Commentary Magazine


A Mindboggling NSA/CIA Blunder

Officials at the National Security Agency are lobbing a familiar critique at the Obama administration. Once the extent of the NSA’s sweeping surveillance was revealed and the organization became controversial, the president has declined to fully engage the public-relations battle on the NSA’s behalf. The Obama administration has a tendency to employ controversial security agencies and actions without staunchly defending their legitimacy, which is often interpreted as ambivalence.

As Shane Harris notes, officials in the security establishment see it as more than just a pride issue: “If left unchecked, it could start to erode the trusted relationships that have been at the heart of how the U.S. government handles global threats since 9/11.” But if President Obama feels the need to respond to the NSA’s most recent complaints, he should tell them the following: Help me help you.

A couple of recent news stories highlight just how difficult the NSA has made the job of defending it in the public sphere. The most recent, but also the most damaging to the NSA’s credibility, is today’s New York Times report:

Just as Edward J. Snowden was preparing to leave Geneva and a job as a C.I.A. technician in 2009, his supervisor wrote a derogatory report in his personnel file, noting a distinct change in the young man’s behavior and work habits, as well as a troubling suspicion.

The C.I.A. suspected that Mr. Snowden was trying to break into classified computer files to which he was not authorized to have access, and decided to send him home, according to two senior American officials.

But the red flags went unheeded. Mr. Snowden left the C.I.A. to become a contractor for the National Security Agency, and four years later he leaked thousands of classified documents. The supervisor’s cautionary note and the C.I.A.’s suspicions apparently were not forwarded to the N.S.A. or its contractors, and surfaced only after federal investigators began scrutinizing Mr. Snowden’s record once the documents began spilling out, intelligence and law enforcement officials said.

“It slipped through the cracks,” one veteran law enforcement official said of the report.

Ahem. It slipped through the cracks? The CIA sent Snowden home because he was trying to hack into classified intelligence files and he was then hired by the National Security Agency and given clearance. The Times then adds this paraphrased admission from its sources, which deserves some kind of award for understatement: “In hindsight, officials said, the report by the C.I.A. supervisor and the agency’s suspicions might have been the first serious warnings of the disclosures to come, and the biggest missed opportunity to review Mr. Snowden’s top-secret clearance or at least put his future work at the N.S.A. under much greater scrutiny.”

Yes, the CIA employee trying to hack into classified intel files should not have been hired by the NSA and given top-secret clearance. That is, surely, one lesson no one should have needed to learn by trial and error.

Now, it looks like this colossal blunder was a team effort. The CIA should have made sure someone saw this at the NSA, if in fact this report was not forwarded to the agency. But it also calls into question the seriousness with which the NSA handles hiring, contracting, background checks, and the like. If the hiring system at the NSA is not designed to prevent people like Edward Snowden from attaining top-secret clearance, then the system needs some reform.

And this goes to the question of credibility, which is so crucial to what the NSA does. When the ObamaCare website went live this week and it turned out to have been an utter failure of design and security, as well as a waste of money, people asked a reasonable question: can this administration be trusted with the power it so consistently demands?

Because of the nature of the NSA’s mission, Americans are absolutely entitled (in fact, they should be encouraged) to ask that question of the NSA: can this super-secret spy organization be trusted with the information to which it has access? Part of that trust is earned by convincing the public that the NSA won’t misuse or abuse its powers. But an equally important part is being able to state with confidence that the wrong people–people who are inclined to abuse that power–won’t have access. That is, it’s not just about the NSA’s institutional policy. It’s also about its basic competence and personnel oversight.

The NSA’s desire for the president to show his support for the hard-working and mostly anonymous intelligence officials is legitimate–not just as a matter of principle (the president benefits politically from the NSA’s successes) but also as a matter of practicality, since the erosion of popular support for the NSA could mean the erosion of congressional support, which could endanger the NSA’s funding. But complaints such as this from the NSA’s former general counsel strike me as unfair:

“The President is uncomfortable defending this. Maybe he spends too much time reading blogs on the left,” Baker said.

Or maybe he reads the newspapers. The Snowden affair was a major headache for the president, and also something of an embarrassment. But it was not a scandal of the president’s own making. Instead, it seems to have been a result of malicious intent on Snowden’s part and staggering incompetence on the part of the CIA and NSA. If the NSA wants the president to use his pulpit to defend the broad powers of the NSA, they’re going to have to give him more that’s worth defending.

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