NSA scrambles to defend itself

Having intelligence community leaders like Director of the National Security Agency Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as front-line defenders for the NSA turned out to be an ineffective strategy when both were exposed as liars. So, the NSA must now communicate indirectly, relying on journalists who are willing to function as mouthpieces for the agency.

Following the latest revelations about eavesdropping on the private communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders, the Associated Press’s intelligence writer, Kimberly Dozier, offers explanations on how and why the NSA spies on U.S. allies. It’s unlikely that the answers she offers are a summation of her own deep knowledge of the way the NSA works. Much more likely, this is simply the summation of an NSA background briefing. Read this as a paraphrase of the NSA speaking for itself.

First off comes this claim: that “intercepting foreign diplomats’ or leaders’ communications, like the alleged eavesdropping on Merkel, as well as on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and former Mexican President Felipe Calderon” is spying that the NSA “is authorized to do”. The intended takeaway from that statement is: we didn’t break U.S. law. The question which this statement fudges, however, is whether the NSA was directed to carry out such surveillance.

Then we come to the basic question:

Q: Why bug the phone of an ally?

A: Even a close ally like Merkel doesn’t share everything with the Americans, but decisions she makes can have a major impact on U.S. foreign, defense and economic policy overseas. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic party just won an election, and she is in the process of wooing other German political parties to form a coalition government. The party she chooses could pull her political policies in a different direction, in terms of counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., for instance, or perhaps the new coalition might chill Merkel’s support of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Say what?! The NSA needs to bug Merkel’s phone so that the U.S. can receive advance notice of the political makeup of the coalition she is forming? It can’t simply rely on conventional diplomatic and political channels of communication? That’s ridiculous — unless it’s meant to imply that the U.S. wants to covertly exercise some influence on the outcome of that political process.

I don’t actually believe that’s the implication because I don’t think anyone in Washington or at the NSA is crazy enough to imagine that the U.S. could successfully interfere in the domestic politics of its allies in this way.

There is a much simpler answer to this question and it’s offered by a career American official with long experience in Europe who spoke to the New York Times. Why bug the phone of an ally? Because you can.

The report notes: “Administration officials say the National Security Agency, in its push to build a global data-gathering network that can reach into any country, has rarely weighed the long-term political costs of some of its operations.”

By all appearances, the NSA is now in cry-baby mode and instead of acknowledging that it is suffering the effects of self-inflicted wounds, it wants to cast itself as victim. The Washington Post provides emotional support:

U.S. officials are alerting some foreign intelligence services that documents detailing their secret cooperation with the United States have been obtained by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, according to government officials.

Snowden, U.S. officials said, took tens of thousands of documents, some of which contain sensitive material about collection programs against adversaries such as Iran, Russia and China. Some refer to operations that in some cases involve countries not publicly allied with the United States.

The process of informing officials in capital after capital about the risk of disclosure is delicate. In some cases, one part of the cooperating government may know about the collaboration while others — such as the foreign ministry — may not, the officials said. The documents, if disclosed, could compromise operations, officials said.

The notifications come as the Obama administration is scrambling to placate allies after allegations that the NSA has spied on foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The reports have forced the administration to downplay operations targeting friends while also attempting to preserve other programs that depend on provisional partners. In either case, trust in the United States may be compromised.

“It is certainly a concern, just as much as the U.S. collection [against European allies] being put in the news, if not more, because not only does it mean we have the potential of losing collection, but also of harming relationships,” a congressional aide said.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is handling the job of informing the other intelligence services, the officials said. ODNI declined to comment.

In one case, for instance, the files contain information about a program run from a NATO country against Russia that provides valuable intelligence for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, said one U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing criminal investigation. Snowden faces theft and espionage charges.

The narrative thrust here is that while the NSA is dealing with damage control, the cause of the damage was not the agency’s operations; it was Snowden’s revelations.

Instead of facing reality, the intelligence community would apparently now rather engage in a farcical exercise: present itself as victim of what it regards as the mischievous actions as a single man. The problem with this narrative (apart from the fact that it clearly misrepresents Edward Snowden’s actions) is that it actually underlines the inherent weakness of the bloated post 9/11 intelligence edifice: that is, that its weakness derives in large part from its sheer size.

As much as the actions of the NSA should be viewed in geopolitical terms, they should also be seen as the result of the beguiling power of technology. That is to say, when something is presented as being technically feasible — such as recording all the metadata associated with global communications — then that possibility becomes so alluring, that more fundamental questions get shunted to one side.

An obsession with accumulating more and more information turns into a maniacal desire. The expansion of the intelligence gathering process becomes a self-justifying, blindly funded enterprise which loses sight of basic questions about the value of the data, the means through which it can be productively analyzed, and the social and political implications of sanctioning perpetually expanding mass surveillance along with highly ill-advised targeted surveillance.

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2 thoughts on “NSA scrambles to defend itself

  1. richard thornton

    Just because it’s not in Merkel’s interest to be monitored doesn’t imply it’s not in our interest to monitor her. It’s tit for tat, wake up, we are safer with the NSA, than without it. Muslim terrorists across the globe must be at all times afraid of us, that’s what keeps us safe from more killings like Daniel Pearl. His death is worth millions of theirs. Snowden be damned.

  2. Paul Woodward

    Believe it or not, Germany is one of the US’s closest allies. Undermining that alliance for the sake of being able to eavesdrop on Merkel’s communications is a diplomatic blunder of huge proportions indicating a lack of oversight of the NSA and lack of imagination among its own directors.

    After 9/11, the US’s NATO allies all stepped up in America’s support, but given the experience of the last decade, that’s never going to happen again.

    It turns out that the NSA, through inserting backdoors into computer software and hardware has setback global cybersecurity by decades. To imagine that that setback was caused by Snowden, is like imagining that a dangerously designed car is safer to drive if no one is aware of its defects. Whether the NSA makes the US safer is highly debatable.

    For paranoid Americans who have acquired a near-psychotic fear of global terrorism, every facet of the national security appears like an indispensable shield — the only thing that stands between us and annihilation. From a saner vantage point, the NSA should be recognized for what it has become: a state within a state.

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