NSA says they only 'touch' 1.4% of internet traffic a day

The website Ars Technica points us to this rare release by the NSA that seeks to justify its snooping.

It is obviously self serving, and I find it strange that they would use the numbers dodge to try and reassure us about surveillance. It doesn't matter how little or how much of the internet they "touch." What matters is who they touch and why.

On the same day that President Barack Obama spoke to the press about possible surveillance reforms--and released a related white paper on the subject--the National Security Agency came out with its own rare, publicly-released, seven-page document (PDF), essentially justifying its own practices.

The entire document is dated August 9, 2013, and has no attributable names or contact details on it. Its most striking portion? A separate block of text on page six, which states:

According to figures published by a major tech provider, the Internet carries 1,826 Petabytes of information per day. In its foreign intelligence mission, NSA touches about 1.6% of that. However, of the 1.6% of the data, only 0.025% is actually selected for review. The net effect is that NSA analysts look at 0.00004% of the world's traffic in conducting their mission--that's less than one part in a million. Put another way, if a standard basketball court represented the global collection would be represented by an area smaller than a dime on that basketball court.

And, nearly directly below that section, the NSA presents its strongest categorical denial of using foreign partners to circumvent American law:

NSA partners with well over 30 different nations in order to conduct its foreign intelligence mission. In every case, NSA does not and will not use a relationship with a foreign intelligence service to ask that service to do what NSA is itself prohibited by law from doing. These partnerships are an important part of the US and allied defense against terrorists, cyber threat actors, and others who threaten our individual and collective security. Both parties to these relationships benefit.

The document begins by referencing the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, and notes that the NSA "did not have the tools or the database to search to identify [terorrist] connections and share them with the FBI." The NSA then argues: "We do not need to sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of national security; both are integral to who we are as Americans. NSA can and will continue to conduct its operations in a manner that respects both."

In the conclusion of the document, an apparent slap at Snowden:

In addition to NSA's compliance safeguards, NSA personnel are obligated to report when they believe NSA is not, or may not be, acting consistently with law, policy, or procedure. This self-reporting is part of the culture and fabric of NSA. If NSA is not acting in accordance with law, policy, or procedure, NSA will report through its internal and external intelligence oversight channels, conduct reviews to understand the root cause, and make appropriate adjustments to constantly improve.

We can't interview anyone in the agency to verify any of these statements. No doubt, the written policy is as they explain it.

What Snowden uncovered is that the written safeguards can be and are circumvented. What punishment is meted out to an analyst who accesses - accidentally or otherwise - an American citizen's communications? The "self-reporting" culture is another fine sounding policy, but in the real world, what happens to that analyst? Snowden obviously felt that he wasn't going to get satisfaction from his superiors, which is why he broke the law and went public. Would he also have been targeted for professional retaliation if he had kept his concerns in house? We'll never know.

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