Five Ways the NSA Can Regain Americans’ Trust

Military analysis.
Aug. 2 2013 11:55 AM

Damaged Goods

How the NSA traveled down a slippery slope—and how it can regain Americans’ trust.

An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland.
An undated aerial photo shows the National Security Agency headquarters building in Fort Meade, Md.

Handout photo by Reuters

“When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it, and you argue about what to do about it after you’ve had your technical success.” —J. Robert Oppenheimer

The father of the atomic bomb made this observation in 1951 while testifying before a panel that wound up revoking his security clearance as a result of reports that he’d opposed going ahead with the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. He was explaining to the panel why he’d initially supported the H-bomb project—it was so “technically sweet” that “the moral and ethical and political issues” dropped by the wayside.

Technical sweetness may explain how the National Security Agency put in place the massive surveillance programs that Edward Snowden has revealed in recent weeks.

Consider this. The core mission of the NSA, ever since it was founded in 1952, has been “signals intelligence”—intercepting all manner of communications sent or received by the enemy. The task has been getting more challenging as the means of communication have evolved from radio antennae and the telephone to satellites, fiber optics, cellphones, and the Internet. It has become harder still in the past dozen years, as the enemies to be tracked have expanded to include not only nation-states, but also amorphous, decentralized terrorist groups.

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And so, when the NSA’s allies and affiliates in the corporate software world came up with devices that can intercept, sift through, collate, and parse patterns from everything, in near-instantaneous time—well, it was all so “technically sweet,” the natural inclination among those in charge would have been, as Oppenheimer said, to “go ahead and do it.”

There were, of course, legal limits to what they could do. And in the past, these limits served as firm obstacles. Back in the early 1980s, when White House and Pentagon officials became aware that the government’s computer networks were vulnerable to hacking, the NSA proposed putting itself in charge of software security—but leaders in Congress rejected the idea, noting that, by statute, the NSA must have nothing to do with domestic surveillance.

In 2002, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s high-tech research and development shop, put Adm. John Poindexter, who had been Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, in charge of a massive surveillance program called Total Information Awareness—which was essentially a somewhat cruder version of the programs that we know are in place now. The 9/11 terrorist attacks had occurred just months before; most Americans were willing to make compromises in the interests of national security—but only to a point. When news reports described the vast scope of Poindexter’s TIA program, Congress ordered it shut down, for the same reason: Foreign intelligence programs—whether run by the CIA, the NSA, or the Pentagon—had no business snooping within the United States.

But sometime over the past decade, the means of surveillance became so fast and vast—so technically sweet—that the decision was made to “go ahead and do it.”

And it’s not hard to see why. Threats from al-Qaida and its affiliates were still active—and, with the Cold War gone, they marked the only plausible threats to the U.S. “homeland.” Several plots, though much smaller in scale than the 9/11 attacks, had just barely been foiled in the years since. FBI director Robert Mueller told a House committee in June that the 9/11 plot might have been disrupted if today’s technologies had been around in 2001. Apparently, one of the intercepted phone calls—the calls that led the intelligence community to warn President George W. Bush of a possible impending attack—had been made from San Diego, but the monitors had no way of knowing that at the time. Had they known, Mueller claimed, the caller could have been tracked down and detained.

NSA officials also testified that the most far-flung of these tools, called XKeyscore, has helped capture more than 300 terrorists. On the other hand, Sen. Patrick Leahy says he’s not convinced it’s done much to capture any.

Who’s right? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure Glenn Greenwald doesn’t know either; nor, it’s quite likely, does Edward Snowden. Does Leahy really know? Do Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who are also on the Senate committee, know? They should, one way or the other. Should the rest of us? Obviously, we can’t be expected to know everything about how XKeyscore or some other program helped capture the terrorists, if it in fact did. But now that the secrets have been spilled, now that the whole program is under discussion, we need to know some more of the details.

Sunlight pains the whole culture of the NSA and those with lifelong careers there. Throughout its existence, everything about the agency—everything about signals intelligence and communications intercepts—has been highly classified. Until recently, the very fact that there were intercepts was highly classified, and disclosure of that fact was a serious crime. Intelligence agencies are, by nature, insular and secretive; the NSA, by far the largest and most secretive U.S. intelligence agency, is exponentially so.

There’s the scene in Dr. Strangelove when the president lets the Russian ambassador into the war room so that he can see the common predicament of both superpowers, and the Air Force chief of staff (played by George C. Scott) sputters, “But he’ll see the Big Board!”

That’s the situation in which the NSA chiefs now find themselves. They have to show us the Big Board—not all of it, or maybe they don’t have to show it to us (i.e., to you and me). But the secrecy has been too tight, the few public statements on the matter have been too vague or deceptive, the level of distrust is rising so steeply that the program itself is in jeopardy. A recent amendment to cancel the program lost in the House of Representatives, 217–225, a startlingly narrow margin. Those who manage or support the program should be the keenest to open the curtains.

It’s easy to see the logic by which the NSA managers widened the scope of their surveillance. At first, they focused on tracking traffic patterns. Some phone number in the United States was calling suspicious people or places in, say, Pakistan. It might be useful to find out whose phone number it was. It might then be useful to find out what other people that person has been calling or emailing, and then it might be useful to track their phone calls and email patterns. Before you know it, they’re storing data on millions of people, including a lot of Americans. Then maybe one day, they track someone—a phone number or email address they’d never come across before—engaged in some very suspicious activity. They wish that they’d been tracking this person for some time, so they could go back and see if a pattern exists without having to wait for one to emerge. Then they learn that they can do this; new technology makes it possible. So they scoop up and store everything from everybody. They even convince themselves that they’re not “collecting” data from American citizens (as that would be illegal); no, they’re just storing it; the collecting doesn’t happen until they actually go retrieve it from the files. (James Clapper, director of national intelligence, actually made this claim.)