When things go badly in Washington, D.C., when a scandal breaks or damaging leaks begin to surface, there is an established and well-worn playbook that politicians and executives can turn to for solace. There’s a page for every conceivable situation, and it’s that playbook that the National Security Agency and its director, Gen. Keith Alexander, are relying on now as they struggle to win back a bit of the public and political support they’ve lost and keep their tenuous grasp on the collection tools they’ve been employing for more than a decade.
Alexander, who is not just the director of NSA and commander of U.S. Cyber Command but the public face of the agency and its recent troubles, has been making the rounds in the last few days, speaking at security conferences and appearing before Congressional committees. And the message he is delivering is the same in each case: the NSA does not spy on Americans and is, in fact, one of the main reasons that there haven’t been any major terror attacks since 9/11. The agency, he said, looked at the intelligence community’s failures in the months leading up to 9/11 and knew that it needed better tools and more visibility into electronic communications in order to “connect the dots”.
Hence, Section 702 of the USA PATRIOT Act and Section 215 metadata collection. Those tools, Alexander said, are vital to preventing future terror attacks.
“What we were blamed for as an intelligence community is not connecting the dots. So we came up with a couple of programs. FISA is the key to connecting the dots,” Alexander said in a speech at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit on Wednesday.
He repeated much the same sentiments Thursday in a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defending the use of FISA Section 215 data collection and repeating, as he has many times since the Edward Snowden leaks began, that the program has helped prevent several terror attacks.
By shifting the focus away from the NSA’s potential abuses of the surveillance programs the question of whether the bulk collection of phone and Internet data is even necessary, Alexander is employing the time-honored strategy of answering the question he wanted to be asked rather than the one that was posed. He is changing the narrative.
No one disputes that the NSA, CIA, FBI and other agencies are working hard to defend the country and disrupt terrorism. That’s their job, and they’re good at it. Those agencies need tools to do the job, but the thing about tools is that each one is designed for a specific purpose. Start using one for a different job, and it’s not as effective, or worse, someone gets hurt. The old saying is that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That bit of wisdom isn’t limited to hand tools.
The tools that Congress has given the NSA–metadata collection and large-scale Internet traffic collection among them–are meant to do one thing and that’s identify potential terrorist and criminal plots. Alexander and others have said that these programs have been highly effective at doing that. And perhaps they have; the public will never know that. Much like security, intelligence work has the built-in disadvantage of people only finding out about your failures and not your successes. But that’s not really the point, is it? Hammers are great for driving nails, but they can be used to break windows, too.
Some members of Congress have heard the reasoning from Alexander and others for years and have resisted their efforts to change the narrative.
“You built an intelligence collection system that deceived the American people repeatedly. Time after time, the American people were told one thing about domestic surveillance in public forums while government agencies did something else,” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said during the Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday. “That’s a loss of trust that cannot be rebuilt.”
For most of its history, the NSA hasn’t had to worry about what the public thinks. It has answered only to Congress and the president. That’s all changed now, something that Alexander knows quite well. So he has turned his sights on the media and the lawmakers who are asking pointed questions in an effort to move the spotlight away from his agency. But the spotlight is widening with each new revelation and the room for maneuvering is shrinking with each passing day.