December 23, 2013

In an administration rife with scandal and mismanagement (e.g. Obamacare, IRS, Justice Department) there is one agency that has been scrutinized incessantly by the media, Congress and even an outside panel of experts and been found to have been doing an important job without misbehavior, partisanship or abuse of power. Naturally, then, we must reorganize and restrict its activities to make it less effective. That in a nutshell is what is going on with the National Security Agency.

CIA Director John Brennan listens at right as National Intelligence Director James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 11, 2013, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
CIA Director John Brennan listens at right as National Intelligence Director James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill on April 11 before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Again on the Sunday shows we heard that the NSA is not doing anything it isn’t supposed to. Former deputy director of the CIA Mike Morell, a member of the review panel, on “Face the Nation” said:

I think there’s some very important context here that the American people need to understand. And there’s two pieces to that context I think. One is that there has not been a successful terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. And there are a lot of reasons for that, and there are a lot of organizations and a lot of people who are responsible for that. And the National Security Agency is one of those agencies. And because of that those– those officers who work there are patriots and we are going to continue to need them to do the work they do, because the threat continues to exist. And, quite frankly, it’s possible the threat could grow again. So that’s one very important piece of context that– that Americans need to understand. The other is that there is this view out there that somehow the National Security Agency was out there on its own doing all of these things. Not the case. It was doing exactly what its government asked it to do. It was operating under strict rules, provided by the executive branch and– and the judicial branch and it was overseen extensively by the intelligence committees on Congress. There was no abuse here. They were doing exactly what they were told to do. I think that’s important context for people to know.

That is not only context, it is the perfect response to critics who want to turn the program upside down and/or limit its effectiveness. Contrary to media reports suggesting the program is unnecessary, Morell said it is useful. The following exchange would be comedic if it weren’t so serious:

MICHAEL MORELL: So what we found when we looked at the data is out of the couple hundred times a year that NSA queries this database, that there are a dozen, fifteen times a year where they have tipped information to the FBI, where they have said, look, this is something we think you need to look at. That’s important. I think the best way to describe this, Bob, is that if you have a terrorist overseas who is being monitored by a foreign government and if that terrorist says, I want to conduct an attack in the United States, or he is undertaking some sort of attack and you don’t know where– where that attack is going to be it is very important for our government to be able to look into that database to see whether that terrorist overseas is talking to anybody in the United States.

BOB SCHIEFFER: So is what the panel recommending is that they stop collecting this data?

MICHAEL MORELL: So what we’re recommending is that because this program remains important, okay, perhaps, not as important as– as– as some have said, but because it remains important, it’s important for the government to continue to be able to query this data.

Rather than fan the flames of ignorance or make a series of changes that will have the effect of making the system less cumbersome and therefore less used, it is incumbent upon the administration, Congress and knowledgeable people to stop saying nonsense like, “Well, we don’t know if there has been any abuse” (there hasn’t been; we’ve investigated) or “Well, there is a perception problem” (created by the media and elected officials spreading misinformation). Edward Snowden has not been vindicated, to be sure. If anything, he provided fodder for enemies of the country and domestic simpletons to dismantle a problem-free and effective national security operation.

A former senior national security official whom I spoke to last week suggested that we should allow the widest possible collection of data and, if anything, require more frequent reporting and oversight by Congress. What we should not do is create a series of obstacles and limitations to gathering metadata or searching the data base.

One “reform” suggested by the panel seems particularly ill-conceived. Gary Schmitt explains:

[T]he panel’s key recommendation is to end “the storage of bulk telephony metadata” by the government and, instead, have that data held “either by private providers or by a private third party.” The data then could only be queried after NSA or some other part of the intelligence community had received specific approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Given the fact that “private providers” are numerous, getting separate orders and querying multiple and distinct databases can’t help but make the program less timely and efficient.

Perhaps those problems could be alleviated if the data were held by some newly created third party entity.  But that solution has problems of its own. Why should it be trusted any more than NSA to protect that data? After all, it will almost certainly be a quasi-government body since neither Congress nor the public is going to trust handing over such sensitive material to a completely private organization.  Nor will it be safe to do so unless NSA is involved (as the entity charged with protecting government communications) in helping this “private” body keep that data secure and available.

How did we get to this point? We have a president who is ambivalent about his role as commander in chief and finds it distasteful to accurately inform the public about our anti-terrorist needs. Instead, he’s welcomed ill-informed attacks and tried to shift the burden to an outside panel, which has come back with a report that is deeply flawed and dangerous. When the commander in chief does not take his job seriously it is very, very hard for others to carry the ball. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) on Sunday argued that “they’re monitored by the courts, they’re monitored by the Justice Department. Every time you give a police officer a gun, he can abuse his authority. But the fact is, we don’t disarm our police; we should not be disarming the NSA. And I wish the president would step forward and defend the NSA. What he says is, he says there’s no abuse, the intelligence is absolutely necessary. But then he says, we have to reform it. What does he want to reform if it’s working? I wish he could say that. He having it both ways.”

Indeed. Unfortunately, not enough of King’s colleagues are backing him up. We should add to the miscreants in this melodrama the legions of elected officials on the left and right who should (and maybe do) know better. They too have an obligation not to feed public paranoia.

It will be interesting to see who the real grownups will be going forward. Will Hillary Clinton continue to hide from controversy, as she’s doing on Iran? (Not promising for a presidential aspirant.) Will Republican presidential hopefuls risk alienating the base by defending appropriate anti-terrorism actions? Where is former CIA chief Leon Panetta, who certainly knows better?  I would hope former national security officials of both Democratic and Republican administrations would step forward to lend their expertise and credibility to the debate.

In 2014, I suspect we’ll see a sharp divide between the responsible and the irresponsible. I fear the president will be in the latter group.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.