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."