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Amateur Hour in Intelligence Gathering

German Media React To NSA Eavesdropping Scandal

With the revelation this week that the NSA had allegedly spied on none other than Angela Merkel, President Obama finds himself in hot water once again over his administration’s intelligence gathering practices. Germany’s Foreign Minister summoned the US Ambassador to his offices for a formal chewing out, and a furious Merkel herself reportedly called the White House to demand clarification. This comes hot on the heels of a similar call from François Hollande earlier this week regarding the NSA’s targeting of French nationals.

Let’s just be clear on this: it is true that in both France and Germany (not to mention Brazil and to a lesser extent Mexico) domestic politics are an important contributing factor to the fireworks on display. Allied intelligence agencies, even ones that work closely together, often shadow each other’s leaders. All foreign dignitaries are implicitly aware of this fact, even if they don’t know all the gory details.

That said, a common pattern is emerging with regards to the Obama administration’s intelligence gathering activities: both at home and abroad, we’re seeing a mix of overreaching (going too far both in terms of what is collected and from whom it is gathered) and incompetent management (resulting in the disclosure of what ought to be covert programs). The NSA spied on other people too much, and it bungled the protection of its own secrets. Imprudence matched with incompetence doesn’t lead to anything good.

We need a thorough airing out of this mess, with personnel changes where appropriate, so that the NSA can stop doing things it ought not to be doing and instead spend its energy making sure that it does a good job on what we really need it to do.

One of President Bush’s more consequential mistakes was failing to accept Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation when the Abu Ghraib ugliness came to light. When poor judgment combined with poor execution leads to this kind of public brouhaha, the US government must draw a line under the affair and make very clear that it recognizes its mistakes and will make the necessary changes. This is not about groveling or going on a serial apology tour; it is about taking action, making change, and moving on in a new spirit of responsibility and sobriety.

It’s time to call in some grown ups to clean up the mess: we would suggest a series of congressional hearings combined with a blue ribbon, bipartisan commission to review what’s happened, to consult with our key allies, and to make recommendations.

We need to do this not because intelligence gathering is bad and NSA surveillance is unnecessary. We need to do it because intelligence gathering and surveillance are so important, but so dangerous, that they must be done right. “Right” emphatically does not mean casual snooping on the leaders of friendly countries. It does not mean a mix of overreaching and underperformance that embarrasses the United States, weakens our standing and reduces the ability of the President and his aides to protect national security.

The Obama administration has gotten all this badly wrong. That we see the same pattern at home and abroad strengthens the case for better oversight and heightens the need for legal review. It’s time for amateur hour to come to an end.

[Photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Corlyss

    “his administration’s intelligence gathering practices.”

    Hardly fair to blame him. Blame him for a lot of other things, but this one is one he accidentally got right because he didn’t screw-up of what those with much greater vision who went before him have done.

    “We need a thorough airing out of this mess, with personnel changes where appropriate, so that the NSA can stop doing things it ought not to be doing and instead spend its energy making sure that it does a good job on what we really need it to do.”

    Another disappointing “analysis” from VM. The last time we went thru one of the reflexive liberal/Prog/Dem foot-shootings such as the writer contemplates, we got all the frustratingly counterproductive revelations and fatuous constraints that came out of the Church committee. Ever since then, American intelligence has been one of two things: 1) too late to be useful and 2) on the front pages of NYT and WAPO. If the writer wants to see how intelligence OUGHT to be used, let him read Fred Greenstein’s The Hidden Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader and the new book (screed some have called it) about the Dulles brothers. We need the doin’. What we don’t need is the blabbin’ that even this administration can’t seem to control among its own people.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    For an administration as secretive as this one, you would think they would be better at hidding the Real National Security Secrets.

  • Andrew Allison

    VM skirts the real issue. It’s clear that NSA has gone rogue. As Merkel herself said, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. The question is what did the Administration know about it and when? If it was aware of the transgressions, domestic and international, failure to put a stop to them is inexcusable. If it wasn’t, it’s incompetent.

    • f1b0nacc1

      The stories about the NSA and its ‘above the law’ approach to national security are nothing new, General Alexander has been the poster boy for abuse of power to anyone following the NSA for years now. With Snowden’s leaks, the NSA now seems to be behaving as if it is time to remove the mast and double down on bad behavior.
      One can debate whether or not the NSA spying was a good idea in the first place, but their lack of accountability is not acceptable in any event. Obama is the only person with the ability to bring them to heel. That he has not done so is a disgrace.

      • Andrew Allison

        Today’s NSA news, reported as far as I know only by the Beeb, is that a former head of the agency gave an off-the-record interview via cell phone while on a train (! Maybe it should be renamed the National Stupid Agency.

  • wigwag

    Forget the Blue Ribbon panel; I have a better idea. Why don’t we just tell Merkel, Hollande and the rest of the Europeans to go take a flying you know what?

  • wigwag

    “Imprudence matched with incompetence doesn’t lead to anything good.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    There is another manifestation of Obama’s incompetence that Professor Mead neglects to allude to; the stunning foolishness of the way the Justice Department handled Snowden after his leaks came to light.

    If the Obama Justice Department had been willing to cut a deal with Snowden while he was hiding in plain sight in Hong Kong, things might have worked out far better. Three to five incarcerated in a Club Fed might have been a deal Snowden could have accepted.

    Instead it was clear to Snowden (and anybody with a brain) that the Justice Department intended to try to punish his leaks by indicting him under the Espionage Act which could have resulted in a decades long prison term.

    This drove Snowden straight into the arms of Putin and the Russians and all of Snowden’s secrets went right along with him.

    Putin’s entire foreign policy centers on opposing the United States. Snowden was only incentivized to release more and more secrets by the Justice Department’s relentless pursuit of him.

    Had the Obama Administration been less arrogant, childish and inept they would have offered him a deal to lure him home. Instead they gave him no choice but to seek Putin’s protection. He’s been spilling the beans to the KGB (or whatever it’s called now) and Glenn Greenwald ever since.

    It all just one more in an enormous line of mistakes made by Barack Obama and the keystone cops who work for him.

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