In its official defense, the NSA insists it’s only spying on foreign nationals. The problem with that argument: How do they know you’re a foreign national based on your phone calling records? The only way this could work is if, as Snowden says, the agency collects all the data about all users – including phone records, financial transactions, Facebook posts, etc -- analyzes it, then ignores whatever doesn’t fit its definition of “terrorist.”
And if you happen to fit the definition of terrorist, even though you aren’t one? Consider the case of Khalid el-Masri. In December 2003 the unemployed car salesman, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, was crossing the border between Serbia and Macedonia on a bus. He was hauled off the bus by Macedonian police and handed over to the CIA. From there, he was tortured for months on end in a secret American run prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit.
Khalid el-Masri’s crime: His name was phonetically similar to Khalid al-Masri, who was suspected of aiding the 9/11 bombers. Also, the CIA agent overseeing his capture “had a hunch” he was dirty. When the spooks finally realized they’d made a mistake they drove el-Masri out to a deserted road in Albania and let him out to find his own way home.
In December 2012, ten years after el-Masri’s abduction, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously condemned the CIA’s treatment of him as inhumane and illegal.
Tree huggers and vegetarians beware
In el-Masri’s case, the CIA made an “honest” mistake. Agents sincerely believed he was linked to al Qaeda. The odds of that happening to any of us are slight, though the consequences could be terrible.
Still, that’s not the scary part, and it’s not why Snowden leaked those documents. The reason Snowden came forward is that he realized the enormous potential for abuse such surveillance enables.
Beyond the case of el-Masri and a handful of others, we know very little about what the CIA and various other arms of the NSA did to innocent people.