering.

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