NSA Staff Whining That President Obama Isn't Defending Them Enough

from the perhaps-there's-a-reason-for-that... dept

Foreign Policy magazine has an article highlighting how NSA employees are pissed off that President Obama hasn't been defending the NSA strongly enough these past few months. While many (including us) have been quite critical of President Obama's weak defense of the NSA programs, folks inside Ft. Meade are pissed off that he's not out there defending them more strongly:
Gen. Keith Alexander and his senior leadership team at the National Security Agency are angry and dispirited by what they see as the White House's failure to defend the spy agency against criticism of its surveillance programs, according to four people familiar with the NSA chiefs' thinking. The top brass of the country's biggest spy agency feels they've been left twisting in the wind, abandoned by the White House and left largely to defend themselves in public and in Congress against allegations of unconstitutional spying on Americans.

Former intelligence officials closely aligned with the NSA criticized President Obama for saying little publicly to defend the agency, and for not emphasizing that some leaked or officially disclosed documents arguably show the NSA operating within its legal authorities.

"There has been no support for the agency from the President or his staff or senior administration officials, and this has not gone unnoticed by both senior officials and the rank and file at the Fort," said Joel Brenner, the NSA's one-time inspector general, referring to the agency's headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland.
Of course, one response to this is: too bad. Perhaps if the NSA didn't keep pushing the boundaries further and further out, and there were more courageous folks like Ed Snowden willing to speak up and say "what we're doing is wrong," those NSA employees wouldn't be dealing with this mess. And, of course, you'd hope that the NSA would employ grown ups who don't get all mopey because the President has other things to focus on.

While the President has defended the NSA programs a few times (on TV programs such as Charlie Rose and Leno, as well as in that one press conference in August), it is true that most of the defending has come directly from intelligence officials themselves, including Keith Alexander and James Clapper, as well as the NSA's big defenders in Congress. The higher ups within the administration have been fairly quiet. And, apparently what's pissing off many in Ft. Meade is that President Obama had embraced them so closely since he came to office. Despite expressing some skepticism about these kinds of activities while he was running for office, once he got into the White House, Obama's "embrace of the dark world of spycraft has been near-absolute."

Of course, some might argue in response that there's really not much else that the President can do at this moment. He's given a few statements about it, set up the ridiculous weak "review" board, and then has kind of had his hands full with things like Syria and a government shut down -- both of which are, certainly, issues that deserve his attention. The article quotes Brenner again, saying that the President should have gone to Ft. Meade and given them a pep talk. That seems a bit silly to me. If NSA employees need pep talks to keep morale up, it seems like they're in the wrong business.

A former NSA general counsel, Stewart Baker -- last seen here blaming civil libertarians for 9/11, blaming Senator Wyden for encouraging people to reveal NSA excesses and blaming privacy advocates for you having to get groped at airports -- is also quoted in the article whining that:
"The President is uncomfortable defending this. Maybe he spends too much time reading blogs on the left," Baker said. "That's fatal in cases like this. You have to make the case because nobody else will."
Yeah. It's those damn lefty blogs that are the problem (ignoring, of course, how much of the outcry have come from right-leaning and libertarian blogs). Of course, there is the possibility that President Obama is legitimately embarrassed over having the NSA's excesses come out. A couple years ago, we highlighted famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg talking about President Obama's response to whistleblowing (the discussion was about Wikileaks), and he speculated that Obama's incredible devotion to secrecy when it came to civil liberties violations and leaks might be because of pure embarrassment. As he noted, President Bush didn't care much for civil liberties, but he also was fairly upfront about that fact. President Obama, however, acted as if he did care about civil liberties, while behaving in a very different manner. Thus, it's entirely possible, as Ellsberg speculated years ago, President Obama is happy to do all of this so long as it stays secret. The second any of it comes out, he's ashamed by his own actions -- which might explain the less than full-throated support for these actions.

Still, as others point out in the FP article, if the rift is really that big, it's somewhat surprising that the President hasn't yet thrown either Alexander or Clapper under the bus, giving him the opportunity to pretend to blame them alone for the overreach. The President has already made the ridiculous claim that he only finds out what the NSA is doing from the press, so he could easily argue that the agencies have gone "rogue" and get rid of the leaders. But he hasn't done that.

Still, the potential of a growing rift between the White House and the intelligence community is worth watching as new bills are proposed to curb those agencies' excesses.

Filed Under: barack obama, keith alexander, morale, nsa, nsa surveillance, stewart baker, white house


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Oct 2013 @ 11:37am

    There is this unstated undercurrent in all this, that maybe Obama encouraged the NSA to go far beyond what they normally did and now has been hung out to dry and take the heat from the public while Obama stays insulated from it. Pure speculation but the first thing that hit me when I started reading the article, whether intended or not.

    That the NSA feels it needs heavy weights to defend it tells me they are worried about the responses the Snowden leaks are going to cause. Of course if they were operating within their mandates, this would never have been an issue.

    Saying that they are operating legally to me stretches the word 'legally' just like so many other english language words have been redefined for the NSA's use. Claiming an illegal law makes it legal only works till if is officially made illegal. We see all the time where states make laws the courts later state are not legal and this one is no different for claiming legality.

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