- - Thursday, January 1, 2015

Presidents, governors and even mayors have learned to schedule the release of news it wants to stuff unseen down the memory hole to Fridays and during holidays, and the practice is so common now that reporters are doubly wary in staking out the White House and crucial federal agencies as weekends and holidays approach.

It happened again last week. When nearly everybody else was busy with ribbons and wrapping paper or rushing out to do a little last-minute panic shopping, the folks at the National Security Agency busied themselves with a data dump they devoutly hoped nobody would see, or if they did, read it closely. They knew better than to waste opportunity in the Christmas frenzy.

The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a lawsuit citing the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the NSA’s quarterly reports, as required by law, for the president’s oversight intelligence board. The NSA, bowing to the inevitable, gritted agency teeth and released the reports rather than have a court ordering them to do so.

The reports were released at 1:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, when the agency knew that most reporters would be looking for cookies and Christmas cheer, not a decade’s worth of previously withheld bureaucratic prose. Interesting as the substance buried within might prove to be with further study and analysis, the carefully calculated release would minimize coverage by the newspapers and the television outlets. It was a bet the NSA would win.

The news shows on the Sunday following Christmas didn’t touch on them, and there were few if any headlines reporting that, contrary to assurances earlier given under oath to Congress, NSA officers did in fact use the power and authority of the agency to spy on the innocent and unsuspecting. The report verified, for example, that in at least a dozen cases, NSA employees spied on the files of husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends and maybe even little children. The curiosity of government snoops and spooks knows no bounds, particularly if there’s a scent of sex and money.

The NSA naturally minimized the importance of these breaches of the law much as the IRS did when it was discovered only yesterday that IRS employees often couldn’t restrain their curiosity, and peeked into the returns of neighbors they didn’t like or celebrities they wanted to know more about. In both cases, what happened, and went largely unpunished, was dismissed as rare and therefore not something that should worry anyone. Would your government lie to you?

Incidents like this give everyone something to worry about, an illustration of the dangers in giving the power to spy on American citizens, even without authorization, to government bureaucrats who are, among other things, human. The executive summary of the NSA report includes an “assurance” that “the vast majority of compliance incidents involve unintentional technical or human error.” That may be true, but anyone vaguely familiar with the scope of the power and reach of the NSA is entitled to be skeptical. How many of the remaining incidents of snoopery were from a conscious decision to break the law?

That’s a question that remains unanswered. But from what was learned after previous NSA assurances that nothing wrong was done, it’s a safe assumption that illegal snoopery incidents could be measured in the dozens. If there’s only good news in these reports to the president’s oversight intelligence board, why release them on Christmas Eve? Who must you believe, the NSA or your own suspicions?

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