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Will The NSA Rethink Its Data Collection System?


We've started hearing from some of the Internet companies implicated in the NSA data collection scandal. On Friday, Facebook and Microsoft disclosed for the first time that last year they received thousands of requests from the government to hand over information about their users. Meanwhile, the National Security Agency is still on the defensive. The agency's head spoke on Capitol Hill last week in an effort to reassure lawmakers that the NSA is not spying on Americans.

Joel Brenner was the inspector general for the NSA from 2002 to 2006. And we started by asking him what happens when an American's name pops up in a batch of emails the NSA is monitoring. He told us that if the information has no foreign intelligence value, it is then discarded.

JOEL BRENNER: If the email does have foreign intelligence value, the intelligence can be reported but the identity of the American will be masked unless the person receiving the report says: I need to know who it is, in order to understand the - what's being said here or the import of what's being said. And the rules about so-called reverse targeting are very severe. We don't target foreigners in order to get at the American.

We'll be targeting a foreigner; if the foreigner is in communication with an American, we'll find that out. And the only reason we'd be interested in that is if we had some reason to think that the foreigner had foreign intelligence or terrorist-related information.

MARTIN: If you inadvertently discover something suspicious about an American involved in these communications though, when you say you just disregard it, do not pass along that information to the FBI? Do you forget you ever saw it?

BRENNER: You forget you ever saw it if it has no foreign intelligence value, with the exception of if there's imminent threat to life or property. I mean, really imminent threat, then they can be reported. Otherwise it's discarded. And there are now increasingly rigorous oversight mechanisms at NSA. There is quite a robust compliance organization that does internal auditing of how this collection is done. And my former organization, the Office of the Inspector General, I'm also proud to say, led the way in beginning the auditing process.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit about classification. General Keith Alexander, who's the head currently of the NSA, told a committee on Capitol Hill that he wants to release details about potential terrorist attacks that were averted as a result of these collection processes.

If those details were so important, why can they now be made public?

BRENNER: Maybe what had been secret isn't secret anymore. That's one likely answer to the question. We're suffering from an over-classification epidemic, I think of a radical kind. And I don't believe that any of the propositions for dealing with it goes deep enough. You know, there's an economics of information just the way there is of anything else. If you create too much of something, the value of it goes down. It's a supply and demand.

Right now, we are creating a supply of over-classified information that brings disrepute on the whole program. And so, people become cynical about what's being classified.

MARTIN: And I'd like to wrap up talking about the issue of trust. The public outcry that we have seen has been about trust in government and feeling a little bit betrayed that information has been culled and is being analyzed. So what do you do?

BRENNER: The rules have to be understood. We have people who want to do us harm who are inside our borders. If you find someone overseas who's really a bad actor out to do us harm, and you find out that somebody in Yemen is having that conversation with somebody in Newark, you need to know that. Now, some people have said, well, why then do you have to collect all this other information about what the rest of us are saying?

The answer to that is you want to know who the guy in Newark was talking to yesterday. And that's the reason why we've needed to collect this stuff and why we have to have really strong rules about when NSA or the FBI can look at it. But that's why they need it.

MARTIN: Joel Brenner, he's a former inspector general at the NSA. He's also the author of "America the Vulnerable: Inside the New Threat Matrix of Digital Espionage Crime and Warfare." He joins us in our studios in Washington.

Mr. Brenner, thank you so much.

BRENNER: You're very welcome.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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