Commentary

Healthcare.gov May Not Work, but the National Security Agency Does

When it comes to Healthcare.gov, President Obama and his minions look like the gang that couldn’t code straight. But don’t fear for American ingenuity: Other parts of the federal government remain capable of tremendous technological feats.

In one month in late 2012, for instance, the National Security Agency quietly sucked up data on some 60 million phone calls in Spain, and the agency has had a tap on German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone for years now — all without alerting Obama.

That’s what NSA officials told the Wall Street Journal, anyway: The agency “has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to have briefed him on all of them.”

“These decisions are made at the NSA,” a “senior U.S. official” said.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t take the NSA or the president at their word, but I find this denial fairly plausible. Our post-9/11 surveillance state has grown increasingly inscrutable, expensive and out of control.

As the Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin document in their book, “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” since 9/11, Americans “have shelled out hundreds of billions dollars to turn the machine of government over to defeating terrorism without ever really questioning what they were getting for their money.”

Answers are hard to come by, because the “intelligence-industrial complex” operates behind a veil of secrecy, and because, even at the top, “the officials themselves don’t actually know.”

“I’m going to be honest, I don’t know how many products we produce,” a top intel official admitted to Priest, noting that projects he’d deemed useless lumber on: “‘Like a zombie, it keeps on living,’ the official chuckled.”

“There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs [Special Access Programs] — that’s God,” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told Priest. (And, despite what you sometimes hear on MSNBC, Obama is not God.)

Meanwhile, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has just reauthorized the continuing bulk collection of hundreds of millions of law-abiding Americans’ calling records — a serious privacy risk given how revealing mass metadata can be.

On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, New York Republican Rep. Peter King, a serial defender of federal spying, insisted that Obama “should stop apologizing,” because “the NSA has saved thousands of lives, not just in the United States, but in France, Germany and throughout Europe.”

Europe aside, the claim that the NSA has saved “thousands of lives” in the U.S. is almost certainly false. In a valuable analysis, ProPublica looks at NSA defenders’ talking point that “at least 50” terrorist plots have been thwarted thanks to the disputed programs. “There’s no evidence that the oft-cited figure is accurate,” ProPublica concluded.

The NSA has released information on only four of the 54 cases. They include a Somali-American cab driver convicted of sending $8,500 to the Somalian terror group al Shabbab and a plot to attack a Danish newspaper (actually foiled by a tip from British intelligence).

Another case, which an FBI official ominously described as “nascent plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange,” involved three Muslim-American wannabe jihadis who sent thousands of dollars to al Qaeda contacts in Yemen who “may have been scamming [them].”

The “plot” consisted of a one-page report containing “public information easily available from Google Earth, tourist maps and brochures” — the plotter’s “contact in Yemen ‘tore up the report,’ ‘threw it in the street,’ and never showed it to anyone.”

Is this the best they’ve got? If so, it’s not nearly enough.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.