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.

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Comments on “Obama Chastises Keith Alexander For Trying To Befuddle Him With Tech Jargon”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You say that like McCain wouldn’t have been similarly bamboozled, or worse cheerfully continue the programs with full understanding because he agreed with the NSA.

For that matter, I would not be surprised if fear of backlash from the Republicans about being “soft” on terrorism played an equal part to lack of understanding of what the NSA was up to.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

And that right there is the problem with ‘national security’ issues in politics.

No one wants to be the one to cut back on national security spending or whatever they do to ‘keep us safe’, because they fear then they and their party will be blamed if there’s ever another terrorist attack.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yep. The problem, of course, is that no matter what they do to reduce the risk of such an attack, should one happen they’ll get blamed for it by their opposition anyway.

Therefore, doing things just to reduce the chance of taking a political hit is foolhardy. They should, instead, make these decisions without consideration of the politics at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Politics without considerations of politics is an oxymoron in this day and age. You might find some tea-partiers going to extremes and looking like luddites in the game of politics, but then you realize that their considerations are political in their home-state primary as opposed to real honest beliefs.
A politician not covering his buttock and not speaking the language of campaign financiers (there are far more money in defence industries than privacy groups) is not a politician for long enough to take any kind office today!

TKnarr (profile) says:

I’d note that as a tech one sure sign that the presentation is content-free or deceptive is the speaker using tons of jargon in place of explaining just what their product does. Think “buzzword bingo” and the like. If I were in a position to do it, I’d probably respond to a lot of salescritters trying to peddle their cruft that wouldn’t solve my problems but woud net the sales guy a big commission with exactly the same response Obama gave. Especially if you’re giving a presentation to someone you know isn’t a technical specialist themselves, you don’t go using a lot of jargon only a technical specialist would understand unless your whole goal is to bamboozle them into making a decision without understanding what it is they’re buying.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s not exactly good choices the Americans have had. All they had to look on were promises. If I were American, I don’t believe I would vote for the competition even now because I do believe that things would actually be worse with people like John McCain, Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney at the rudder.

Believe me, I am not defending Obama, I think he is a scumbag who lied to get elected only to turn his back on so many promises; but I shudder to think how bad it would be with the other guys.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It never ceases to amaze me that every US election is between an idiot and a moron, and the voting public does nothing but argue over which of the two might be slightly less stupid.
“This guy’s going to wreck the country and drive us into bankruptcy, but maybe he’ll do it a teeny bit slower than that other guy, so I’ll vote for him.”

ArkieGuy (profile) says:

It's easy to blame....

We all know that to some extend Obama is “responsible” for the NSA. However, saying that he should know exactly what is going on is a little like saying that the head of General Motors should know details about the janitorial staff in one of the production plants.

There is a reason leaders (both corporate and political) have underlings… As a human being, you can only process so much information, you have to be able to trust the people under you to do what YOU think is right and NOT blow smoke up your skirt when they disagree.

Obama’s big mistake is letting the NSA top dogs blow smoke and figuring out that there may be a fire.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It's easy to blame....

“… saying that he should know exactly what is going on is a little like saying that the head of General Motors should know details about the janitorial staff in one of the production plants.”

The NSA isn’t exactly on the level of significance of janitorial staff (even if they do look for “dirt” on people).

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: It's easy to blame....

If that small team is performing a function that is critically important to the company, you can bet your bottom dollar that the CEO is paying very close attention to them.

The percentage of the workforce they constitute is meaningless. What counts is how important the people are to the success/failure of the company.

To argue that the President would be micromanaging to pay attention to the NSA is just preposterous. This is precisely the sort of thing he should be following on a daily basis.

Trails (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 It's easy to blame....

Rather than getting lost in analogies, let’s look back at what he was focusing on. He pushed through Obama care, closed out Iraq (sorta), and had to deal with the gov’t shutdown.

He CLEARLY dropped the ball when it comes to NSA, though I would say he’s got a halfway decent excuse in that he was probably lied to by Alexander and co., and the surveillance thing wasn’t at the time a squeaky wheel.

For the sake of argument we can give him the benefit of the doubt up to the point when Snowden’s leaks came out, because no one, it seems, really knew wtf was going on (this in and of itself is pretty damning for the NSA IMO).

I can give him the benefit of the doubt up to this point because he’s trying to manage a MASSIVE federal gov’t with an extremely acrimonious senate and congress. It smells a bit, since he was against warrantless wiretapping as an election line-item, but lying to get elected is apparently somewhat minor on the scale of sins in politics.

So benefit of the doubt (stretched, but no unduly ocnsidering it’s politics) up to that point.

What punches Obama’s ticket is how he’s reacted since. He’s regurgitated bullshit talking points and flubbed at doing anything to rein in this obviously unconstitutional set of surveillance programs. There is no plausible wiggle room in that for any “I didn’t know” or “I was misled by my minions” routine. Since the Snowden leaks he is patently complicit in the surveillance.

Anon says:

"...he was persuaded..."

There’s a pattern here. As a senator, BO opposed the first surge in Iraq. He opposed broad surveillance and telecom immunity. He opposed the 1st WallSt bailout. That is, until the moment of truth, when he voted FOR all those things. He wasn’t exactly persuaded, he simply folded like a cheap lawn chair, repeatedly, on practically every issue.

Anonymous Coward says:

like said above, this shows extremely poor leadership from the President, and to me it shows a total lack of interest in what was going on. if he didn’t or couldn’t spend the time finding out whether certain programs were necessary and paying off, he should not have taken the word of those who were most involved but had the most to lose as far as position, credibility for other tasks and salaries are concerned. even now, those that have the most to lose still are condoning what they were doing and ordering others to do when there is absolutely no proof of worth!

Me says:

Lost a Dem for Life

The thing Obama doesn’t get, but perhaps the DNC eventually will, is that Obama’s failure on this point has pushed “moderates” like me away from straight Dem voting.

My personal liberties OUTRANK my interest in other Dem policy positions, like healthcare, the environment, labor, etc. My interest in all of those things is because I want to protect the liberty of others. Now it’s time for the DNC to be concerned about me. If they aren’t (and they aren’t), then they’ve lost a voter for life.

TKnarr (profile) says:

Re: Lost a Dem for Life

They aren’t losing me. Frankly, both the Democrats and the GOP are about as bad when it comes to personal rights. The Dems are somewhat better, but neither’s particularly good so that point’s a wash. And the Dems are closer to my positions on all those other issues. So why in the world would I abandon any hope of progress on those other issues just to fail to make a point about personal rights? I hold no political loyalty to the Democrats, but as long as they’re a better choice overall than the GOP I’m going to tend to vote for them. The only time I wouldn’t is when there’s an even better overall option who stands a reasonable chance of being elected. But I’m not going to spend my vote on someone who’s got no chance of being elected unless there aren’t any other acceptable options. I’d rather get 70% than lose 100%.

An example is the San Diego mayoral primary. The GOP candidate “won”, but didn’t carry a majority because the Democratic vote was split between 2 candidates (one of whom had withdrawn and endorsed the other, but once the slate is set candidates can’t be removed). Unfortunately for the GOP the rules are that if no candidate gets a majority then the top two go into a runoff election, and the people who voted for the #3 Democrat are… unlikely to vote GOP against the #2 Democrat. But you can see the issue: if I vote in favor of a candidate I 100% agree with but who isn’t going to poll enough to even be in the running, I may end up seeing the candidate I 100% disagree with elected over the one I 70% agree with. Which is one reason I favor preferential voting, where I rank candidates in order with my vote going to my highest-ranked candidate who’s still in the running and if no candidate has a majority the one with the fewest votes is dropped from the field and the votes re-tallied until one of them wins >50% of the votes.

Me2 says:

Re: Re: Lost a Dem for Life

I used to think this way, too. Obama pushed me over the edge. Now I think that the only thing worse than a republican is a democrat, because while the republicans will say that they’ll do a bunch of awful things once elected, the democrats say they won’t do awful things, then turn around and do exactly the same awful things anyway.

“The only difference between democrats and republicans is that the democrats want you to like them.”

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Also don't forget...

I don’t know their reason for wanting him to stay, but the one that immediately popped into my mind wasn’t that it was because they thought he was doing a great job. It was that he needed to stay to act as the lightning rod. If he resigned, all of the ire would be directed at the President instead of him.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Also don't forget...

I think he’s hoping that if he plugs his ears and goes ‘LALALALALA’ loud enough anytime the NSA’s actions come up, people will believe him when he acts like he had no idea they were doing something.

Might have been somewhat believable before Snowden came along, as the NSA appears to believe it’s a law unto itself, and has no problem lying to anyone to protect their agency, but after Snowden… yeah, if he doesn’t know what they’re doing now, it’s because he doesn’t want to know.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Back when Obama was a US Senator

He was originally against the FISA act, then when it came to a vote, he was for it. Personally, I think that the NSA or similar others found some “dirt” in his past and let him know that if he wanted to continue with his political aspirations (like becoming POTUS), then he would have to “play ball” with them. Well, he has certainly “played ball” with these asshats! Now, after Snowden, it is coming back to bite him on the ass! Payback is a bitch, isn’t it Barack?

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