I have never witnessed a political debate that was more ill informed and hypocritical than this one -- and I mean on all sides. It's just appalling.
The NSA's mission is secretive, but based on the writing of the best informed journalists, like Bamford, the NSA's primary mission is not counter terrorism. There aren't enough terrorists in the world to justify its size and what it does. In Bamford's 2001 book, there isn't even a mention of terrorism nor an entry in the index about terrorism or Osama bin Laden -- although Bamford wrote a hasty addendum because the book came out shortly after 9/11.
Nor does the NSA really give a rat's ass about your email or phone calls. I do believe that the NSA collects these primarily as a by product of its actual mission. The NSA does sometimes allow its technical means to be used by the FBI.
Other than that, most of what the NSA spokesmen are saying is pure rubbish.
The primary mission of the NSA has been military signals and diplomatic intelligence.
The NSA does not care about you, your email or your sexting.
Some of its operations are trying to listen to the traffic of every ship in the Russian and Chinese navies, trying to listen to every single embassy in the US and every office in the UN including that of the Secretary General (this was a forgotten scandal of the Bush era), listening to Russian armies on exercises (there's a funny passage in Bamford about this), trying to track down the Lord's Resistance Army in the eastern Congo, trying to listen to what the hell Bashir Assad and his inner circle are debating about, listening to Pakistan's nuclear scientists, trying to figure out whether some Russian technician at a nuclear weapons depot is negotiating to sell a small nuclear weapon, trying to penetrate North Korea, and on and on and on.
The NSA even had for a long time "the tire lady." Her job was to monitor airplane tires on ships because that could be used to determine what kind of military aircraft each country had. There are crate people who study shipping crates to know what's inside. There are more mathematicians than at any university math department in the country whose main function is encryption.
Americans are sooooo solipsistic and narcisistic that they can't even imagine that Russian nuclear weapons depots are more important than their angry online rants. There are even DK members who think that their blogging or Occupy has the government quaking in their boots and that the NSA is the response.
This isn't about keeping us safe from terrorists, although that is how the NSA finds it convenient to sell itself to a gullible public.
Not only is a lot of this spying probably a good thing, but it is legally required by international treaty.
The idea that other countries are "outraged" is the biggest bullshit I've ever heard. Ever since the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviets (and successors the Russians) decided that it was important for both sides to know what the other was doing and actually put into missile treaties a code word for spying -- "national technical means of verification."
This level of collection has been going on for decades.
The US is required by treaty to spy on the Russians;
The Russians are required by treaty to spy on the US;
The US is required by treaty not to interfere with Russian spying on us;
The Russians are required by treaty not to interfere with the US spying on them.
The closest allies of the US, British, Canadians, and Australians, have arrangements whereby they spy on each other.
There are also treaties like the Open Skies Treaty which requires several countries to spy on each other and allow spying.
Has the NSA saved lives -- other than from terrorism? Who knows, but we didn't have another Cuban missile crisis and the nuclear weapons treaties have been pretty effective.
So maybe the NSA saved no lives; maybe it saved several billions lives. Who knows?
Is it worth the cost? Should the global community of nations move to a new more inexpensive open source intelligence system? That would be a much more interesting debate to have than the incredibly simplistic one we're having.
Geez, this debate just depresses the heck out of me. It's as simplistic as a debate can get.
Quick Update and then out the door till afternoon:
I didn't mean the debate here at DK. I mean the debate in the media. The terms of the debate have been set by two factions: The NSA which knows a big chunk of the public will sacrifice anything for terra, terra, terra, and the libertarians, like Greenwald, who want us to think it's about privacy. Both aspects are relevant, but we're leaving out about 90% of the actual policy issues raised. They are preventing us from having the real debate because they've framed the issues in their self interested ways.
As for facts, this was quick, but based on reading and research. Just google "national technical means of verification," echelon, or read Bamford's books.