Obama Chastises Keith Alexander For Trying To Befuddle Him With Tech Jargon
from the not-looking-good dept
The Daily Beast has an interesting article with a number of insider accounts, suggesting that President Obama is seriously leaning towards cutting back the NSA’s activities. I’ll believe it when I see it — and there’s still a compelling argument that all of these moves are really just an attempt to block or delay serious judicial or Congressional review of these programs. However, there are some very interesting tidbits in the article, including this chastising of NSA boss Keith Alexander for trying to dazzle Obama with tech jargon:
But behind the scenes, Obama was showing some irritation with the intelligence leadership that had pressed for these capabilities and repeatedly vouched for their value. One story that rocketed around the intelligence community involved a meeting between Obama and NSA Director Keith Alexander. Alexander, who holds advanced degrees in physics and electronic warfare, was trying to explain certain aspects of one of the surveillance programs to Obama. As his highly technical and jargon-laden presentation rambled on, Obama was beginning to lose patience. When he finished, Obama thanked him and then icily asked if he could do it over again, “but this time in English.”
Some of this fits with earlier statements, in which President Obama more or less admitted that he had no idea what the NSA was up to — and that only after he found out about stuff in the press did he go back to Alexander and others and find out what the NSA was really doing. At the very least, that suggests incredibly poor leadership skills and five years in which he more or less let the agency run itself with little real oversight.
In fact, the article suggests this may be the case. Despite the fact that Obama, prior to becoming President, supported a number of changes to the surveillance state, upon becoming President, it appears that he let folks like Alexander talk him out of it.
As a senator and as a presidential candidate during the 2008 campaign, Obama harshly criticized the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. But shortly after taking office, he was persuaded by officials that the programs had been placed on a firmer legal foundation and were necessary. He had been briefed on occasional compliance lapses so serious that the secret court overseeing the surveillance programs had threatened to shut them down. But each time he was reassured that no harm was done.
There is no evidence to suggest that Obama expressed much skepticism about the surveillance program during his first term. He was assured on numerous occasions that the NSA’s bulk metadata program, which tapped the phone records–though not the content–of virtually all Americans, was a vital tool for foiling terrorist attacks in the United States.
All of this suggests that the President felt he should focus on other things that seemed more pressing, and just accepted the claims of the NSA and its supporters that these programs were both important and legal — two things that deserved significant scrutiny. But, of course, so long as those programs were kept secret, they weren’t “pressing” issues, so Obama could get away with just accepting the claims from the NSA as factual. Since that’s changed, he’s actually needed to find out what his own NSA is doing, leading to the task force, the changes, and the fact that he’s no longer so easily bamboozled with tech jargon from an NSA boss whose specialty seems to be answering questions by not actually answering questions.
I’m still skeptical that we’ll see real reform coming out of this part of the process, but hopefully the article accurately shows that President Obama is finally taking a real interest in this, and is no longer simply accepting the claims of the intelligence community.