Sometime yesterday (depending on your time zone), a vehicle exploded Waziristan. Riding inside was the leader of the Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, who was returning to his compound for the night. Taliban leaders met today to determine his successor.
The leader's death along with the six others in the car came at the hands of a US drone. Attacks like these are becoming such a common occurrence, that it will likely not make the television news in the US. Instead we will talk about healthcare.gov and listening to cell phone calls of foreign leaders.
But as chilling as we may find recent NSA revelations, we might want to remember, who created them. We did! If you raise a dog to guard your property, you don't blame the dog when it bites a kid, who hopped the fence after a ball.
Twelve years ago seems like an eternity, but we shouldn't be so quick to forget the atmosphere created in the wake of 9/11. Many were angry at the terrorists, who struck our nation, but there was an undercurrent of anger against the US intelligence apparatus. Every newspaper and politician were quick to point out the dots, which weren't connected leading up to the attacks. Both the NSA and CIA were heavy targets of criticism, despite both agencies bringing warnings to the Bush administration.
At that time the role of the NSA was passive. It collected signals intelligence, then passed recommendations up the chain. Targets of monitoring were limited to known threats. Often their recommendations went unheeded, because the information was imperfect. The political wing of the government doesn't like delving into grey areas.
After 9/11, there was an implicit pressure placed on these agencies. The unsaid message was, if something goes wrong, you are to blame. We as the American people charged them with the a new responsibility. We wanted them to act as oracles, and heads would roll if they failed to deliver.
So they began building a database unlike any, which had existed in human history. The NSA removed the filters of known threats. They began collecting everything, and focusing instead on the mechanisms for searching and analyzing the mountain of information being collected.
Imagine you are running an air traffic control radar screen. Predicting the future is really just a matter of velocity and vector. If you know where an object is going and how fast it is moving, you can begin predicting when collisions will occur. This is proving your radar picks up all the airplanes moving through the space you are watching. If instead you only were able to track five percent of the aircraft, your predictions would be very inexact, and collisions would become more likely.
Likewise the NSA has learned not to ask 'why are we collecting this information?'. Doing so would return them to their traditional charter, which was signals intelligence on a relevance basis. They now exist under the expectation they should be able to provide leaders with where and when the next threat will occur.
This is endemic of American culture. We want what we want, but reserve the right to wash our hands of the costs paid in getting said thing. The reason no one has stopped the drone programs is because at a basic level Americans want the US to go out and 'kill the bad guys'. More than want, we expect them to do so. If one of those bad guys slips through, there will be hell to pay by the people we charged with getting them.
If we want to fix the NSA, we need to make decisions about what their role should be. More than this, we need to accept responsibility for our roles in setting expectations. If we expect an activist intelligence charter of these agencies, then we are asking for them to cross ethical lines.