Now that the secret collection of telephone records by the National Security Agency (NSA) has been revealed, there are expressions of fear and outrage that the government will use the information against its own citizens in an unconstitutional manner. Some fear is justified because any power and authority can be abused, but we must understand the history of what the NSA does and why it does it. Hasty, uninformed decisions could cripple a vital element of our national defense against a cruel and unmerciful enemy.
In the United States before World War II, spying was viewed as unnecessary and was barely provided any support or funding. It was contrary to the isolationist attitude of the country at that time. At the beginning of World War II, with Poland and France overrun by Nazi Germany and England fighting for its life, ample resources were finally provided for spying and code breaking.
There are numerous history books that describe the value of communications intelligence to the war effort. I am not exaggerating to say that the intelligence received from the code breakers gave the Allies a decisive edge by providing invaluable knowledge. Decoded messages specifically led to the defeat of the German U-boat wolf packs in the North Atlantic and put our forces in position to destroy the Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway, both pivotal victories early in the war.
World War II became the Cold War almost immediately after 1945 and the advantages of communications intelligence were far too important to let go because we faced an even more powerful adversary. The NSA consolidated these specialized spying efforts and operated almost invisibly and under the highest levels of security. It provided valuable information about the Soviet Union’s military capabilities and intentions and had a key role in preventing a nuclear war.
Fast forward to Sept. 11, 2001. We now have an enemy that is neither a nation with conventional infrastructure nor a military with clearly identified channels of communication. The dilemma to our nation’s defenders is that this enemy uses the technology we developed and the communication infrastructure of our own country to coordinate attacks against us. They use the cell phone, the Internet, our communications satellites and our fiber-optic cables to relay orders, coordinate planning, spread propaganda and instruct would-be terrorists. These internal and external enemies depend on their messages being concealed within the massive volume of communications from all over the world.
The NSA effort is obviously one step (probably one of many other steps) to see through that mass of data and ferret out the enemy communications. It is supervised by a select group of our own elected representatives and members of the judicial branch in a manner consistent with the way secret defense operations have been supervised since World War II.
It is appropriate for citizens to ask if such unprecedented actions are necessary. If the answer is affirmative, it is then appropriate to ask if more protections can be added to prevent abusive use of the information collected. However, the NSA cannot make complete public disclosure of its operations without losing the ability to perform its mission. Our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., are the ones responsible to find answers to the questions and perform oversight of the operations.
Protecting an idealized level of our constitutional rights is a noble goal. Yet we must face the reality that all the rights in the world are of no benefit to those who die in a terrorist attack. I, for one, am glad that the NSA is doing the job it was intended to do.
William Hoysradt of Hooksett was a U.S. Army infantry officer from 1971-1977.