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Bill Clinton should step up and defend foreign intelligence collection

October 29, 2013, at 7:08 AM
Bill Clinton could help Americans understand the nuances of intelligence collection.

Bill Clinton could help Americans understand the nuances of intelligence collection. Photo: (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Right now, there is no credible, empowered, knowledgeable, and forceful defender of the National Security Agency inside the executive branch.

That's not to say that the vast majority of the nation's intelligence collection programs aren't worth fighting for. They are. Someone like Bill Clinton, a guy who understands stuff and knows how to explain it to folks, might want to stand up for them before it's too late.

Here's why:

The White House feels hemmed in by decisions President Obama did not make. The president is angry at the intelligence community for messing up. They should have caught Edward Snowden before he absconded. They should have been more proactive about briefing the nation's elected leaders. They should have been more humble and strategic about explaining and defending their lapses and misjudgments.

(I would like to say that if the CIA, given its own history, had not started a program of torture and rendition, then perhaps the credibility of the entire enterprise would be higher; the same goes for the intelligence assessments about Iraq. But really, elected and appointed policymakers decided to do these things — to torture and to invade Iraq. So it's our problem as much as theirs.)

Back to the present: When Gen. Keith Alexander says that the programs he defends are used to fight terrorists, he makes a categorical error. We are no longer living in 2002 and 2003, when the mere use of the t-word was enough to end all discussion and debate. Terrorism remains a threat, but it is not an existential one. When Alexander says something dumb like that, it allows Glenn Greenwald to reply by asking whether Angela Merkel is a terrorist, which means that Alexander has just completely thrown his own agency under the bus. Eavesdropping on Angela Merkel might have been a mistake, and a bad policy call by the Bush administration (which I suspect it was). Or, it might have been much more necessary in 2003 than it is today. But it has nothing to do with terrorism. Not a thing.

Justifying everything "because of terrorism" is sad.

For one thing, it is simply not accurate. The majority of NSA resources are not devoted to counter-terrorism. The NSA collects foreign intelligence. Intelligence can be used to protect us from terrorists and dismantle their networks abroad. But it can also help us understand exactly what our allies, enemies, and strategic competitors think and want from us. It can alert policy-makers to changes in foreign political and security priorities and resource allocations that bear directly on how much money the U.S. spends and how we spend it. It lets us know the choke points. It gives our diplomats room to operate. It is our hedge against the (perfectly rightful) nationalism expressed by other countries. Intelligence disrupts networks that proliferate weapons of mass destruction. It allows us to figure out not only what Iran wants to do with its nuclear material, but crucially, whether it CAN do what it shouldn't do, and even whether there are disagreements within the country about what to do next. It allows American policymakers to understand how aggressively the next president of Mexico intends to wage war against narcotics traffickers. (And of course, it can and does get things wrong. For every development analysts predict, there are two they miss.)

The gap between what the intelligence community can do and should do is one that the president is responsible for filling. It is incumbent upon the NSA and the director of national iIntelligence to make sure that the president can make choices with as much information as possible, and that includes a reasonable assessment of the risks and rewards of risky operations. Congress must check the validity of this balance by using its own constitutional powers.

I make one assumption here: That doing all the stuff I'm writing about, including, occasionally, the politically risky covert operation, does not need to be justified as being worth doing in a general sense beyond its responsible and legal execution. That is: It's good for American citizens to want their president to have access to as much information as possible, including information that they themselves cannot know about or know how it was obtained.

I make this assumption knowing very well that the powerful U.S. intelligence community historically cannot be trusted when it gives its word, and that the intelligence community right now tries to be truthful because we have arrived at a point in time where oversight and accountability, formally and informally, are finally up to the task of checking the work. The I.C. in 2010 is not the I.C. of 1990. It is certainly not the I.C. of 1970 or (god forbid), March of 1961.

By the way: We allow a million of our fellow citizens to have access to this secret information on the condition that they don't disclose it or abuse it.

And we also validate the tickets of those who, from time to time, break the secrecy wall to inform the press and the public about programs and operations that are wrong, abusive, illegal, or unethical, or that require public debate or sanction, understanding that these terms are somewhat relative in application, and that we won't always agree on what they mean.

The existence of the Special Collection Service, and what it does, and, in a general sense, where it operates, are classified. Those of us who've written about the intelligence community have known about the SCS, and we've written about it, often in great detail. But most of us understand why the government goes to great lengths not to discuss where it might house its spies or spy gear. Simply put: These folks are spies operating under cover. That's what they are and all they are. If we're prepared to keep the locations of CIA stations secret, then we ought to probably apply the same principle to the operating locations of the United States' signal intelligence facilities.

Given the Merkel revelations, I can understand why a German newspaper would publish a slide listing the cities where the SCS had manned and unmanned operating locations. (By the way: Germany provides the NSA with most of the millions of metadata records from Germans that the NSA collects. Germany, as in, Merkel's Germany.).

I don't understand how anyone who has a shred of sense could leak a slide like that to a newspaper. I don't understand how anyone anticipating disclosure of the SCS operating sites could not possibly envision the massive, country-by-country blowback against the United States. This type of blowback will hurt the entire enterprise of intelligence. It is only good if the entire enterprise of intelligence is bad. And I don't think it's bad. But I'm just a guy. I don't have a security clearance. I can't really make that case.

The debate about what happens now breaks into two camps: The lumpers and the splitters. I tend to be a splitter: I think the NSA has a bunch of discrete problems that can be isolated and solved.

But the lumpers are winning.

The NSA confronts an incredibly powerful and non-containable emergent property of the modern world: When everyone is able to move information at the speed of light, the NSA (and the specific policy decisions of the United States government) cannot possibly (and should not rightfully) determine the rules that the rest of us live by.

Right now, the criteria for reform are being set by Edward Snowden and crusading foreign journalists who believe that by exposing the practices of America's signals intelligence agency, they are striking a blow against American imperialism and its hubris.

And they are right. That's exactly what's happening.

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