Executive Power

Obama and Alexander, Bush and Tenet

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, October 11, 2013, 8:40 AM

Over at Foreign Policy, Shane Harris has a piece suggesting that folks at NSA feel abandoned by President Obama's failure to defend the agency aggressively:

Gen. Keith Alexander and his senior leadership team at the National Security Agency are angry and dispirited by what they see as the White House's failure to defend the spy agency against criticism of its surveillance programs, according to four people familiar with the NSA chiefs' thinking. The top brass of the country's biggest spy agency feels they've been left twisting in the wind, abandoned by the White House and left largely to defend themselves in public and in Congress against allegations of unconstitutional spying on Americans.

Former intelligence officials closely aligned with the NSA criticized President Obama for saying little publicly to defend the agency, and for not emphasizing that some leaked or officially disclosed documents arguably show the NSA operating within its legal authorities.

"There has been no support for the agency from the President or his staff or senior administration officials, and this has not gone unnoticed by both senior officials and the rank and file at the Fort," said Joel Brenner, the NSA's one-time inspector general, referring to the agency's headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland.

Shane makes the point, as Jack did in this post, that the White House's handling of the late unpleasantness at NSA contrasts sharply with the way it handled the controversy over drones:

Obama has only made one set of substantial remarks about the NSA's collection of Americans phone records and monitoring of Internet and email data, during a press conference in August. He did not distance himself from the programs, but he has not made a point of reminding the American people or lawmakers that he thinks they are vital. Neither the president's national security adviser, Susan Rice, nor his top counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, have given any public remarks arguing that the NSA programs are legal and necessary. And no Cabinet official has mounted a concerted effort to back the agency in public.

. . .

The White House's response to the NSA leaks is not in keeping with its defense of other intelligence controversies. Last year, John Brennan, then the White House counterterrorism chief, gave a major public address justifying the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists. Former intelligence officials called for a similar speech on NSA surveillance now. (Brennan became the CIA director in March.)

"I think actually this is the first signal that John Brennan is gone," said Baker, the former NSA general counsel. "I think that if Brennan had still been there he would have immediately appreciated the importance, and communicated that to the president, of defending the program."

Another comparison would be to the way President Bush handled the firestorms over NSA's warrantless wiretapping program and the CIA's coercive interrogation program. Whatever one thinks of the programs in question, in my view the comparison does not flatter Obama.

Say what you will about Bush and the CIA's interrogation program; there's no question that he owned it. Nobody in the public ever thought that the program belonged to then-CIA Director George Tenet---though Tenet certainly was an enthusiastic executor. It was Bush's program, and the reason it came off this way was that Bush publicly, repeatedly, and personally defended it. He made speeches about it. He wrote about it in his book. He never ran away from it. Nor, notably, did his attorney general. Similarly, Bush never ran away from warrantless wiretapping program. We associate him so personally with these programs, because he stoutly stood by them.

Obama has a lot on his plate right now. But he and his White House should not be leaving defense of intelligence programs he believes in to the intelligence community. Nor should Eric Holder, whose department convinced the FISA Court of the legal views currently at issue and oversees day-to-day FISA collection activity at NSA.

The intelligence community does not task itself. And when the political leadership tasks it to do something that then engulfs it in controversy, it should be a matter of honor not to let it dangle in the breeze.