President Truman created the NSA with the stroke of a pen at the bottom of a classified 7-page memorandum. Even the name was initially classified. Decades later, the memorandum that acted as the agency's charter remained secret. Reflect on that for a moment. In a representative democracy, the executive branch secretly created a new federal agency and vested it with extraordinary powers. Even the document setting forth those powers was suppressed.
In a representative democracy with a bicameral legislature, Congress was surprised to find that a federal intelligence agency they'd scarcely heard of was bigger and more powerful than one that they'd created. Even after post-Vietnam cutbacks, the NSA counted 68,203 staffers in 1978, making it bigger than all other intelligence agencies combined.
~ from The Secret Story of How the NSA Began by Conor Friedersdorf ~
Over the last few months, the public has begun to learn more about America's most secretive agency. As Friedersdorf makes clear, the recent revelations have been eye-opening even to many of the power brokers. The fact that it has taken this long to learn only the most basic information about the NSA should trouble EVERY American.
Imagine if there had been no Edward Snowden. Imagine if the headlines these past months made only a passing mention of the NSA. Imagine if the NSA still operated in virtual secrecy. Would you feel safer?
Just because we now know of some of the NSA's questionable activities does not mean those activities have come to a halt. But the NSA knows that people are watching them and this offers a degree of constraint, even if only momentarily. An entity that operates in the dark is not constrained by anything. The very fact that the NSA feels constrained at all today is because of the courage and conviction of Edward Snowden as well as journalists like Glenn Greenwald who bravely spoke truth to power.
We owe them our undying gratitude!