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Hullabaloo


Thursday, January 16, 2014

 
The president's big NSA surprise

by digby

Peter Baker of the NY Times offers a fascinating look at President Obama's evolution on the national security deep state today. It follows him from his early days as a Senator in which he expressed skepticism about the Bush administration's surveillance policies through the time after having won the presidential nomination when he voted to legalize most of them:
[A]s a former Obama aide put it recently, “The rhetoric was probably sharper than his votes.” ... Mr. Obama realized he would “take my lumps” from the left and said it “was not an easy call for me,” but he argued that putting the programs under the jurisdiction of the intelligence court restored accountability.
Just before he took office the spooks raised some alarms about a Somali threat to the inauguration that scared the incoming administration. Unsurprisingly, the "threat" turned out to be nonsense, but the result was that the president never revisited the issue of the secret surveillance programs or basically, anything to do with the NSA which carried on without supervision for the next four years.

We know the congress dropped the ball on oversight. They usually do. But so did the White House:
[A]fter he won the election, surveillance issues were off his agenda; instead, he focused on banning interrogation techniques he deemed torture and trying, futilely, to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “There wasn’t really any serious discussion of what N.S.A. was up to,” said a former intelligence official, who like others did not want to be named describing internal conversations...

Feeling little pressure to curb the security agencies, Mr. Obama largely left them alone until Mr. Snowden began disclosing secret programs last year. Mr. Obama was angry at the revelations, privately excoriating Mr. Snowden as a self-important narcissist who had not thought through the consequences of his actions.

He was surprised at the uproar that ensued, advisers said, particularly that so many Americans did not trust him, much less trust the oversight provided by the intelligence court and Congress. As more secrets spilled out, though, aides said even Mr. Obama was chagrined. They said he was exercised to learn that the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was being tapped.
Basically he was shocked and upset that the people didn't trust him to keep the NSA from being out of control --- and then learned that the NSA was out of control. Meanwhile, he'd also allowed his Justice Department to go after reporters and leakers with a ruthlessness not seen in decades.

This explains his attitude when the revelations first unfolded in the papers. He did seem to be shocked that anyone would even suspect the government of doing something untoward with these programs, despite his position just a few years earlier during the Bush administration that they had to be reined in. Clearly, he believed that he had it all in hand. And he didn't. Nobody did. (I wonder if he still feels truly confident that the NSA won't be spying on him when he leaves office. Or while he's still in office, for that matter.)

And for all the pearl clutching over Snowden's narcissism, neither the president, the military nor the congress seem to have been on top of this:
[The NSA] is the undisputed domain of General Keith Alexander, a man few even in Washington would likely recognize. Never before has anyone in America’s intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign, or the depth of his secrecy. A four-star Army general, his authority extends across three domains: He is director of the world’s largest intelligence service, the National Security Agency; chief of the Central Security Service; and commander of the US Cyber Command. As such, he has his own secret military, presiding over the Navy’s 10th Fleet, the 24th Air Force, and the Second Army.
[...]
Alexander runs the nation’s cyberwar efforts, an empire he has built over the past eight years by insisting that the US’s inherent vulnerability to digital attacks requires him to amass more and more authority over the data zipping around the globe. In his telling, the threat is so mind-bogglingly huge that the nation has little option but to eventually put the entire civilian Internet under his protection, requiring tweets and emails to pass through his filters, and putting the kill switch under the government’s forefinger...
[...]
Inside the government, the general is regarded with a mixture of respect and fear, not unlike J. Edgar Hoover, another security figure whose tenure spanned multiple presidencies. “We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander—with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets,” says one former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.”

Now 61, Alexander has said he plans to retire in 2014; when he does step down he will leave behind an enduring legacy—a position of far-reaching authority and potentially Strangelovian powers at a time when the distinction between cyberwarfare and conventional warfare is beginning to blur. A recent Pentagon report made that point in dramatic terms. It recommended possible deterrents to a cyberattack on the US. Among the options: launching nuclear weapons.
The NY Times article points out that the president is loathe to confront the secret surveillance state for fear that someday there will be a terrorist attack and he'll be blamed. I'm sure that's a legitimate fear. But then he'll certainly be blamed by the right no matter what the circumstances.  He must know that by now. But you could say the same thing about trying to get an Iran arms deal which could lead later to some kind of crisis if things go wrong and yet he's doing it.

On the other hand, dealing with Iran is not quite the same as dealing with a powerful rogue spying agency that demands it be allowed to operate entirely in secret and without accountability either so perhaps making peace in the middle east is actually more likely to succeed.

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