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EDITORIAL: The NSA’s voyeurs

Monitoring the raunchy websites … for our safety

- - Thursday, November 28, 2013

Millions of Americans will take advantage of Black Friday sales to snap up bargains on the latest smart television sets, tablets and mobile phones. As they plug in these electronic gadgets, many consumers may be wondering whether they'll be reporting back on their viewing habits to the government.

The worry isn't far-fetched. Edward J. Snowden's decision to blow the whistle on the National Security Agency's domestic snooping has resulted in a steady drip of ever-more-disturbing revelations. The latest report by Glenn Greenwald in the Huffington Post is that the intelligence community has been watching the pornography-watching habits of others.

The NSA finds a "well-known media celebrity" that it wants to monitor and sets up its equipment so that it knows whenever he logs on to a raunchy website. The list of monitored bad guys released by Mr. Greenwald describes them all as radical Muslims with an outspoken hatred of America, and the snooping was meant to be used as leverage against them. "Some of the vulnerabilities, if exposed, would likely call into question a radicalizer's devotion to the jihadist cause," the memo explains.

Only one target was an American. The rest weren't necessarily violent or immediate threats to U.S. security, but the agency decided to keep dossiers on them just in case. This may seem like a sensible precaution, but it's not a precaution without risk.

If the National Security Agency can keep files of this sort on domestic and foreign threats, what's to stop individuals at the agency from considering politicians and "media celebrities" who call for slashing the NSA budget to also be threats? The intelligence community's assurances that they have their spy tools kept under lock and key fail to persuade. Mr. Snowden walked out of the agency's headquarters with a thumb drive filled with the spy world's darkest secrets. Coca-Cola has done a better job keeping its recipe concealed.

Carelessness is now undermining the prosecution of terrorists, including Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the man arrested to great fanfare three years ago for a plot to bomb a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore. The "bomb" that was intercepted was a fake device rigged by the FBI. Mohamud was no mastermind, as his attempts to join a terrorist training camp overseas failed. The FBI agent in charge of the operation insisted, "Our investigation shows that Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale." Though he had the intention of setting off the device, it's debatable whether this wannabe jihadist would have been able to pull off such an attack on his own.

Troubled by the last-minute admission of prosecutors that Mohamud landed on the FBI's radar screen through NSA snooping, U.S. District Judge Garr King on Tuesday delayed sentencing indefinitely. It's a murky case grown murkier that calls into question how much "safer" we are in a total surveillance state.