'There has been no support for the agency from the President, and this has not gone unnoticed.'
- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
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.
The weak backing from top administration officials has aggravated the relationship between Alexander and the White House, where he has never been warmly embraced. The NSA now finds itself without the strong, visible support of the President at a time of extraordinary political vulnerability, with the agency’s secrets laid bare and its future in doubt.
The Obama administration has long relied on America’s intelligence agencies to carry out its most important foreign policy objectives, from killing Osama bin Laden to undermining Bashar al-Assad. The White House’s embrace of the dark world of spycraft has been near-absolute. A rift between America’s intelligence and political leaders could be more than fodder for Beltway cocktail parties. 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.
Obama has only made one set of substantial remarks about the NSA’s collection of Americans phone records and monitoring of Internet and email data, during a press conference in August. He did not distance himself from the programs, but he has not made a point of reminding the American people or lawmakers that he thinks they are vital. Neither the president’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, nor his top counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, have given any public remarks arguing that the NSA programs are legal and necessary. And no Cabinet official has mounted a concerted effort to back the agency in public.
Former intelligence officials who remain in regular contact with those still in government say that morale at the NSA is low, both because of the reaction to leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden, which put the normally secretive agency under intense scrutiny, and because of budget cutbacks and the continuing government shutdown, which has left some employees furloughed without pay.
Brenner, who also served as the government’s director of counterintelligence, said that Obama could have lifted morale had he gone to Ft. Meade and made a speech vigorously defending the NSA’s work. "A president who had real feeling for the intelligence business and the people laboring in that vineyard would have paid them a visit," Brenner said.
Instead, said former senior CIA official Mark Lowenthal, "They are hurting."
Stewart Baker, the NSA’s former general counsel, said he had not discussed the administration’s response to the NSA scandal with officials in government, but that it was the "general perception" that it had been weak.
"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."
Laura Lucas Magnuson, a White House spokesperson, said that Obama had praised the work of the agency in his remarks in August and "believes the men and women of our intelligence community, including NSA, work every day to keep us safe because they love our country. He continues to have great confidence in them, and believes they carry out their work with a sense of professionalism and patriotism."
An NSA spokesperson downplayed any rift between the agency and the administration. "National security is a team sport. For us, collaboration is built into the very fabric of who we are," said Vanee Vines. "There is no truth to rumors of dissension between NSA and the administration regarding the Agency’s mission to help defend the nation and save lives. Together, we all prevail."
But Alexander may have publicly hinted at his displeasure with the administration last month, when he and Chris Inglis, the NSA’s deputy director, sent a two-page letter to the family members of NSA employees and contractors. In it, Alexander and Inglis quote from a blog post by Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief of Lawfare and a frequent defender of some of the NSA’s programs. The quote reads, in part: "Shameful as it is that these documents were leaked, they actually should give the public great confidence both in NSA’s internal oversight mechanisms and in the executive and judicial oversight mechanisms outside the agency. They show no evidence of any intentional spying on Americans or abuse of civil liberties."
What the letter did not say is that Wittes’s blog post was also a harsh critique of the White House’s failure to defend the NSA programs in a "full-throated and serious way." The passage cited in the letter was actually Wittes’s suggestion of what an administration "with the imagination to try to change the narrative" could have said to the NSA’s detractors.
After quoting the passage, Alexander and Inglis wrote, "We couldn’t agree more."
Jack Goldsmith, the one-time head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, wrote on Lawfare that "it is unclear if they are agreeing with the substance of [Wittes’] defense of NSA or with his criticism of the administration’s very tepid defense of NSA, or both. But whichever it is, the letter shows that leaders of the NSA are aware that the [U.S. government] has done a truly awful job of responding to the often-misleading public characterizations of both the documents Snowden leaked and the ones disclosed by the NSA itself."
The White House’s response to the NSA leaks is not in keeping with its defense of other intelligence controversies. Last year, John Brennan, then the White House counterterrorism chief, gave a major public address justifying the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists. Former intelligence officials called for a similar speech on NSA surveillance now. (Brennan became the CIA director in March.)
"I think actually this is the first signal that John Brennan is gone," said Baker, the former NSA general counsel. "I think that if Brennan had still been there he would have immediately appreciated the importance, and communicated that to the president, of defending the program."
Alexander has never been especially close to Obama or White House officials. Some thought he had tried to amass too much surveillance authority without appreciating the legal constraints on his agency, according to a former administration official. "I don’t understand why the White House didn’t throw Alexander under the bus," the official added.
The public response to the fallout from Snowden’s leaks has been managed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all the government’s intelligence agencies. In August, the office released thousands of pages of classified documents that it said showed the NSA operating within its authorities and abiding by the law. Originally, officials had planned to release a much smaller set of data, but the DNI’s general counsel, Robert Litt, intervened and pushed for a much bigger release, according to two sources familiar with the declassification process.
Litt has been one of the leading defenders of the agency, along with Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Referring to the Snowden leaks, Clapper told Foreign Policy in a statement, "This situation is unprecedented. The release of these documents represents one of the most egregious violations of trust I’ve seen in more than 50 years in Intelligence. Since the NSA documents were disclosed, the President and his staff have worked closely with my staff and NSA to manage this very challenging set of circumstances. I greatly appreciate the president’s unwavering support of the men and women at the NSA and across the entire Intelligence Community."
Former officials may be calling for a more visible sign of that support from Obama. But it’s not clear the president or a Cabinet official would persuade skeptical lawmakers and citizens that the NSA’s programs should remain intact. Polls have shown a majority of Americans believe the government hasn’t told them the full story about what the NSA does with people’s communications records. And while legislative attempts to scale back NSA surveillance have failed so far, Congress is considering other bills that could change the way that NSA spies.
"Would the president’s intervention be enough to call off Patrick Leahy and Ron Wyden? I don’t think so," said Lowenthal, referring to two of the NSA’s biggest antagonists in the Senate. "The president doesn’t have a lot of clout on the Hill right now, in either party."