The Intelligence Wars

Step into the wilderness of mirrors here, for a moment. Let's try to put three headline stories together.


Item 1: the New York Times reports on an NSA gone wild -- and on an unsanctioned NSA surveillance of a member of Congress on an overseas congressional delegation in 2005 or 2006.  NSA looks bad...

Item 2: a week later, CQ's Jeff Stein breaks the story that the NSA, listening on an Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court-approved wire, heard Rep. Jane Harman promise "an Israeli agent" that she would "waddle in" to the case of two AIPAC officials accused of passing classified info on to the government. The NSA comes out as the hero here -- it was doing its job, it caught a member of Congress doing something bad... but the Justice Department quashed top officials' request for further investigation  allegedly because the Department found Harman's political support to be useful. The NSA comes out of this story looking good, and the political appointees at the Justice Department come out looking bad. (By the way: Time magazine had parts of this story in 2006.)

Item 3: Melissa Hathaway, acting senior director of the National Security Council for cyberspace, completes her review of cyperspace security and is prepared to recommend an overhaul of how government regulates, oversees and secures the battlefield of the future.  Major bureaucratic changes are afoot.  

The potential winner: the Department of Homeland Security, which has long argued that the National Security Agency is (a) too politically tainted to take a command role here and (b) that the NSA, by its very nature, cannot properly oversee  cybersecurity and spy at the same time. The NSA, by contrast, has argued that DHS has shown no capability to supervise much of anything; that NSA, since it will be doing the bulk of the work, deserves the lead agency role; and that NSA has safeguards in place to protect the privacy of Americans. 

Hathaway will probably recommend some sort of cybersecurity czar, although the government has had many of them before.  Institutionally, the biggest decision the White House will make is which agency gets to take control of the bureaucratic space, and who gets the money -- and yes, Congress will argue about this as well.

Last March, a senior DHS cyberofficial, Rod Beckstrom, resigned, citing his worry that the NSA could well be given the tacit authority to intercept and look at every e-mail, fax, IM or electronic communication produced in the country. Beckstrom clearly has some idea of NSA's domestic collection capability. Already, that agency appears to collect "metadata" -- though official sources are sketchy.  In any event, Hathaway is certainly in a position to know about what the NSA is doing now; she's a former top official at Booz Allen Hamilton, NSA's top outside contractor and the builder of many of its databases. 

The upshot: the Harman leak may have nothing to do with the Hathaway review. But the NSA won't get the cybersecurity contract, as it were, unless it can demonstrate to Congress and to the administration (through the public) that it follows the truth wherever it may lead, that it is impervious to political influence, and that its programs work to the benefit of Americans.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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