February 5, 2014– Is all this really happening? Maybe I should pinch my arm and try to wake up. But it’s not a dream–it’s a nightmare. United States foreign intelligence turning on Americans. This NSA eavesdropping scandal has created such distortions that, at some point, you begin to wonder whether the entire system is compromised. Government responses to the scandal have gone so over the top that one suspects the foundations of the intelligence community may be cracking.
Let’s begin with the fundamental mission. As officials have reiterated ad infinitum since the Snowden revelations began, the purpose of U.S. intelligence is to discover and track foreign enemies. All the powers the NSA, CIA, and other agencies exercise are supposed to be aimed at that goal. The agencies operate in secrecy, on the dark side. But there moments when, for a brief time, they come into focus. The most important of these is the annual “threat assessment” hearings. Every year around this time the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the agency chiefs appear before the congressional intelligence committees to give the public a glimpse of their world view. The spy chiefs talk to the legislators but at the same time speak to the American people. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) are fora in which our agency bosses expounded on the Soviet threat, in the day; efforts to develop ballistic missiles around the world, nuclear proliferation, including the misguided and mistaken claims for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; drug cartels and international crime syndicates, whatever the issues that have their hair on fire. Since 9/11 our intelligence chiefs have consistently represented the top threat as terrorism. Only last year did it drop to second place, with the threat of cyberwar given the pride of place. Now, suddenly, the NSA eavesdropping scandal has changed that.
Last week the DNI, General James R. Clapper, and his assembled brass, presented their annual threat assessment to the Senate committee. They did the same at the HPSCI yesterday. The two appearances cast a pall on the American intelligence enterprise. Our so-called experts now believe the leading threat is not foreign at all.
General Clapper told the Senate intelligence committee that a leading threat to the United States comes from whistleblowers. (Cue Edward Snowden.) Let’s parse that for a moment: Whistleblowers are employees of U.S. intelligence who become so concerned about the U.S. intelligence programs they see around them that they decide to destroy their careers by leaking to the public the abuses which exercise them. How to cope with that threat? You clamp down on U.S. intelligence. The snake eats its own tail. This is more than a security measure. The NSA, CIA and other agencies depend on smart analysts and operators, willing to go out on a limb to make sense of the welter of obscure and often contradictory information out there, and argue theses which bosses might think fanciful. Nothing could be better calculated to destroy the morale of the intelligence community than to represent its own officers, individually and collectively, as the main enemy.
I’ve written here repeatedly, as have others, on the chilling effect of eavesdropping on the public. Consider how chilling it must be for intelligence officers to be told they are a threat too.
There it is. Just to keep the ball in view, Clapper’s biggest threat this year remains cyberwar. But terrorism–the stated rationale for all that intrusive NSA eavesdropping–has fallen to fourth. Whistleblowers are a bigger threat to American security than terrorists. Of course, the reason whistleblowers pose a threat is the impact their disclosures may have on the powers of the intelligence community. Director Clapper and his minions are substituting the private, parochial interests of their agencies for the national security of the United States.
On the theme of flimsy congressional oversight, featured here several times, we can add that Senator Dianne Feinstein sat still for all this in her Senate committee. At HPSCI yesterday, Representative Mike Rogers did Feinstein one better. Clapper hardly needed to advance his dubious threat analysis. Rogers reached past him, trying to lead FBI director James B. Comey into an assertion that journalists who report the abuses revealed by whistleblowers are “fencing” stolen goods. What congressional oversight is even possible in this climate?
Rogers has, without evidence, accused Snowden repeatedly of being a Russian or Chinese spy, and last fall at a media gabfest with former spook Michael V. Hayden the two bantered about their desire to throttle the leaker. Edward Snowden got the message. Recently he told a German interviewer, in all seriousness, that he could not return to the United States because people want to kill him.
All this gives new meaning to aphorisms–always presented as an error–about shooting the messenger. Do not lose sight of the fact–and it is a fact–that the problem resides in the substance of U.S. intelligence programs, not in what Edward Snowden or anyone else says about them. That intrusive eavesdropping is revealed in the NSA’s own documents. Not only can the evidence not be disputed, it has been further confirmed in the additional documentation the U.S. government has declassified in the course of this controversy.