Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer October 29, 2013

This passage from a Tuesday Wall Street Journal article on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) eavesdropping on the phone calls of friendly foreign leaders could come from the files of Franz Kafka:

“The agency has been rebuked repeatedly by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for misrepresenting the nature of its spy programs and for violating the court’s confidential orders. In its defense, NSA officials have said the agency didn’t understand its own programs well enough to describe them accurately to the court.”

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That “defense,” of course, could be a fabrication. Or, just as plausibly, it could be true. Start with programs hurriedly put in place in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, growing at warp speed thanks to massive congressional funding and huge advances in technological capacities. Throw in a dedicated and competent corps of federal employees who believed their job was to monitor as much of the known universe as possible to deter the next Sept. 11 — and voila: We’re listening to Angela Merkel’s cellphone chatter and, apparently, that of various other leaders of longtime allies. So programs grow or mutate past the point that they serve our national interest, but no one who understands that has the power to order the programs stopped, and the people with the power to stop them either don’t want to, or don’t understand what the programs have become (the NSA defense), or don’t even know of their existence.

Congress seems determined to ask the time-honored questions: What did President Obama know (or not know) and when did he know it (or not). But the more germane question is what his predecessor knew. All the accounts reported so far agree that the NSA began listening to Merkel’s calls in 2002 and that the taps on other leading allies also began during the George W. Bush administration. It’s possible that the eavesdropping was ordered by Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney, who, readers may recall, were mightily indignant that France, Germany and the nations of “Old Europe” weren’t joining their adventure in Iraq. It’s also possible that neither Bush nor Cheney issued such an order but that someone down the food chain took their displeasure as a signal to initiate the taps, much as Henry II’s henchmen took their king’s displeasure with Thomas Becket — “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Henry supposedly said — as an indirect order to bump Becket off. Or perhaps the taps were the bright idea of someone in the intelligence establishment who believed that he or she was simply applying an established policy in a novel way.

Whatever the origin of the taps, did Bush or Cheney or Condoleezza Rice know about them? Did the promulgators of the doctrine of preemptive war believe that the benefits of preemptive spying on the United States’ closest allies outweighed the risks? Did they foresee a day when the revelation of these taps could damage the trust in which those allies held our country? And if Bush & Co. knew about the taps, did they tell Obama or any of his aides during the transition? I hope that these will be among the mysteries plumbed by the Senate intelligence committee in its forthcoming hearings.

Let’s also hope that the committee, Congress more broadly and the Obama administration have learned some basic lessons in occupational and organizational psychology. For instance: Spies will be spies; cops will be cops; and bureaucracies will expand of their own accord if given the leeway. Their natural tendency is not to rein themselves in. They sometimes have been known to devise their own agendas (such as J. Edgar Hoover assigning the FBI to destroy Martin Luther King Jr.). Spies, police and government agencies inherently have sufficient power to go rogue, which is why they must be monitored by authorities above and outside their organizations. Police departments require independent inspectors general or civilian review boards. The intelligence agencies need more powerful courts, more congressional oversight and more vigilant presidents.

Some of the most effective intelligence gatherers are probably obsessives, like the character played by Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Intelligence agencies — like governments, and all other organizations — need some obsessives in their ranks, people who push past boundaries to get results. But for that very reason, we can’t trust those people or those agencies to grasp all the implications of their actions. When our leaders are in the dark about our dark (or even semi-light) ops, that’s when our national interests — such as keeping the trust of our allies — can be compromised.

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