Once again, a major terrorist attack has taken and altered hundreds of innocent lives, this time in France.  While we share France’s grief, and stand with them to help thwart further attacks, the assault by three coordinated teams of murderers acting in the name of the self-declared Islamic State bring to the fore-front of our minds what our nation is doing to protect us.

CIA Director John Brennan recently denounced the ‘hand-wringing’ over intrusive government spying and exposure of intelligence programs.  We need organizations like NSA working to find, fix, and help eliminate terrorist threats to our nation’s and our ally’s citizens, and protect critical infrastructure like power, banking, and transportation; and those efforts must be grounded in our constitutional values.

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In spite of the massive leaks by Edward Snowden of NSA’s much discussed court authorized and overseen telephone call records program, and the international furor over the possibility that NSA may misuse any of the technical capabilities it develops for intelligence gathering to monitor innocent civilians; it’s important to bear in mind that organizations like NSA have a long history of conducting its foreign intelligence mission under a set of stringent privacy protections.

At least as early as July of 1993, NSA issued a detailed roadmap for NSA signals intelligence operations personnel to protect U.S. person privacy.  Called United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, “Legal Compliance and U.S. Persons Minimization Procedures”, and developed from Executive Order, U.S. law, and DoD regulations, it is the defining internal document for constitutional compliance during SIGINT operations. To help restore public confidence in NSA after the Snowden leaks, President Obama issued Presidential Policy Directive 28 in early 2014, adding a set of supplementary procedures to USSID 18 (not countermanding or voiding it) that extended privacy protections to citizens of other nations and laid out in black and white specific civil liberty protections, among other provisions.

The men and women conducting SIGINT operations at NSA are the guardians of your privacy, and now as a result of PDD-28, the privacy of other nation’s citizens as well – they are not mindless drones who throw the constitution away when they choose to serve their country as some in the media and Mr. Snowden might have you believe. 

According to a 2012 figure, NSA employs more than 30,000 professionals. Men and women who undergo an invasive background investigation that starts with filling out a 120-page form, subject themselves to a psychological screening and a polygraph exam, and undergo drug testing to serve our nation.

How many jobs in the service sector, medical profession, banking, manufacturing, or the news media require that kind of scrutiny?  I believe that if these men and women thought they were violating our constitutional values, more of them would be talking to the Inspector General, Congress and the media – in fact, they would have an affirmative duty to talk to the IG and Congress. They would not be living in exile in Russia while being praised by some members of the very organization claiming responsibility for the recent attacks in France.

Finally, it is widely understood by professionals in the telecommunications industry, information security, and SIGINT operations that telecommunications laws, like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which sets limitations on NSA’s operations, must keep pace with the rapid advances of modern technology. Such laws are infrequently updated as Congress spends its time on more politically contentious issues.

U.S. intelligence officers of all stripes will be the first to tell you that they want clear, specific legal guidance that keeps pace with technology so that they can do their jobs effectively and within the constitutional framework they swore an oath to defend. I strongly believe that law enforcement professionals also want that kind of guidance – and need it as we learn more and more about law enforcement and IRS use of the ‘STINGRAY’ cell tower simulator and the FBI’s reconnaissance flights over Baltimore during the spring riots.

As we mourn with our French allies, and continue to monitor the Islamic State’s actions, eventually defeating it and its ideology of intolerance and hatred, let us do so with a clear understanding. Your fellow citizens, at NSA, other intelligence community agencies, and in law enforcement are doing difficult and demanding work every day on your behalf.  We should give them the benefit of the doubt, a measure of trust, the proper legal tools and authorities, and gain reassurance of their continued fidelity to our constitutional values through improved transparency – they will welcome it. 

Wither is an intelligence professional and computer security expert with more than 25 years of experience, and the author of two military/intelligence thrillers: "The Inheritor" (Turner Publishing, June 2014) and "Autumn Fire" (Turner Publishing, September 2014). The views and opinions expressed are his own and are not those of any organization or element of the intelligence community or Department of Defense.