It’s time we all came to our senses about the National Security Agency. If it is true, as many allege, that the United States went a little nuts in its all-out pursuit of al-Qaida after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it is equally true that we are going a little nuts again in our dogged pursuit of the post-Snowden NSA.
Those who advocate sharply limiting the agency’s activities ought to consider that its work is the very foundation of U.S. intelligence.
I don’t mean to diminish the role of other intelligence agencies, and I say this as a 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who is “CIA” through and through. But in most cases, the NSA is the starting point for determining what holes need to be filled through other means of intelligence-collection. That’s because its information on foreign developments is so comprehensive and generally so reliable. It is the core of intelligence support to U.S. troops in battle. Any efforts to “rein in” the agency must allow for the possibility that change risks serious damage to U.S. security and the country’s ability to navigate in an increasingly uncertain world.
The presumption that the NSA “spies” on Americans should also be challenged. In my experience, NSA analysts err on the side of caution before touching any data having to do with U.S. citizens. In 2010, at the request of then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, I chaired a panel investigating the intelligence community’s failure to be aware of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up a commercial plane over Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009.
The overall report remains classified, but I can say that the government lost vital time because of the extraordinary care the NSA and others took in handling any data involving a “U.S. person.” (Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, was recruited and trained by the late Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen based in Yemen.)
Regarding outrage over the NSA’s collection of telephone calling records, or metadata, I don’t know why anyone would have greater confidence in this information being held by private companies. And given the perceived threat to privacy, it’s astonishing how little attention has been paid to the Senate commerce committee’s recent report on companies that gather personal information on hundreds of millions of Americans and sell it to marketers, often highlighting people with financial vulnerability. Some companies group the data into categories including “rural and barely making it,” “retiring on empty” and “credit crunched: city families.” The aim is often to sell financially risky products to transient consumers with low incomes, the report found.
That’s a real scandal — and a universe away from the NSA’s ethical standards and congressional oversight.
The NSA, of course, is not perfect. But it is less a victim of its actions — the independent commission appointed by President Barack Obama found no illegality or abuses — than of the broad distrust of government that has taken root in the United States in recent decades. Studies by Pew and others show distrust of government around 80 percent, an all-time high.
This distrust is the only logical explanation I see for fear of data being held by “the government” — and it’s not a circumstance the NSA created.
So what makes sense going forward? Clearly, the widespread perception that there is at least the “potential for abuse” when the government holds information even as limited as telephone call metadata must be addressed. The recent presidential commission recommended adding a public privacy advocate to the deliberation process of courts that approve warrants — one proposal that would do no harm.
As our debate continues, the terrorist threat is not receding but transforming. The core leadership of al-Qaida has been degraded and remains under pressure, but robust al-Qaida affiliates have multiplied. With the decline of central government authority in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, terrorists have the largest havens and areas for operational planning in a decade.
If anything, the atomization of the movement has made the job of intelligence more labor-intensive, more detail-oriented and more demanding. Now is not the time to give up any tool in the counterterrorism arsenal.
John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He served for 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, including as deputy director of intelligence from 1997 to 2000, deputy director of the agency from 2000 to 2004 and acting director of the agency from July to September 2004.