'60 Minutes': NSA Good, Snowden Bad

Granted "unprecedented access" to the NSA, 60 Minutes paints the rosiest possible picture of what the beleaguered agency does.

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As if that whole retracted Benghazi report and the Amazon commercial/drone reveal didn't undermine 60 Minutes' credibility enough in the last few weeks, here's another gem: a report on how the NSA has simply been misunderstood by all those Snowden leaks and is a good guy, really.

The segment was presented by John Miller, who is rumored to be up for a "top counterterrorism or intelligence role" in the NYPD, which has a fine track record when it comes to not infringing on our civil liberties. Update: a "reliable source" tells the New York Post's Richard Johnson the job is "a 99.44 percent done deal.” Reporting last night, Miller opened with:

Full disclosure: I once worked in the office of the director of National Intelligence, where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates.

Because as long as you tell us up front about your huge conflict of interest, it's totally fine that you have one, right?

Anyway, that should give you a pretty good idea of what came next:

Yes, that's right: The NSA is "defending our civil liberties and privacy," according to NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander. Upon hearing this, Miller just nods. If you're looking for a journalist or journalism that challenges the NSA or asks hard questions, this isn't it.

Instead, he lets Alexander tell us, once again, how the NSA only collects our phone metadata, and how that doesn't reveal all that much anyway. Except, of course, when it does, but Miller doesn't ask about that. Nor did he ask about the email metadata the NSA used to collect.

Miller does ask if Alexander ever considered resigning from his post, given that a "20-something-year-old high school dropout contractor managed to walk out with in essence the crown jewels" under his watch. Alexander says he did, but was told that he shouldn't have to, since he didn't do anything wrong and this could have happened to anyone.

By the way, calling Edward Snowden a "20-something-year-old high school dropout" is about as flattering as the report gets:

Yes, in part two of Miller's story, we find out that Snowden cheated on a test to get his job as an NSA contractor and when he was working from home, he would put a hood over the computer and his head so his girlfriend couldn't see what he was doing.

"That's pretty strange!" Miller says.

Right, it's so weird that someone working with top secret information that the NSA just got done telling Miller could have serious ramifications if it fell into the wrong hands would try to prevent others from seeing said information.

Also, maybe it shouldn't be that easy to cheat on your entrance exams.

After that, we hear about how the NSA has saved us from a potentially "catastrophic" cyber-attack that may or may not have come from China and may or may not have actually happened. You'll have to take their world for it. Miller does.

In regards to that whole spying on other world leaders thing, Alexander says that, basically, the NSA only does what other agencies tell it to and also that the NSA will stop spying on Angela Merkel when she stop spying on us. He doesn't know if she is spying on us, mind you. Just that her country has the intelligence capability to do so. And if you have the ability to do something, why wouldn't you go ahead and do it, right? The NSA doesn't let a little thing like federal law stop it, so it can't imagine that other countries would.

And finally, asked about whether or not the NSA "tunnels" into Google or Yahoo's networks to collect information (a practice those companies are now asking be reformed), Alexander non-answered:

We do target terrorist communications. And terrorists use communications from Google, from Yahoo, and from other service providers. So our objective is to collect those communications no matter where they are.

But we're not going into a facility or targeting Google as an entity or Yahoo has an entity. But we will collect those communications of terrorists that flow on that network.

As the behind-the-scenes report tells us, Alexander came to 60 Minutes and asked them to do the segment. Miller and his crew were supervised at all times by a team of "minders" -- as were their interview subjects. When one analyst says something an off-camera minder thinks might be classified, Miller quickly volunteers to change the subject. Alexander asks for "time outs" before he answers certain questions.

Miller says he asked "tough questions" and "the hardest questions we could ask." Maybe he did. We don't see them.

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This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.