NSA Veterans: The White House Is Hanging Us Out to Dry

'There has been no support for the agency from the President, and this has not gone unnoticed.'

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."



Gun Shy in Seoul

Sixty years later, South Korea still isn't ready to take full control of its own defense.

SEOUL — When it comes to taking charge of coalition forces here on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea has been a little gun shy. South Korea and the United States this week are celebrating the 60-year anniversary of an alliance forged after the Korean War; there were two parades, a big dinner, video retrospectives, and a lot of talk of katchi kapshida ("we stand together"). But after decades of confidence-building joint exercises and billions of dollars in military assistance, it's time for the South Koreans to step up and assume what's called "operational control" of all forces stationed here if war should break out. The problem is, the South Koreans aren't quite ready.

The U.S.-South Korea alliance, a centerpiece of the Pentagon's pivot to Asia, is more dynamic than ever, South Korean and U.S. officials took pains to say this week. "We can't underestimate the true strength of this -- of the blood alliance," Gen. J.D. Thurman, the retiring commander of forces in South Korea, told reporters.

Currently, the United States retains authority over all forces in South Korea. If there were to be a significant provocation from North Korea, for example, the U.S. commander in South Korea would assume control not only of his own 28,000-man force, but South Korea's as well. For years, the United States has wanted to hand over operational control of the forces -- "opcon" in military parlance -- to South Korea. But past efforts to formalize the transfer of control, in 2009 and 2012, never went through. Now the transfer is scheduled again for 2015. Once again, however, the South Koreans want to delay it.

On Wednesday, Oct. 2, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a joint statement that formally accepts an approach long sought by South Korea to a "conditions-based" transfer; that's diplomatic code for giving the South Koreans as much time as they need. Now neither side will commit to saying just when operational control might occur.

The two countries also signed a pact to deter North Korea's potential use of nuclear arms or other weapons of mass destruction as concerns grow about what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is capable of. That pact was also a little vague, and defense officials trying to explain what it does used words like "framework" to describe the new approach, which itself was a work in progress. In the end, it will be seen as a confidence-building measure for the South Koreans at a time when they need it. "It's a new strategy that creates enhanced deterrence," said a military official in a briefing to reporters.

Kim, North Korea's inexperienced young dictator, remains a mystery to the U.S. intelligence community but has shown himself to be an unpredictable leader as he works to live up to the bad-boy image of his forebears. Kim's successful missile launch in December and his nuclear test in February raised tensions to some of their highest levels in years and shook the South Koreans.

U.S. military officials portrayed North Korea's leader and the capabilities of his military in stark terms, pointing to its large size (at 1.1 million, the world's fourth-largest), its composition (about 70 percent is "forward-deployed" or stationed south of Pyongyang), and its secrecy (an estimated 11,000 underground facilities). North Korea's navy has more than 800 surface ships and more than 70 submarine combatants, the U.S. military believes. Pyongyang possesses about 1,700 aircraft, most of which are relatively rudimentary. Kim has about 4,000 tanks at his disposal and about 13,000 artillery systems, U.S. military officials say.

As Kim tries to achieve the gravitas of his father, Kim Jong Il, he has developed a reputation for attacking with little notice, using lethal weaponry like missiles and long-range artillery. But it is North Korea's "asymmetric" capability that has South Korean and Western policy and intelligence officials most worried. That includes everything from the nuclear capabilities Pyongyang possesses to its chemical weapons stockpile -- thought to be the world's second-largest. It also has more than 800 ballistic missiles, including the Taepodong-2, which has an estimated range of about 2,600 miles.

Additionally, U.S. military officials say, North Korea has the world's largest special operations force (SOF) -- about 60,000 personnel and about 130,000 "SOF-like" personnel, according to a brief provided by U.S. officials. North Korea also poses a growing cyberthreat, especially to South Korea, which is considered to be one of the world's most wired countries, with 80 percent of the South's population using the Internet. Those kinds of capabilities give the North a bigger upper hand than the country might otherwise have, given a diminished economic system that limits the amount of money Kim can spend on the military.

"The fact is that they have some very dedicated human beings up there that are working very hard to further the regime's interests," said a military official. "Prioritization and focus in some cases allows them to overcome the shortness of resources."

Kim himself remains a mystery. His father consolidated power, but the elder Kim was reasonably confident in his role and therefore was seen as more stable. The younger Kim's relationship with the military is unclear, as is the question of whether he's a trusted leader. Military officials note that he typically moves military leaders around -- if the commanders who appear with him at the podium during military events are any gauge. But it's unclear yet what any of that means.

"We've been looking at him for a little over 18 months now, but we still don't understand his intent," a military official said this week.

A new report out by the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington-area think tank, concludes that Kim has yet been unable to consolidate power -- yet still remains a threat.

"If Kim Jong-un is able to survive this final period with his position intact, regime stability will probably be ensured for the foreseeable future," the report notes. "But, there is a possibility that his powers will be curbed or that he will become a puppet to powerful forces inside the regime." If that happens, "the stability of the regime could come into question." With so much uncertainty looming, it's no wonder the South Koreans are so reluctant about taking military control.

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