March 25, 2014– The ground has begun to shift under the dam that has so far protected the National Security Agency in its dragnet metadata program, much as appears to be happening for its sister three-letter agency across the Potomac. Yesterday in Amsterdam, tastefully posed in front of the Rembrandt painting “The Night Watch,” President Barack Obama put his first nail into the coffin of NSA domestic spying. So far we have only sparse details of the Obama scheme and there will be more to say about it once the picture focuses, but the change in the president’s tone and the general direction of his proposals is already clear. This is about showing that the White House is in charge.
It seems the impact of broad public criticism, the weight of the accumulating pile of blue-ribbon panel reviews and court findings that find the NSA dragnet illegal, and, most particularly, the vocal opposition of the high technology corporations whose bottom lines are being clobbered by the NSA’s stubborn resistance to changing its intrusive spying, have had an effect. Historians may one day tell us this was inevitable–and sharp analysts have seen it coming all along. James Clapper and Keith Alexander, the spy mavens who tried to plug the dike with their fingers (was Obama sending a message by staging his Rembrandt scene?) way overplayed their hand, relying on the secrecy card to protect eavesdropping that skirted close to the precipice of the law and could not be justified on its merits.
This was inevitable because it is inherently political. To preserve their presidents’ freedom of action, White House staffs work to show movement and responsiveness. The present situation tracks very well with the events of 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” the time of the Family Jewels.
Mr. Obama reacted to the Snowden leaks by setting up a presidential review panel, which surprised him by delivering a negative judgment on the NSA eavesdropping. He tried to protect the program, which became steadily more controversial. Against mounting pressure, in January the president gave a speech promising reforms, and invited the hi tech corporate heads in advance to outline his proposed remedies. Those reforms were essentially cosmetic. He invited Clapper and Alexander to a White House state dinner to denote his continuing support. Evidence of the spies’ extravagance continued to mount. The president had said he would deliver details toward the end of March and he did so, yesterday, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. That Mr. Obama chose a foreign locale to articulate his detailed proposals is significant–European, Latin, and other nations have been among the most strident critics of the NSA dragnet. This time, like the last, Obama had the tech chieftains to the White House in advance to unveil his design and solicit their comments.
During the “Year of Intelligence,” the White House moved swiftly to show activity when evidence of abuses emerged. President Gerald R. Ford created a blue-ribbon commission, headed by Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, to examine the allegations. It was unable to deliver a clean bill of health because the abuses were real. Investigative committees formed in both houses of Congress. White House staff crafted a plan to defend the intelligence agencies, carefully vetting every document they permitted to be given to the congressional investigators. More abuses were revealed. The White House then set out to demonstrate its responsiveness by drafting an executive order that President Ford would issue which established the first detailed charter for U.S. intelligence activities. Mr. Ford could then take the credit for action.
What is different between 1975 and 2013-2014 is that during the Year of Intelligence the CIA chief, then William E. Colby, realized that the intelligence agencies had to respond to allegations. In the present crisis Jim Clapper and his colleagues at NSA and CIA tried to stifle criticism by stonewalling, evoking false visions of threat, and making phony claims of achievement. That strategy, weak on the face of it, is now revealed as bankrupt. As I have said in this space before, Clapper should go.
What is the same is the evolution of the situations. There is a pattern to Family Jewels crises. It is time to create a mechanism to avoid them.