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News Opinion Editorial

Carrying water for the NSA [Editorial]

Critics of the National Security Agency are often correct in their assessment that the agency's surveillance programs have gone too far and that Congressional oversight has been lacking. It doesn't take a civil liberties attorney to see something Orwellian in a Big Brother collecting and storing information about 5 billion phone calls a day, including domestic ones.

And that's just the tip of the clandestine iceberg. The busy folks down at Fort Meade have been aggressively spying online and tapping into the basic infrastructure of the Internet, infiltrating private encryption and even listening to cellphone calls placed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Gott im Himmel, is there an electronic transaction or cellphone call conducted here or abroad to which the NSA is not privy?

Even so, there's something a little bizarre to hear the protestations from even the most die-hard of NSA critics about the deal recently consummated between the super-secretive federal agency and Howard County over the handling of wastewater. Under the agreement announced last week, the NSA's computer center scheduled to be completed in 2016 will be cooled by water freshly treated from the county's sewage system.

The partnership makes a lot of sense for both parties. The NSA will pay for a $40 million pumping station in addition to as much as $2 million a year for up to 5 million gallons of water each day that was otherwise destined to be returned to the nearby Little Patuxent River. For the NSA, it's still cheaper than the alternative of digging wells and building an independent water supply system that might have burdened the underground aquifer.

More important, it's a huge win for the environment. Recycled wastewater will put less stress on the region's freshwater supply and means less runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. It's a creative, green and smart solution — exactly the sort of thing that local government ought to be pursuing with local employers, public or private, whenever possible.

Yet some folks seem to believe that this project makes Howard County an enabler and that NSA surveillance efforts should not be facilitated through "material support." That includes a top official with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee who recently told The Sun's Matthew Hay Brown that Congress is so dysfunctional that "municipal checks and balances are really all that we the people have had an opportunity to exercise."

That seems a stretch, particularly given that the NSA could easily have provided its own water anyway and left Howard County taxpayers high and dry. What's next? Should roads around Fort Meade not be repaired because it enables commuting? Refuse public school admission for the children of NSA employees because that encourages another generation of wiretappers? Just because Congress has done a bad job of overseeing surveillance doesn't mean the folks in Ellicott City are somehow better equipped to take on that role instead.

It's also wrong to assume that everything the NSA does is bad or harmful to the public interest. Indeed, the agency poses a crucial line of defense in cyberspace attacks and preventing acts of terrorism. Spying has always played a role in national defense and must continue to do so in the electronic age. To assume otherwise is simply naive.

What's needed are reforms to prevent abuses — carefully-considered changes like those recently recommended to President Barack Obama by a task force. The aim is not to neuter the NSA but to make certain it does not wrongly and needlessly violate Americans' right to privacy. The local wastewater treatment plant hardly seems like the place where such lines should be drawn.

Privacy advocates are correct to question the NSA's surveillance practices but wrong to go after Howard County's sewage effluent. Some hard choices have to be made about the agency's spying practices, but that will have to be done by President Obama and Congress, not by County Executive Ken Ulman or the Howard County Council.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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