John McCain Calls on NSA Director to Resign, Backs Down Immediately

The Arizona senator's aborted demand for accountability in Washington was a farce.
More
Reuters

Did the Edward Snowden leaks help the U.S. by exposing massive privacy violations? Or did the former National Security Agency contractor hurt the country by spilling vital secrets? Either way, Americans should be able to agree on one thing: that General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, has been an awful steward. Depending on your perspective, he has presided over unprecedented civil-liberties abuses or else a historic failure to secure legitimate secrets. 

Why does he still have a job?

Privacy advocates have long wanted to see his ouster. After all, this is a guy whose approach to information-gathering is so zealous that it worried General Michael Hayden, who ran the NSA in the years immediately after the 9/11 attacks. 

War on Terror hawks have been more reticent in calling for his head. As we saw during the Iraq War, this is a group that tends to refrain from criticizing ideological allies even if they're presiding over a series of catastrophic policy failures. An exception to that rule is Senator John McCain, who began to identify failures in Iraq War policy long before many of his fellow conservative hawks did. So I wasn't shocked to see him call for Alexander's resignation in Spiegel Online:

McCain:  Why did Edward Snowden have that information? And what are we doing as far as screening people who have access to this information? It's outrageous, and someone ought to be held accountable.

SPIEGEL: Who must be held accountable?

McCain: The head of the NSA, the president of the United States, the Congressional Intelligence Committees, all of these contractors we pay that were responsible for performing the background checks. There should be a wholesale housecleaning.

SPIEGEL: Should Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, resign?

McCain: Of course, they should resign or be fired. We no longer hold anybody accountable in Washington.

Note that the newspaper "submitted its interview with Senator John McCain to his office on Friday morning to clarify the Senator's position. It was approved by McCain's staff in the exact version that was published, word for word." Kudos, Senator McCain.

Alas, the story of McCain's life is that every time he does something of which he ought to be proud, he does something of which he ought to be ashamed. Thus the inevitable followup, via staff, that he wasn't saying that Alexander should be held accountable after all, even though he said exactly that. As Politico reports:

Sen. John McCain’s office says he's not urging National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander to step down, even though a German magazine quoted the senator saying as much on Sunday. “Senator McCain believes that there needs to be accountability for the Snowden leaks, but he is not calling for the resignation of General Alexander, who is retiring soon,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers told POLITICO. Germany’s Der Spiegel published an interview with McCain, quoting McCain as calling for a “wholesale housecleaning” over the revelations by contractor Edward Snowden about secret NSA programs. Der Spiegel’s transcript of the interview says that McCain was asked specifically if Alexander should resign.

However, Rogers noted that McCain was asked whether “they” – Alexander, President Barack Obama, and Congress’s intelligence committees – should resign. So, Rogers said, McCain was arguing for general accountability in Washington, as opposed to specifically whether Alexander himself should step down.

What a darkly humorous turn. McCain decries a lack of accountability at the top in Washington, D.C., but rather than stand behind a call for a man at the top to be fired, he clarifies that the leader of the NSA shouldn't step down or be fired, just someone at the agency—someone who, by definition, would be a subordinate. 

McCain's specific tirade was directed against "the head of the NSA, the president of the United States, the Congressional Intelligence Committees," so it's true that Alexander wasn't singled out as a target. Of course, McCain isn't willing to call for President Obama or any individual member of the congressional intelligence committees to resign over this either. Do you know why? McCain had this part, pronoun included, right: "We no longer hold anybody accountable in Washington."

He is part of the problem. 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In