The 5 Worst Problems with 60 Minutes’ Love Note to the NSA

"It is often said NSA stands for ‘never say anything,’ but tonight the agency breaks with that tradition," John Miller, the reporter behind Sunday night’s 60 Minutes report on the National Security Agency, announced bravely in the program’s introduction. You could say that 60 Minutes set itself up to fall short in promising to ask ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

"It is often said NSA stands for ‘never say anything,’ but tonight the agency breaks with that tradition," John Miller, the reporter behind Sunday night’s 60 Minutes report on the National Security Agency, announced bravely in the program’s introduction.

You could say that 60 Minutes set itself up to fall short in promising to ask the nation’s most opaque intelligence agency the hard questions — but what followed fell short spectacularly. The interview with NSA’s top brass was riddled with so many glaring omissions that at times it seemed an accomplice to an NSA public relations campaign — a sentiment that roiled the national security Twittersphere on Sunday night.

Here are the five worst moments from a report that failed to question the agency’s intelligence gathering methods, omitted serious conflicts of interest, and overhyped its level of access.

Where were the NSA critics?

NSA critics are known for being a vocal bunch, but they were nowhere to be found in the CBS report. The line-up of NSA officials certainly wasn’t lacking. It included the NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander; the head of the NSA’s Snowden leaks task force, Rick Ledgett; the director of cyber defense, Debora Plunkett; plus a handful of NSA analysts, among others. But, alas, not one person who isn’t completely onboard with the NSA’s techniques. For a program that vowed to "address serious questions about whether the NSA delves too far into the lives of citizens," leaving out the critics not only fails to deliver on the premise of the report but fails that most basic principle of journalism: telling both sides of the story.

John Miller’s fake-out "full disclosure"

John Miller, the show’s correspondent, wants you to know that he’s a journalist you can trust. "Full disclosure, I once worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence," he says at the start of the program.

But that’s a disclosure that undersells the potential conflicts of interest at play in Miller participating in such a program. Miller failed to mention that he was once the assistant director for the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. The FBI has been one of the main beneficiaries of aggressive NSA surveillance practices, but having a former bureau spokesman report on those programs apparently didn’t raise eyebrows at CBS. Moreover, Miller is reportedly leaving journalism for a "top intelligence or counterterrorism role" with the NYPD. That career move received no mention on Sunday night.

Miller joins in on the scare tactics

Later in the program, Miller posed  a series of questions about the extent of the dangers posed by "intelligence adversaries" — and listens with rapt attention as Alexander lists them. Trumping up national security dangers is Alexander’s specialty: In October, he painted himself as a martyr who would rather "take the beatings" from the public rather than "give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked." Instead of questioning that well-known tactic, Miller eggs on the fear-mongering, failing to put any real pressure on the claims made by Alexander:

John Miller: Could a foreign country tomorrow topple our financial system?

Gen. Keith Alexander: I believe that a foreign nation could impact and destroy major portions of our financial system, yes.

John Miller: How much of it could we stop?

Gen. Keith Alexander: Well, right now it would be difficult to stop it because our ability to see it is limited.

Remarkably, Miller does not question that last statement, opting instead to let it resonate as a fact. Alexander has been handed an extraordinary set of powers, but here he gets to plead on national television for additional authority. Miller lets that plea go unquestioned.

Miller is equally enthralled with Debora Plunkett after she describes a virus that an unnamed "nation-state" had developed, basically concluding her anecdote for her:

John Miller: So, this basically would have gone into the system that starts up the computer, runs the systems, tells it what to do.

Debora Plunkett: That’s right.

John Miller:  — and basically turned it into a cinderblock.

Debora Plunkett: A brick.

John Miller: And after that, there wouldn’t be much you could do with that computer.

Why leave it to NSA officials to dramatize the precariousness of U.S. security when Miller will do it for them?

Regardless of the degree to which Miller parrots the NSA’s claims, the idea that a foreign power would be able to cripple the U.S. financial system is seriously disputed by technology experts. As Spencer Ackerman, one of the journalists heavily involved in reporting on the documents provided by Edward Snowden, writes for the Guardian, the likely culprit behind the plot, China, has next to no motive for crippling an economy in which it is deeply integrated. Moreover, past Chinese hacking attempts have been largely aimed at stealing information, not destroying computer systems. Additionally, the U.S. financial system is so complex and made up of so many components that a virus capable of destroying "major portions of our financial system" would be extraordinarily difficult to construct. 

The interview was more restricted than the program suggested

The premise of the 60 Minutes story was that it was offering near-unprecedented access to the agency. Ledgett, for instance, tells Miller he’s done only one interview in the 25 years he’s been with the NSA — this one. But take a look a look at 60 Minutes Overtime, a set of additional clips posted online, and you’ll discover that that wasn’t the full story. The camera crew reveals that they were never alone during filming, and in the outtakes analysts are interrupted because they’re not allowed to respond to certain questions. While it’s not so extraordinary that NSA employees might not be able to answer every question in an interview, it is curious that 60 Minutes omitted those interruptions in favor of keeping up the impression of unprecedented access they seem intent on selling.

The outtakes also include a r
esponse in which Alexander flat-out dodges a tough question. At one point, Miller asks: "Did the NSA actually find a foreign power that had identified this capability and discussed using it offensively?" Alexander breaks eye contact and looks to a group behind him. He simply responds, "I need a time-out on that."

Again, the issue here isn’t so much that he refused to answer as much as 60 Minutes omitting his response from the version of the program that aired on national television.

Miller says Americans are just confused

After describing metadata in a voice-over, Miller lends Alexander another helping hand.

"So you understand then, there might be a little confusion among Americans who read in the newspaper that the NSA has vacuumed up, the records of the telephone calls of every man, woman and child in the United States for a period of years — that sounds like spying on Americans."

Of course, Alexander clears up the "confusion," with Miller handing him cues. "You just see that this number called this number," Miller offers. Critics of the agency argue that metadata collection can be just as revealing as the content of communication — such as the voice recording of a phone call or the text of an email — but those critics are of course never allowed to counter the NSA’s contention that metadata collection has no real consequences for individuals’ privacy.

Even if Miller isn’t inclined to take privacy concerns very seriously, he is nothing short of  awe-struck in the way he describes NSA codebreakers. "Many of the cryptologists skipped grades in school, earned master’s degrees and Ph.D.s and look more like they belong on a college campus than at the NSA," he says. He then watches one of them solve a Rubik’s cube in "one minute and 35 seconds."

Journalist James Bamford put it most succintly:

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