NSA, Can You Hear Me Now?

As I write this blog the two headlines playing over the background of the unauthorized disclosure regarding the scope and scale of NSA domestic surveillance are the election of a moderate to be the next president of Iran along with the White House announcing it is convinced that Syrian President Assad has used chemical weapons against the rebels forces trying to force him from office.  It will be curious to see how moderate Iranian President Elect Hassan Rouhani remains as the U.S. ramps up support to rebels fighting against Assad and his Iranian Hezbollah supporters.  Of course, Russia, China, and Iran are probably quietly pointing out that the U.S., despite its poor track record with chemical and biological weapons threat assessments, is ready again on the basis of “dubious intelligence” to intervene militarily in another Muslim country.  The impact on Iranian politics aside, I am not sure the American people are interested in a Syrian intervention or that the Treasury and DoD can sustain the effort needed to stabilize a post-Assad Syria

Before I began the process of moving and downsizing two weeks ago as a new Social Security annuitant, I thought I would be discussing with you President Obama’s 22 May policy speech about winding down the war on terrorism and the subsequent west coast summit with China’s Xi Jinping.   Instead, Edward Snowden shocked the Intelligence Community, Congress, and the White House with his unilateral release of classified details on the size and scope of NSA surveillance against telephone meta data and foreign emails – turning a major presidential policy speech and a summit between the leaders of the two most powerful nations in the world into one day stories on page three.  Ironically, as Snowden was informing the world about NSA surveillance in the name of transparency, Private Bradley Manning’s court martial was getting underway at Fort Meade where he is charged with releasing  a massive amount classified DoD and State Department message traffic while deployed in Iraq so all could know what the US is secretly doing.  More substantively, the administration’s contention that leaking of NSA’s surveillance has done great harm to the IC’s ability to discover and disrupt dangerous terrorist attacks aimed at the U.S. undermines the President’s contention that the perpetual war on terrorism is now anachronistic.  Similarly, Snowden’s revelations about the extent of NSA’s surveillance must have weakened the President’s ability to cogently engage the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party on China’s hacking of U.S. intellectual property.

Beyond arguments about the constitutionality of the NSA’s broad surveillance of U.S. citizens’ personal electronic communications and whether Snowden is a malicious traitor or a well-intentioned whistleblower, this story brought into view the number of contractors working inside of the IC with high level security clearance and access to sensitive national security information. This realization seems to have surprised many in the Congress, the media, and the electorate with the implication that contractors are by definition less trustworthy than government employees.  In Senate testimony on 13 June NSA Director Keith Alexander said NSA IT infrastructure was outsourced about 14 years ago,  providing more federal work in that area to contractors which:

“as a consequence [means] many in government — not just us — have system administrators who are contractors working and running our network. So we’ve got to address that. That is of serious concern to us, and something we have to fix. What I need, I think, is greater scrutiny.  I need to go back and look at what I am getting with my contract support and what are their capabilities and how do we manage that from a government perspective. That’s something I have concerns about.”

Along with General Alexander, Congress, GAO, OMB, media pundits, and others are starting to realize how much government IT, not just IC IT, is outsourced and why and how this happened.  This will likely explode like BlackWater did seven or eight years ago with lots of pontificating about inherently governmental functions being run by contractors only to be followed by the realization that without contractors and their skills many of these key government functions wouldn’t happen.  That will result in some self-serving policy language about contractor oversight and things will go back to the way they were (again the BlackWater example is instructive). What I fear will happen is that contractors will come in for more security scrutiny that will result in it taking longer to get people cleared and access will be become more limited  —–   less green badges.  This won’t result in any better security, but will create the aura of having done something measurable.  As an aside, I also see the CI guys getting a plus-up out of this despite having failed to identify Snowden as a risk.

The 24 June Time Magazine cover story, “Geeks that Leak,” reflects on the actions and motivations of both Manning and Snowden along with groups like Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street, pointing out that driven by “the hackivist ethos” they are a manifestation of “the age of the informant” compared to the “age of the spy” when it comes to government secrecy.  Startling to me is polling data that shows 28% of Americans don’t believe Snowden should be prosecuted, with 43% thinking this way in the 18 to 34 year old demographic.  Based on this, I am presuming that those responsible for security policy at ODNI are in the process of drafting new SF 86 forms and developing different polygraph questions that will shift away from determining if an individual being adjudicated for a security clearance is vulnerable to divulging classified information for financial, ideological, or foreign connection reasons to ones more associated with beliefs about what information should and should not be in the public domain.  Regarding basic CI, I am curious when Snowden’s absence from his “place of performance” (i.e. where he worked) was noted and reported.

Certainly terrorists will now be better able to take advantage of knowing what the legal limits are on US surveillance, limits that are about to be more rigorously enforced if not expanded, but this will pass with new technologies, tactics, techniques, and practices.  The most serious damage done here is not from the compromise of effective intelligence sources and methods, but from the doubts that American citizens are feeling about whether their Intelligence Community is needlessly taking them under surveillance.  The IC response is “not to worry” because we have high ethical standards and are subject to oversight from multiple directions, but this begs the question raised by the misuse use of IRS authorities: how do we know that the IC is acting ethically and that all this oversight is working?

That’s what I think; what do you think?

5 comments on “NSA, Can You Hear Me Now?

  1. Joe,

    Excellent observations. You hit the nail on the head in referring to the investigation and adjudication processes. They are little changed from WWII, or shortly thereafter. DNI McConnell had an initiative to fix this but it did not go far. Apparently, he has a flawed hiring system at BAH. I suspect other contractors do too. (Personally I don’t care how PTSD treatment is treated on the SF 86. Other factors are more relevant.)

  2. mazzajm1 says:

    John if we keep looking for communist sympathizers it is unlikely that the security vetting process will protect us from future Manning’s and Snowden’s

    I bet BAH HR saw a resume for cleared SysAdmin with a clean record and solid references who they could bill out immediately, Snowden is a good case study for companies should be allowed to keep cleared people on the bench so they don’t have to hire fast in order to invoice the government

    • It won’t! We need to understand the younger generations and what motivates them, not Cold War niceties.

      I’m not sure keeping a “bench” is practical, however desirable. It would cut into the Partners’ and Shareholders’ equity … not attractive to these groups unless the govt pays.

  3. Franklin White says:

    JoeMazz, enlightening as usual! I am curious about the leaker’s motivation, the implication in your blog is that Manning and Snowden were similarly motivated; “geek leakers” as it were,. I am not so sure. The timing of Snowden’s departure and leaks to coincide with the summit with China’s Xi Jinping seems more than coincidental. The US talking points of the meeting – China’s hacking, surveillance, aggressive military stance off shore, among others were completely undermined by the leaks, not just the relegation to page 3 of the newspaper; that was a minor consequence of what became a non-summit. Richard Baer stated early on that he thinks Snowden was an active agent for the Chinese (PLA or some other arm of of a massive intelligence apparatus) and I tend to agree with him. I hope we can get him back and perhaps find some answers.
    Frank White

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