WASHINGTON – The National Security Agency, probably the most secretive of the U.S. intelligence branches, has very limited congressional oversight, and those privileged few – generally the chairmen of the respective intelligence committees in the House and Senate – cannot divulge information to other members.

Supporters say it’s needed for national security.

But a human rights organization is warning that such “national security” efforts may, in fact, be undermining the democracy on which America was built, or worse.

“A system of secret surveillance for the protection of national security many undermine or even destroy democracy, under the cloak of defending it,” warns the European Court of Human Rights, a part of the European Union’s European Council.

The issue of secret spying on Americans has been flooding the headlines since whistleblower Edward Snowden grabbed as many classified surveillance secrets from the government as he could, then took off on a globe-trotting trip and started spilling secrets about the tentacles Washington is using to spy on individual Americans.

Not that the public still knows a lot, despite Snowden’s revelations.

Like the rest of the intelligence community, NSA’s budget is highly classified and is intermingled in the Department of Defense budget, making any oversight difficult if not impossible by Congress.

“We know very little – that’s the honest truth,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The problem is, that makes it difficult to have an open, public debate about the cost effectiveness, when the costs are not even known.”

Because all intelligence programs are embedded throughout the Defense Department budget, it is almost impossible to determine the cost of a given operation. However, an aggregate figure for all intelligence annually approaches $100 billion.

NSA found itself in the spotlight based on Snowden’s revelations that the super-secret agency was gathering phone numbers, emails and other forms of electronic communications on all Americans in addition to foreigners.

Snowden, said to be an information technology expert even though he didn’t have a college degree, formerly was with the Central Intelligence Agency before going to the Washington-based defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

He had been employed there for only three months when he first made his revelations that raised immediate questions over privacy vs. national security – and whether such intelligence collection, even on people not suspected of terrorism, was constitutional.

Or is in a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and therefore illegal?

In making this revelation, he was in violation of a non-Disclosure Agreement all government and defense contractor employees must sign when granted Top Secret Compartmented clearances.

However, the revelation also gave the American people a limited idea on the extent and scope of NSA’s intelligence-gathering even on everyday Americans.

Further revelations then showed that NSA was eavesdropping on members of the European Union at a time when they were discussing with the U.S. the prospect of a trans-Atlantic free trade zone which would be a boom to the Western economies, including that of the U.S., because of the lowering of tariff barriers.

Those talks have been suspended, as Europe now seeks to increase tariffs on certain commodities to the U.S.

As one spy program, PRISM, became more public knowledge, it was determined that NSA also was capturing the actual content of conversations and emails but was supposed to go to a secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to obtain a warrant for domestic surveillance, except for spying on foreign agents operating in the U.S.

For this exception, the FISA established a secret federal court to issue search warrants to spy on foreign agents.

But, according to Judge Andrew Napolitano, a former judge on the Superior Court of New Jersey, “The constitutional standard for all search warrants is probable cause of crime.”

He also has written eight books on the U.S. Constitution.

Napolitano pointed out that the FISA requirement of foreign agent later morphed into foreign person.

“This, of course, was an even lesser standard and one rarely rejected by the FISA court,” Napolitano said.

He said that the FISA court in fact has granted search warrants in more than 97 percent of the applications presented.

“This is hardly harmless,” Napolitano said, “as foreign persons in the U.S. are frequently talking to Americans in the U.S.

“Thus, not only did FISA violate the privacy rights of foreigners, it violated the rights of those with whom they were communicating, American or non-American,” he said.

He also pointed out that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t just cover Americans’ privacy rights but also those of foreigners, since it protects “people,” not just Americans.

The 2001 Patriot Act went even further by permitting federal agents to write their own search warrants in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Napolitano said, by actually amending FISA so as to do away with the FISA-issued search warrant requirement when the foreign person is outside the U.S.

“This means that if you email or call your cousin in Europe or a business colleague in Asia, the feds are reading or listening, without a warrant, without suspicion, without records and without evidence of anything unlawful,” he said.

It also now has been revealed that federal agents can bypass the court process to obtain content of conversations basically by filling out a form that says disclosure is in connection with official duties of the analyst.

In all, experts say that NSA has the current capability of gathering all communications of all people on earth and storing it for the next 100 years.

Gen. Keith Alexander is the current NSA director. James Bamford, a one-time intelligence analyst with the Navy who then went on to become a journalist, wrote an extensive expose of NSA – which some refer to as “No Such Agency” – in a book called “The Puzzle Palace.”

Bamford also has written about the NSA super-secret PRISM which monitors all U.S. and international phone calls, and NSA’s new intelligence center in Bluffdale, Utah, which is in addition to its headquarters at Ft. Meade, Md.

Says Bamford of Alexander: “Never before has anyone in America’s intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign or the depth of his secrecy.”

The still-unfinished NSA Utah facility is said to be the nation’s “biggest spy center,” according to sources. It is due to be completed by September 2013.

While there are no actual cost figures for the facility, estimates suggest it could approach more than $1.5 billion. And that’s before all of the specialized equipment and interior modernization of facilities is completed.

The Utah facility is said to be the intelligence community’s first Comprehensive National Cyber-security Initiative, or IC/CNCI, data center.

It will become the central repository for all of the signals intelligence gathers from around the world and placed on what is expected to be an extraordinary amount of computer power. Those are called “novel computer platforms” and are systems designed to accumulate the vast amount of expected data and to exploit that information.

The amount of data is said to be measured in “zettabytes,” although the amount of zettabytes remains unknown.

To get an idea of the volume, there are a thousand gigabytes in a terabyte, a thousand terabytes in a petabyte, a thousand petabytes in an exabyte and a thousand exabytes in a zettabyte.

According to one wag, “Some of our employees like to refer to them as ‘alottabytes.'”

In effect, it will make the Utah facility the most complex fusion center in the world for data mining information.

Much of the data and analysis stemming from it will be shared with the U.S.’ allies, some of whom have similar eavesdropping capabilities as the U.S. They also use their capabilities on their own citizens and foreign nationals.

The U.S.’s closest ally, Great Britain, has a capability which is almost a mirror image of the NSA. Its facility, GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters, is Britain’s center for signals intelligence.

Its equivalent to NSA’s PRISM is Tempora, Britain’s own version of a clandestine data-gathering and electronic surveillance program.

Since 2010, Tempora has had access to the U.S. internet monitoring program PRISM, which gives NSA and the FBI easy access to the systems of nine of the world’s top internet companies including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Skype.

These companies have given NSA access to their “backdoor” keys for encrypted systems that allows NSA to monitor all messages, texts and information that is being looked up in an effort to determine patterns of behavior to warrant further investigation.

NSA’s intrusion into peoples’ privacy without adequate oversight will leave open the strong prospect that it can invade people’s lives without notice or justification, on the basis of trying to fight terrorism.

However, continued acceptance of this practice by Congress will make it nearly impossible for Americans to take it to task in court or anywhere else, underscoring the prospect that secret surveillance to protect national security may indeed undermine or even destroy the very democracy it is trying to defend.

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