Mr. President, We Can Handle the Truth

Why it's time for the White House to get ahead of the NSA scandal.

It has been revealing to watch the White House chase the NSA surveillance story. At first, when Edward Snowden's revelations broke, White House officials sought to make the story about him. Snowden was a traitor and the issue was how quickly he could be brought to justice.

As the first wave of revelations about wholesale U.S. harvesting of data and phone records broke, they maintained this stance. The administration still focused on portraying itself as the victim of a betrayal. Again, White House spokespeople did not address the ethics of what the U.S. government had been doing, instead either diverting to the rationale for the scope of such wide-ranging surveillance operations or offering the excuse that running an intelligence system with more than half a million people naturally comes with operational security risks and, inevitably, there are contractors of dubious background like Snowden, who receive top-secret clearance.

When Snowden sought asylum, the United States made the story about the other governments that were collaborating with the young rogue fugitive. Tensions rose with Russia when it gave Snowden a temporary and then a longer-term home. Latin American nations that offered or considered offering Snowden asylum were framed as pariahs. We even collaborated with allies in Europe to ground the plane of Bolivia's president in the hopes of nabbing the former contractor.

As the story then spread and countries like Brazil and Mexico were discovered to be the targets of espionage, the White House's response publicly and in private to those governments was "everybody does it." Again, no discussion was made of why we were spying on these friends or, if assertions of spying against commercial targets like Petrobras were true, what the rationale was for this kind of economic espionage. After all, the initial arguments were that this unprecedentedly massive program was to protect us from terrorists and other enemies. Was there a hidden Petrobras-al Qaeda connection that we didn't know about?

More recently, the White House's reaction has revealed the double standard we have when it comes to surveilling our friends. If Brazil or Mexico is offended, that's one thing, more easily shrugged off apparently. But when it was revealed that Germany, one of our closest allies, was also targeted (triggering a firestorm of anger in that country ... compounded by anger in also-targeted France and Spain), we treated it differently. These particular complaints now warranted a different kind of response. In this instance, both public and private assurances were given to senior German officials by both National Security Advisor Susan Rice and later President Barack Obama. The newly adopted argument was that the president had no idea this was going on and that it was stopped.

This approach was subsequently challenged in stories in the German magazine Bild and in the Los Angeles Times, leading to more awkwardness for the White House. Now we weren't just spying on the Germans and others -- we were lying to them. And the White House was asking the American people to accept ignorance as its excuse. What a fine choice. Either the president didn't know about programs he should have been aware of, or he knew and not only OK'd the overreach but then lied about it.

This astonishingly lame response -- called "pathetic" by the New York Times editorial board, a group that is not seen as reflexively anti-Obama -- was then compounded by an idea floated to the New York Times by the National Security Council: that the president was considering reforms that would ban eavesdropping on presidents and prime ministers of allies. Quite apart from raising the tough question of who our "real" allies are or defining who is fair game for spying, this policy tweak is not reform but spin. What if there were 20 allies who qualified? Does this mean we solve the NSA surveillance overreach problem by exempting a small, pre-selected group out of hundreds of millions from the data and phone-records eavesdropping and warehousing efforts of the U.S. government? It misses the point that there are worse things about this program than spying on the leaders of friendly nations.

The core issues of the gross and excessive surveillance associated with the NSA revelations are not about spying on friends. Wholesale harvesting of the emails and phone records of Americans is a dangerous departure from the principles of limiting government access to private information that has existed since the beginnings of the republic. Creating back doors by which Americans can be eavesdropped on via collecting overseas data resources is another worrisome dimension of these programs. Serially violating the privacy of tens of millions of foreign citizens is another. So is the suggestion that the threat of terrorism warrants such sweeping violations. (It is a real threat, but it has been abused to justify overreach. Our fears have once again gotten the better of us -- as they did when they were used to justify wrongheaded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or mistaken and abusive programs like the Patriot Act or the use of torture or the serial violation of sovereignty wrought via our drone programs.)

Stepping away from the moral, ethical, and strategic concerns raised by such programs, there are serious questions to be asked about the practical management of intelligence programs. Were the benefits derived from such programs worth the risks they apparently entailed? Their discovery had to be seen by a prudent intelligence community senior officer as a risk in a system in which the number of people with top-secret clearance exceeded half a million. What possible tangible benefit came from listening in on a Brazilian oil company? What advantage was gained from listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel? And is it worth the fallout that this scandal is producing?

That fallout is not, the White House must now see, purely the political or diplomatic embarrassment it has generated. One industry group has estimated that the costs to U.S. companies likely to get frozen out of foreign tech deals because they are seen as suspect or too vulnerable to the NSC might run as high as $35 billion. Worse, this entire episode will be used by foreign governments to turn back the tide of globalization and increased access to information (and the democratizing forces engendered by it) that the information revolution was bringing. It will be an excuse for countersurveillance programs, restrictive Internet governance regimes, censorship, and deepening cyberconflict. (This move toward a fragmentation of the Internet into national regimes, some imbued with barriers to entry or exit, is what I called cyber-nationalism in my FP column last week.)

These are reversals to American interests overseas that are far more damaging than anything terrorists could have done to us. Just as Iraq was. Just as Afghanistan was. Just as Abu Ghraib was. Just as the Patriot Act was. We are becoming victims not of terrorists but of terror, of our own fears and our emotional, ill-considered overreactions to them.

For the White House, it is now time to stop chasing this story and get ahead of it. It is time to say, without acknowledging secret programs or compromising security, "We were wrong. We went too far. We reserve the right to defend ourselves using all reasonable means at our disposal. But we can't do so in ways that compromise the values, alliances, and trust that are also vital pillars of our strength."

It is time therefore to welcome Sen. Dianne Feinstein's calls for a top-to-bottom review of intelligence programs. It is time to embrace emerging congressional initiatives to limit data warehousing and wholesale privacy violations. And behind the scenes, it is time to do what should have been done at the outset at the highest levels. The president and his top aides should identify our national security goals, the objectives we seek to advance, and risks we seek to mitigate and then determine what role the intelligence community ought to play in advancing those goals. This will mean setting parameters determined by our resource limitations and by our laws and by our values. It will also mean carefully weighing downsides versus returns and consequently reining in our intelligence community -- not out of lack of appreciation for what it does but precisely because we value it and the people within it and we do not seek to put them at unnecessary risk in pursuit of programs that should not have been undertaken in the first place.

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David Rothkopf

False Fronts

How the biggest intelligence community scandal in modern memory and Washington's infamous Twitter troll expose the real D.C.

They say Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, but in some areas we have Tinseltown beat. For example, false fronts are much bigger and more common here than in all the plastic surgery mills of L.A. combined, and veneers are more common inside the Beltway than in every cosmetic dentistry office in that city added up.

Of the veneers, the most prevalent are the smarmy and the insincere ones that we associate with members of Congress, whether they are of the bright orange variety or the clueless Texas senatorial variety or the "shocked, shocked" Dems who would be doing their worst to undercut a GOP president were the shoe on the other foot.

But in the foreign-policy world, we have our own set of poses, postures, and conceits in which we cloak our true selves. After all, most of the guys talking tough about projecting force and taking out terrorists spent their formative years as hopeless nerds getting sand kicked in their face; the closest they ever got to real combat was a vigorous game of Battleship with some pimply cousin on whom they had an inappropriate crush. In fact, few things are more laughable than listening to these Urkels grow all grave and knowing over throw-weights and the acronym du jour if you happen to have seen them coming of age or have ever, well, talked to them at a barbecue. (And believe me, among the peace-loving, development specialists I have known who spend their lives working for a Kumbayatopia are some of the most ruthlessly self-interested bureaucratic knife fighters in town.)

The contrast between the false fronts and the underlying underdevelopment of the people or the ideas they espouse has been illustrated recently in two ways -- one amusing but trivial, one far more serious and troubling. The first has to do with the recent news of the unmasking of a D-list Twitterverse troublemaker as a White House national security official who obviously made up for in hubris what he lacked in intelligence. The second has to do with the attitude that has produced the biggest intelligence community scandal and crisis in modern memory.

The Twitterverse comeuppance is the story of a previously more or less faceless National Security Council (NSC) staffer named Jofi Joseph who, having failed to make a name for himself through his policy work, began to do so under the social media nom de snark @NatSecWonk. Behind this mask he mixed it up with the inside-the-Beltway crowd and, despite his White House job, regularly took nasty shots (even for Washington) at both opposition voices on the Hill and even members of Barack Obama's cabinet (see this FP story by Gordon Lubold for details). Worse still, this reckless nitwit is now suspected of also operating under another handle, @DCHobbyist, via which he tipped his hand that he may have had a taste for escort services and other forms of conduct unbecoming a wonk.

I would say more about this particular form of millennial pseudo-bravery that involves hiding behind a fake name and the distance provided by the Internet, but I think I summed it up best in a tweet I sent this character, now being investigated by the Justice Department, way back in August 2012.

The fall of @NatSecWonk should serve as a cautionary tale to others who find that logging on to their Twitter and Facebook accounts offers as reliable a source of false courage as a couple of stiff drinks did for their parents. Hopefully, it will also lead his supervisors at the NSC to ask where they went wrong in their own messaging and management to allow such a dumbass misstep to occur. But in terms of long-term impact, it doesn't hold a candle to the posturing of the other NatSecWonks out there whom I have encountered on Twitter and in real life who have become the faux-knowing, world-weary apologists for the administration's National Security Agency (NSA) fiasco.

With this week's revelations of the NSA listening in on the cell-phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, not to mention scooping up the emails of 70 million Frenchmen (and women) as well as those of the president of Mexico and his closest aides, we have seen again the collective eye-rolls of these national security insider types who just couldn't be more perplexed as to what all the fuss is about. Echoing the White House's sadly lame (and diplomatically tone-deaf) "everybody spies" non-defense, these insiders, who no doubt sleep in their trench coats and are risking their marriages with a steady stream of critiques of the inaccuracies in Homeland and Covert Affairs, have once again argued that spies are paid to listen in on people and that includes our friends and always has.

Were they (and the White House) a little more intellectually honest in their analyses, of course, they would find that, in the first instance, not everyone spies and that, in the second, those who do spy do so to differing degrees via differing approaches and within differing guidelines. Furthermore, the types of spying that are currently gaining much of the criticism have either been controversial within the intelligence community in the past (economic spying and spying on friends) or are so new that they are not well understood in terms of operational security risks or other implications (warehousing data hoovered out of the Internet).

To be more specific about these points, when the White House met with Brazil's justice minister regarding the revelations that the United States had listened in on that country's president as well as on some of its leading businesses, like national oil company Petrobras, and responded with the "everybody spies" line, the Brazilian said, "We don't." Some countries feel it's not worth the resources. Some don't do it or don't do much because of other reasons -- such as scruples or having come to the conclusion that it doesn't help that much.

But assume that many countries do spy. (Because they do.) Assume many use nasty techniques against us (including our friends). That still doesn't mean that we should use every means or method available to us. Because some are too high risk to warrant it -- not because our spies will necessarily be outed or captured or killed, but because our spying might be discovered and diplomatic, political, or economic blowback will result. For proof, see Brazil's recent moves to create its own secure email systems, its efforts that are making life harder for U.S. tech companies that cooperated with the NSA, its conversations with India, Russia, and China about creating a separate Internet backbone, its cancellation of its state visit to the United States, etc. Watch closely as the NSA scandal accelerates the pace of cyber-nationalism and more countries start setting rules for the Internet within their borders that undercut the promise of free Internet and the political and economic benefits to the United States that might bring.

More revelations and more blowback will follow. Each will produce shrugs from these apologists for intelligence community groupthink to go along with the defenses of the intelligence and policy community types who approved the programs and thus have self-interests to protect. They will complain it is all the fault of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. They will decry their "treachery." And in so doing they will miss the point. In the first instance, whether Snowden broke the law or not, at this point it cannot be denied that he did the world an enormous service by calling out excesses and abuses that should be stopped, framing issues of privacy and sovereignty in the Internet age that demand discussion, and hopefully causing us to think twice about what we do next. But more importantly, even the most perfunctory risk analysis has to conclude that in any system where 500,000 people have top-secret clearance, some secrets will not be kept. (It's ludicrous to think that anything shared beyond a handful of people will be kept secret in such a "system.") And so when any espionage operation is undertaken, the question has to be asked: What if we are discovered? What if we can't keep the secrets we want to keep?

That in turn frames a question that I heard asked often when I was in Bill Clinton's administration and have heard not infrequently subsequently: Is the intelligence we might be gathering worth the risks entailed by getting it? I acutely remember a very uncomfortable meeting with a number of very senior-level officials in which this question was raised about economic intelligence in particular. The conclusion of the intelligence official in attendance was that it was not. We have now started to see similar questions raised about the benefits of this latest wave of spying on friendly governments. (See this recent Washington Post article.)

Yes, many governments spy. But so too do all countries have armies, police forces, and tax codes. In each instance, the question is not whether to pursue the activity -- it is how to do it, how to limit it, and what values should underpin it. Our spying has overreached. We took risks we shouldn't have for rewards that were too limited. Even when there were perceived threats that seemed to warrant these activities (and that cannot be the case in some of the recent examples we have encountered of spying against friends and companies), many of those threats may themselves not have been so great to warrant the risks associated with spying. What if the NSA scandals result in a more fragmented global Internet? What if they are used as an excuse by repressive regimes to violate their own citizens' privacy? What if they are used as an excuse to deny U.S. companies access to their markets? What if they are used as an excuse to justify similar actions against the United States?

Those aren't arbitrary questions. All those things not only might happen -- they will. They are the direct result of America's intelligence overreach, of mistakes in judgment by senior White House and intelligence community decision-makers ... and of the enabling atmosphere provided by the pliant, arch, unquestioning attitudes of the faux-hard-boiled wonks who to this day are helping to impede the kind of real reassessment of priorities, methods, and means the U.S. intelligence community so urgently needs.  

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