Advancing a Free Society

“I’m from the NSA, and We Don’t Get Out Much”

Friday, April 15, 2011

It isn’t every day that a representative of the National Security Agency gives a public speech on the agency’s understanding of “Protecting Civil Liberties in a Cyber Age.” So I thought I would take good notes for Lawfare readers on Patrick Reynolds’ speech today at the Duke Conference. Reynolds is deputy general counsel at the NSA, and he gave a brief overview on the panel of the development of surveillance law. The panel included several other distinguished speakers, but I am focusing here only on Reynolds’ comments. It is a paraphrase, not an effort to transcribe.

Reynolds begins by quipping that he’s from the NSA, and “we don’t get out much.” When he first went to NSA, he says, the joke was that it stood for No Such Agency or Never Say Anything. But then a bunch of newspaper articles and lawsuits brought a lot of information to the public’s attention. What’s more, there was this scene in The Simpsons Movie, he notes, which depicts the NSA as a vast, endless room of people listening to other people ordering pizza, and one person hears a relevant communication and leaps up and announces that he’s done it–actually found someone they’re looking for. Reynolds says he loves this scene because, first, it shows the absurdity of the idea that the NSA is monitoring every communication and, second, because it stands for the fundamental freedom to ridicule and make fun of government.

To consider the issue of civil liberties in a cyber age, Reynolds says, he wants to walk through the intelligence collection side of the NSA’s mission. Because, he notes, the NSA does collect communications of foreign intelligence interest. The civil liberties interest in question, he says, is the Fourth Amendment. And he wants to briefly talk about the development of the relevant Fourth Amendment law, the passage of the FISA in 1978, and the passage of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) in 2008.

Continue reading Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare