Don’t Blame NSA Only –It is Bad Government Decision Making

by Stephen Bryen

Every day there are more revelations about NSA-run spying operations. The latest is a story featured in the Sunday, June 30th edition of Der Spiegel, the German magazine with an online edition in English. The story alleges that NSA bugged the EU (European Union) headquarters and spied on EU leaders. With the news blasting in the European press, there is underway a huge reaction about America spying on its “friends.”

Of course much of this is crockodile tears coming from Europeans who have been spying on America for years. But that aside, and taking into account that spying on the EU would have to be one of the most boring and stupid assignments for an intelligence agency ever to be given, we can rightly ask is this an example of NSA out of control, or is this an example of poor government decision-making?

To begin foreign spying by the U.S. government is not illegal in the United States. Of course breaking and entering in a foreign country is a crime in that foreign country. So that if the operatives who planted the bugs in EU headquarters were ever caught, they could go to jail in Brussels.

So did NSA cook up this target on its own? Of course not. NSA has about as much interest in the EU as in the tooth fairy.

This is almost certainly an assignment that was generated in the State Department, and may have been undertaken for some vague political or economic reason.

How does it work? NSA is an operational agency, not a policy organization. It carries out assignments that it is given.

Different departments and agencies make requests to NSA through certain channels set up inside the government. NSA then assigns resources to service the request. Deciding what is important and what is not important is not typically something that devolves to NSA. NSA seeks guidance from the leading U.S. agencies and from the National Security Council (e.g., the White House).

So someone decided to request spying on the EU and apparently wanted more than what they were getting in the normal “take” of intercepts NSA collects. Which is what apparently led to an operational team going into EU offices and installing bugs on computer networks and telephone exchanges as alleged by Der Spiegel.

Why would anyone take such a risk given the consequences of discovery and the political ramifications inherent in such an activity?

It looks like making requests for intelligence gathering even from allied countries, is something agencies in the U.S. government do without much thought of consequences.

If this is true, than the real problem is one of judgment and risk assessment, and both of these seem to play little nor no role in taskings to NSA.

The revelations about NSA really are revelations about the U.S. government and its decision making process, or lack thereof, and as regards domestic intelligence gathering, the question of whether the government –more than NSA by itself– has acted within the law and the Constitution.

In front of us there are many extraordinarily serious issues –the collection of billions of phone and internet records, the absurdly wide swatch of information sucked in by NSA computers and systems, or even how this vast information glut (no matter how many supercomputers are deployed) is no substitute for intelligent collection and analysis of real national security information. It is not just that NSA is bloated, it is that our government is out of control and has come unglued from the guarantees in the U.S. Constitution, or thinks it is above all that.

Stripping Americans of their rights and freedoms, trampeling on our allies and friends, is something that should concern ourselves and our friends aborad. There is nothing more vital than a truly free America as a beacon of hope. Our government has lost its way.



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