Senior intelligence officials who oversaw efforts to surveil millions of American citizens might be having a change of heart.
Infamous members of this group, including National Security Agency director Keith Alexander, NSA deputy director John Inglis, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, have recently made concessions to public backlash against the NSA’s surveillance programs.
Inglis paid lip-service to the need for increased transparency and a reevaluation of the government’s national security policies in an interview with NPR in January:
I think that what we found in the summer of 2013 is that it was insufficient. And that what we’re going to have to do as a nation, and particularly as an agency, is to rebalance, right, the balance that we have struck between security, secrecy and transparency.
It’s worth remembering that Inglis left the NSA shortly after he gave this interview. (Alexander plans to retire later this year.) His remarks didn’t simply come partway through a long interview, during which he spent most of his time defending the NSA’s actions; they also came as he headed for the exit.
Clapper then chided the intelligence community’s lack of transparency in an interview with the Daily Beast in February:
I probably shouldn’t say this, but I will. Had we been transparent about this from the outset right after 9/11 — which is the genesis of the 215 program — and said both to the American people and to their elected representatives, we need to cover this gap, we need to make sure this never happens to us again, so here is what we are going to set up, here is how it’s going to work, and why we have to do it, and here are the safeguards… We wouldn’t have had the problem we had.
The primary problem with Clapper’s statement is his belief that Americans are upset about the NSA’s surveillance programs only because they were conducted in secret, but still: at least he’s publicly supporting increased transparency, right? Never mind his public contempt for Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked documents describing the programs, and the journalists exposing the extent to which the NSA is monitoring… well, basically everyone.
Alexander revealed during a Senate armed services committee hearing earlier this week that the Obama administration is thinking of gathering information related only to suspected terrorists, per the Guardian:
General Keith Alexander, testifying before the Senate armed services committee for what could be the final time as head of the NSA, told senators that one option under consideration in the Obama administration’s deliberations about revamping the NSA’s surveillance programs was to ‘get only that data’ relating to terrorist communications.
‘Can we come up with a capability that gets just those that are predicated on a terrorist communication?’ Alexander said.
It’s hard to argue with restricting the NSA’s ability to spy on practically anyone with a cellphone, email account, or Web browser, so long as one forgets that the NSA believes that everyone is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from a suspected terrorist. Still, at least the agency is thinking of obeying the Constitution and limiting its surveillance programs, right?
That’s certainly a good start. Now it simply needs to get better at identifying suspected terrorists, supporting transparency before whistleblowers and the press reveal controversial programs, and helping the armed forces target terrorists instead of wedding convoys or pregnant women.
It looks like the government — or at least a few figures in the intelligence community — is making progress. All you have to do is squint.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]