Edward Snowden during a meeting with German Green Party MP Hans-Christian Stroebele (not pictured) regarding being a witness for a possible investigation into NSA spying in Germany, on Oct. 31, 2013 in Moscow, Russia.

CBS’ flawed NSA story


On Sunday, CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a segment on the National Security Agency, which is under fire following revelations that the agency engages in much broader surveillance than publicly acknowledged.

The segment – which largely allowed NSA officials to justify their conduct without rebuttal – elided key criticisms made by civil liberties groups and members of Congress who are seeking to limit the agency’s powers, and misrepresented many of their objections.

A subsequent segment offered a rather one-sided take on former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, portraying him as a paranoid “high school dropout” who cheated on a test to gain employment at the NSA.

Here are some issues with the segments:

Focus on communications’ content 

Prompted by CBS Correspondent John Miller, who formerly worked for the office of the director of national intelligence, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander repeated that the NSA is not collecting the content of Americans’ phone calls or emails. U.S. officials have repeated this defense ad nauseum, but it mostly misses the point: That metadata – the time, duration and identifying information for both ends of a call – can say as much if not more about you than the content of your phone conversations.

No questions about intelligence officials’ misleading public statements

Not once did Miller ask Keith Alexander about misleading public statements both he and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made stating that NSA does not collect data on Americans – statements they were compelled to admit were false following leaks by Snowden.

No contrary voices

No civil liberties or privacy groups were quoted in the segment. When Alexander seemingly contradicted a Washington Post story showing that the NSA had tapped into data centers for web providers Google and Yahoo, there was little pushback from Miller.

Alexander insisted that there was no intelligence value in spying on Americans, while simultaneously stating that NSA surveillance would have foiled the 9/11 attacks by catching calls made by two hijackers in California to a safe house in Yemen. The notion that domestic surveillance isn’t at all of interest to the NSA is hard to square with Alexander’s contention that the agency would have been able to ferret out a call at least one end of which was domestic. Similarly, Miller never asked how metadata collection could both be no threat to anyone’s privacy and also be “one of the most important tools in the NSA’s arsenal” for gathering intelligence.

Similarly, the usefulness of the programs some in Congress are trying to change was never challenged. Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said in August that there is “absolutely zero evidence that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act has provided any unique value to intelligence gathering or actually made Americans any safer,” but the segment never even raised the question.

The debate over national security law, surveillance and counterterrorism can be hard to follow and it is important that government officials be allowed to give their version of events. But it hardly seems responsible to allow them to do so uncritically.