Firstly, there is no evidence that the NSA is broadly reading the e-mails or listening to phone calls of Americans not under investigation. There has not been one program exposed that includes evidence of such broad actions against American citizens.
Why does this myth exist: This, like most of the NSA myths, is mostly the result of intentionally poor journalism by Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald admits he is actually an activist. His interest is reducing all surveillance, not just on Americans. The problem with this is that is not a popular position so Greenwald purposefully omits and reframes information that would distinguish areas that most Americans care about and those that he does. For example, he has purposefully made the distinction between metadata and content non-existent in many of his articles. Furthermore. Greenwald often includes the suggestion that many of these programs can target Americans, but no evidence that they do. Obviously the NSA has the ability to target Americans, but that doesn’t mean that is something they are actively doing. The FBI and countless agencies also have the ability to tap your phone, but they do not do so without a warrant because it is illegal. The NSA has similar rules, and unlike metadata, there is no evidence the FISA court approves broad warrants for content. Does this mean the system is perfect already? No. It is perfectly valid to suggest we might want more safe guards and transparency, but the suggestion they are currently abusing these things is without basis.
Another major reason that this myth is easy for many to believe is because of the widespread abuses of power within the Obama administration. Between the DOJ spying on reporters and the IRS scandal, many conservatives have a hard time believing that any part of this administration does not abuse the power it has available to it. This is understandable, but those same people also need to understand the NSA is somewhat different from those agencies. It is not nearly as politically partisan and really does not change much from one administration to the next. An overwhelming majority of NSA personnel are current and former military. These are people used to following orders and achieving objectives, not those seeking to abuse their position to promote political goals. Obviously there are exceptions.
Another myth is that NSA mostly spies on Americans. The NSA is a foreign intelligence agency. Even including metadata, overwhelming majority of what the NSA does relates to foreign intelligence. There are legitimate arguments over the effectiveness of these programs, but they are very different than the concerns over spying on Americans.
Metadata: A real concern that alarmed many Americans was learning that the NSA was collecting metadata from phone companies through a broad FISA order that is almost automatically renewed every 90 days. This is very alarming to many Americans that believe this data is protected. It is perfectly legitimate to want a real discussion about whether these programs are necessary or legal.
Let us starts with legality. Another myth is that this collection definitively violates the 4th amendment. That assertion actually goes against precedent, which is why anyone challenging the practice in court on those grounds would be unlikely to win. The justification for this is that the metadata, which consists of things like who you called and e-mailed, does not belong to you, but instead the companies that you used to perform that service. Another words, while what you say in a phone call is protected, whom you call is information that actually belongs to the phone company and shows up on your phone bill. A counter-argument to this, which has not yet been successful, is that technological advances now allow metadata to lead to actual content. For example, the ability to ping where calls came from essentially also provides your location, which many would consider protected without a specific warrant.
Just because broad collection of metadata may not be a 4th amendment violation does not mean it is legal. For it to be legal, it would need to be approved by statute. Supporters claim that this is within the FISA statute, but the language and comments by some of the Congressional members that passed the statute seem to suggest otherwise. Furthermore, even if the program is legal, that does not mean it is necessary or a good idea.
Edward Snowden- Edward Snowden committed several crimes. There is no disputing that. He has admitted to them in interviews. A common issue I have seen on the Internet is the false choice many present: either you support Snowden and think he is just a whistleblower or you do not care about the NSA spying on Americans (presumably referring to metadata collection or confusion about one of the myths above). The reality is that there is no conflict between appreciating a small part of what Snowden leaked (the FISA order for metadata collection, which thus far is the only information that has proved relevant to Americans) and believing that he is otherwise a traitor. That order is a very small portion of what he leaked. Also, leaking isn’t just about what goes public, but also what is exposed to sources that are not cleared for that information (journalists, foreign governments etc.). The impact of Snowden’s crimes on our intelligence and safety is not yet known and may not be for a long time, but many have underplayed it. Snowden has voluntarily given documents to Chinese newspapers, which is not much different than giving them directly to China. Furthermore, nobody informed or sane believes that Russia and China have not attained most of the documents he stole. People related to the FSB, including his attorney, currently surround Snowden. The FSB is essentially what Greenwald and Snowden pretend the American intelligence agencies are. It is a ruthless agency that does not think twice about killing, stealing and torturing in order to get what it wants. The FSB isn’t surrounding Snowden because they care about his well being, they are doing it because they want intelligence. Lastly, it needs to be clear that Snowden was not a SIGNIT analyst, and likely had little to no experience actually operating the programs being exposed. In conclusion, there is no contradiction between considering Snowden a traitor and having concerns about specific NSA programs.
A good example of the misinformation and how it occurs is Glenn Greenwald’s latest scoop on a program called XKeyScore. Joshua Foust does a good job explaining how Greenwald misleads the reader on this latest program here.