Michael Scherer writes: The National Security Agency began the week with a public relations coup: a favorable segment on the spy agency by the CBS News program 60 Minutes. The segment was authored by CBS correspondent John Miller, an intelligence community veteran and former public affairs officer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who failed to disclose to viewers that he was eyeing a return to his career in law enforcement when the episode aired, a fact that was first reported by the New York Post.
In the segment, Miller described the controversy over the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata as partly the result of confusion. “So you understand then, there might be a little confusion among Americans who read in the newspaper that the N.S.A. has vacuumed up, the records of the telephone calls of every man, woman and child in the United States for a period of years—that sounds like spying on Americans,” Miller said, in one of his questions to NSA Director Keith Alexander.
Miller’s apparent suggestion here, endorsed by Alexander, was that the collection of metadata phone records does not amount to domestic spying, because the records do not include the content of calls and the records are searched only when there is a suspected terrorist target. “Metadata has become one of the most important tools in the NSA’s arsenal,” said Miller.
This is precisely the message the NSA has been trying to get out, ever since its contractor, Edward Snowden, stole and released documents disclosing the once classified program. And there is a clear urgency to the NSA mission. The public relations war matters because Congress is now considering reform bills that could put an end to the program. Sometime next year, public polling about how American’s feel about their information being collected will play a role in determining the outcome of the debate.
But the NSA’s moment of glory was short-lived. Hours after the show aired, Federal District Judge Richard Leon, an appointee of George W. Bush, ruled that the very same program was likely unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, a fact that lead newscasts and newspapers on Tuesday. [Continue reading…]