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NSA has better things to do than read your email [Commentary]

In the wake of the leaks to the media of classified national security information, the nation is embroiled in a policy debate about whether and how the National Security Agency should carry out the collection and use of bulk data. The sensationalized reporting of these leaks has also caused the American public, and the citizens of some of our allies, to raise legitimate concerns about their personal privacy and the legality of NSA's actions.

Unlike the military members and civilian employees that conduct the day-to-day foreign intelligence operations of NSA, the vast majority of Americans are not schooled in the large body of law, policy, mission directives and foreign intelligence tasks that govern and limit NSA's activities — no matter what its purported technical capabilities may be. The training derived from these laws, policies and limitations has created a strong "foreign intelligence mission" culture and focus within the experienced professionals of the NSA workforce.

That workforce — both civilians and uniformed military — is made up of your fellow American citizens, people who swear an oath of service to the Constitution, not a presidential administration. They are patriots who have stepped forward to serve their country in a demanding and often unheralded profession. In doing so, they have allowed the government, on your behalf, to regularly look deeply into their backgrounds, both personal and financial, to strap them to a polygraph to verify their claims and to give them psychological tests. These background checks are designed to verify their trustworthiness and character before allowing them access to classified material like military operational plans and the most sensitive of intelligence sources and methods.

As professionals, their first thought is not, "How can I monitor my fellow citizens today?" Given the variety and number of threats to our nation — including things like the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, narco-trafficking, terrorism and the actions of potential adversaries — they have plenty of work to occupy them within the scope of their authorized foreign intelligence mission.

In accomplishing that mission, with whatever data they obtain or analyze, they are required to protect the privacy and civil liberties of individuals in the U.S. They do that in accordance with the requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other policies and directives along with their own internal requirements and procedures. In addition, they must now obey Presidential Policy Directive 28 (PPD-28) — which codifies long standing basic principles for signals intelligence collection and extends privacy protections to non-U.S. citizens — and the Director of National Intelligence's February 10, 2014 list of limitations on the use of bulk data collection.

I have no doubt that the professionals at NSA will adhere to the additional guidance, because it is both consistent with the manner they approached their duties prior to the issuance of PPD-28, and because they have always adhered to current law and the requirements to protect U.S. person privacy, consistent with their oaths and duty to the Constitution and the nation.

As the American people and their representatives in Congress debate the policy of bulk collection, concerns about privacy, and NSA's foreign intelligence mission, bear this in mind: The NSA workforce is not only trained and focused on protecting the privacy rights of U.S. — and now other nations' — citizens during the conduct of their lawful foreign intelligence mission, they are your fellow citizens and their respect for our Constitution was strong enough that they stepped forward to defend it, and our country. They did not step forward to just wink and nod at the Constitution, and then start reading your e-mail and listening to your phone calls.

The vast majority of the men and women serving in the intelligence community are well educated, competent professionals who work long hours, sometimes overseas for years at a time away from friends and loved ones, and often under the most arduous of circumstances. In fact, since 9/11, 19 of NSA's military assignees have joined 152 others from the NSA in making the ultimate sacrifice for our nation, giving their lives while conducting their missions. I'm certain that when the policy debate is resolved in law, and the law is settled as needed by the courts, the professionals within the intelligence community will continue to do what they have always done — conduct their mission lawfully under congressional oversight.

Tom Wither is the author of the forthcoming novel "The Inheritor" (Turner Publishing, June 2014) and a 25 year veteran of the intelligence community. The views and opinions expressed are his own and are not those of any organization or element of the intelligence community or Department of Defense. His email is

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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