Before departing CBS News to apparently return to his old job fighting terrorism for a government agency, 60 Minutes' John Miller used a rare interview with the National Security Agency to present the agency in the best possible light. In doing so, he missed a few easy follow-ups, which we've been kind enough to compile.
Miller started by noting that his unusual interview came about "perhaps because of [the] pressure" the NSA is under following the leaks of documents by Edward Snowden. Perhaps, given that the NSA called CBS to set the story up. NSA head Keith Alexander "believes the NSA has not told its story well"; Miller, who in 2009 went to work for the government department that manages the NSA and other spy programs (as his CBS bio notes), was there to help.
Alexander's issued this complaint before, by the way, insisting before congressional hearings that the media was skewing perceptions of his agency, and complaining to sympathetic audiences about how he wants to be heard. Over the course of the extended 60 Minutes segment, Alexander provided no new arguments or explanations for his agency's work — but that's obviously Miller's fault. There were so many opportunities!
The very first thing you see Alexander say in the CBS broadcast is this: "The fact is, we're not collecting everybody's email. We're not collecting everybody's phone things, we're not listening to that. Our job is foreign intelligence, and we're very good at that." He outlines the sorts of things that he thinks people are or should be mad about — collecting email or listening to phone calls ("things"!) — and then says that's not happening.
Here's what Miller could have asked:
- What about reports that the NSA used to collect email metadata until it became so constitutionally fraught that the agency had to curtail the practice?
- Or what about reports that the agency still scans Americans' emails that enter or leave the country for certain key phrases? Later Alexander says of reading email, "there is no intelligence value in that." But according to leaks, they do it anyway. Why?
- And what about repeated admissions from the NSA, including last week, that it's nearly impossible for the NSA to successfully filter Americans out of its sweeps?
Quite frankly, we know what answer we'd get — the one that comes up below about how any such collection is a mistake. But Miller didn't even ask, didn't even make Alexander have to deny or talk around his responses to any major questions. What Miller asked instead: "There is a perception out there that the NSA is widely collecting the content of phone calls of Americans. Is that true?"
Miller's probably right; there is a perception that the NSA is listening to phone calls. But as a poll conducted by CBS itself in June found Americans don't agree with what the NSA is actually doing: collecting metadata on phone calls. Instead of challenging Alexander on metadata collection, Miller first allows Alexander to describe the agency's mission.
"To put it simply," Alexander says, "we're doing two things. We're defending this country from future terrorist attacks. And, we're defending our civil liberties and privacy." What we would have asked:
- Why, then did the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret body that authorizes the NSA's surveillance tools, repeatedly find that the agency had violated Americans' Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search?
- And: How many terror attacks have been prevented?
The NSA has been consistently cagey about the answer to that latter question. In June, we put together a matrix of its existing claims, most of which 1) didn't involve the use of phone metadata and 2) were still considered classified. Which has been the consistent defense: We can't tell you, but trust us, it works.
Usually Alexander or another NSA advocate will raise 9/11 as justification for the metadata collection. On 60 Minutes, Miller raised it for him. "Before 9/11, did we have this capability?" Miller asked. We did not, Alexander replied. Was it a factor?, Miller asked. I believe it was, Alexander replied. Trump card, played.
Miller was great at that sort of leading question. On metadata collection, the gathering of daily records on every single phone call in America: "That sounds like spying on Americans." Right, Alexander replied, "and that's wrong."
To which we would have asked:
- How's that wrong? Are you playing semantic games about what constitutes spying, as the agency tends to do with other words?
Instead Miller asked, in rapid succession: "You don't hear the call?" "You don't see the name." "You just see this number called that number." And Alexander replied as you'd expect.
Eventually, Miller asks about the FISA Court's determination that the NSA had repeatedly violated its mandate. The best articulation of how this happened is in a report in last week's New Yorker by Ryan Lizza:
Reggie Walton, the FISA judge overseeing the program at that time, wrote, in an opinion on January 28th, that he was “exceptionally concerned” that the N.S.A. had been operating the program in “flagrant violation” of the court’s orders and “directly contrary” to the N.S.A.’s own “sworn attestations.”
That happened shortly before Miller joined the office of the Director of National Intelligence. Here's what Miller asked: "A judge in the FISA Court, which is the court that secretly hears the NSA cases and approves or disapproves your requests, said the NSA systematically transgressed both its own court-appointed limits in bulk Internet data collection programs." And Alexander answered, as he often does: "There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law."
If the NSA wants to actually be trusted on these issues, it's impossible not to ask a follow-up here. For example:
- Except, there were people who willfully broke the law. There were NSA analysts that used data to spy on people they knew. And Walton's statement in his ruling suggest that the NSA intentionally kept operating systems that they knew to be outside the bounds of what was allowed. How can we be certain that's not still happening?
Miller didn't follow up.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the interview is that Alexander took the opportunity to advocate for an expansion of the agency's powers. In August, we noted reports that suggested that, pre-Snowden, the NSA wanted to expand its ability to collect and analyze information coming into the country, part of the agency's efforts to curtail economic and military espionage and attacks. Miller set Alexander up perfectly to make that case:
Alexander: I believe that a foreign nation could impact and destroy major portions of our financial system, yes.
Miller: How much of it could we stop?
Alexander: Well, right now, it would be difficult to stop it because our ability to see it is limited.
Alexander wants to see everything that comes into or leaves the country, everything that moves over networks in every other country. We would have asked this, as a follow-up:
- How can the public feel comfortable in allowing the NSA to conduct more surveillance when they're already skeptical of the tools you have at your disposal?
Had he been asked, Alexander likely would have answered as he did when Miller brought up congressional efforts to rein in those tools. "The probability that a terrorist attack will occur is going up," Alexander said. "And this is precisely the time that we should not step back from the tools that we've given our analysts to detect these types of attacks."
We would have asked how, given the nearly complete lack of evidence that the tools have been successful at ending terror attacks, and given on-going concerns that the agency is violating Americans' constitutional rights, we should believe Alexander. But we didn't get to ask those questions, nor did any hostile party, because Alexander and the NSA gave the story to 60 Minutes. That answer is where the CBS report ended, with Alexander's last word.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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