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Too much of a good thing [Commentary]

Countless sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines, along with civilian specialists, have passed through the heavily guarded gates of the National Security Agency just down the pike from Baltimore in the world's safest suburb — Fort Meade. I served in the Naval Security Group back in the seventies, when NSA stood for "No Such Agency."

The Cold War. The good old days. Moral clarity. Secrets generally stayed secret, give or take an occasional heart-stopping front page article in the New York Times. None of us questioned the need for constant surveillance, intrusive searches or security devices and techniques right out of a James Bond movie. Little did I know that decades later I would have to go through similar security passing through TSA on my way to Lubbock, Texas.

Edward Snowden, by his own admission an overpaid high school graduate, has changed all that — or has he? Despite his 15 to life of fame, much of Snowden's revelations and the ensuing public debate miss the point.

It is a cardinal principle of intelligent tradecraft that precisely targeted collection ensures a higher quality work product. The Soviets bugged and recorded everything, but their analysis was thought to be poor compared to U.S. intelligence. The constraints of a constitutional democracy forced us to be better, more selective, smarter.

It's simple. If you collect too much raw information, you create a much bigger haystack. It doesn't matter if you find the needle if it is two days late, because you had to sort through so much garbage.

But today our bombs, cellphones and cars are smart, while our intelligence collection is, well, not so smart insofar as selective collection principles are concerned.

With the tremendous explosion of information technology, the intelligence community lost control of the haystack. The ability of human actors to generate information, and to store it, hide it and route it, far exceeded our predictive and proactive analytics. So, collect everything until we figure out what to do with it. Even mighty NSA's capacity was overtaxed. So, outsource. Hire subcontractors. More and more intelligence and raw information left the secure bosom of the puzzle palace and ended up in places like Hawaii, being handled by guys like Edward Snowden. What could possibly go wrong?

To members of the public who are frightened by the fact that some mysterious agency might be prying into their sex lives, some common sense needs to enter the debate. NSA is busy saving your life. They really don't have the time. It amazes me that some politicians claim to honor the military and our veterans, and in the same breath denounce NSA as if it were some foreign threat. The overworked, overachieving and hypertalented men and women I met at NSA were dedicated to one cause. The mission. It is a military organization. They take orders and answer to elected officials.

If you don't like the policies, get out and vote. Or, you could always fly to Moscow by way of Hong Kong and ask Mr. Putin for a visa just as he stomps on Crimea and Donetsk. That may depend on how much you like stuffed cabbages.

The answer to the over-collection problem is twofold. First, to reduce the risk to civil liberties and to improve the quality and timeliness of collection, technological and management systems will have to be developed to ensure more precisely targeted collection. NSA will not remain a whale surviving on plankton forever.

Second, extant mountains of megabytes need to be whittled down. An interagency review panel should be formed and staffed with technical and intelligence experts to classify the existing mountains of data. Collections that have little likelihood of producing actionable information, or whose value is outweighed by civil liberties factors, should be destroyed. Data that may be useful, but is attached to domestic civil liberties issues should be turned over for further processing to a domestic intelligence organization. We already have one. It's called the FBI, and its agents are very good at what they do.

I don't suppose the Ravens will hold a Support Your Local Spook rally at halftime and give out NSA gimme caps any time soon. NSA hates publicity anyway.

But those people are your neighbors, Baltimore. They deserve your support. And they deserve the support of a grateful nation.

Have another stuffed cabbage, Mr. Snowden?

Gary Sullivan is a Dallas-based international lawyer. In the mid-seventies, he served as a Russian language cryptologist in the U.S. Navy in Misawa, Japan and Fort Meade. His email is sullivangb@gmail.com.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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