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Should the NSA have asked for permission?

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
NSA, Getty Images

On one hand, it should come as little surprise that the National Security Agency secretly cast a broad net over Salt Lake City to intercept private electronic communications during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. On the other hand, the nature of the surveillance only adds to concerns the NSA has too often leaped past the boundaries of legal propriety in its efforts to thwart terrorism.

In the context of the time — five months after the Sept. 11 attacks — it is reasonable the government deployed resources to guard against an assault on such a high-profile international event. But again, it isn't what the NSA did, but how it did it. The agency positioned itself with the help of Qwest Communications to intercept virtually every email and text message out of Salt Lake City for six months, without notifying local authorities and without apparently any judicial oversight.

The action effectively turned upside down the premise of constitutional protection against unwarranted search and seizure. In essence, for six months, everybody in the Salt Lake metropolitan area was considered, de facto, a suspect.

Given separate news recently that the NSA admitted to overstepping constitutional bounds in three subsequent but similar data collection efforts, the Olympics episode only tends to confirm worries the NSA views its mission as one in which the ends justify the means.

Whether it does or not is a question made equivocal by changing context. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, there were questions as to whether it was wise to even go forward with hosting the Olympic games. No doubt, there was enormous pressure to ensure a secure environment for athletes and visitors, who included heads of state. With the stakes so high, it is not outrageous that the government chose to unleash all of the vast surveillance resources at its disposal.

But the decisions made at that time should not have been allowed to lapse into precedent, setting the stage for a state of perpetual vigilance in which privacy rights are relegated to afterthought. In efforts involving the Salt Lake Olympics and in who knows how many others, the NSA has put itself in a position of having to ask for forgiveness, having failed to ask for permission.

For most Americans, forgiveness is easier to grant if there is confidence that going forward, the transgressions won't be repeated. In that context, revelations of what the NSA did in Salt Lake City in 2002 are healthy, helping to further a necessary public vetting over what happens when an intelligence agency operates without effective checks and balances.