What It Takes: In Defense of the NSA

“Freedom must be won anew by every generation.” I was reminded of the truth behind these words of my old boss, Jack Kemp, in considering the current debate over Edward Snowden and the collection programs of the National Security Agency.

The wars that have been fought in freedom’s defense—the deep sacrifices of lives and treasure by generations of Americans, including those serving today—are one measure of that truth. But it does not stop there.

It also means that America’s democracy is a great experiment in governance. Our obligation as citizens is to conserve what is good and enduring while changing and improving what we must. Those choices are not always easy, especially when they involve making decisions about things that must by their nature be secret in order to help keep us free.

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Contrast this with the seemingly boundless instant commentary about Snowden, who used his access as a nondescript contractor at an NSA facility in Hawaii to propel himself into the number one news story overnight. All it took were a few well-placed leaks to the Guardian and the Washington Post and a quick getaway to China, thumb drive in hand.

Early polls showed that sixty percent of people in their twenties believed that Snowden’s disclosures were in the public interest. Perhaps they have forgotten why we have these collection programs in the first place.

Highest on the list of “lessons learned” from the September 11th terrorist attack was the need for a retooled intelligence enterprise that could “connect the dots” and keep us safe. The intelligence apparatus in place on September 10th was not built for that purpose. The imperatives of the Cold War were to deter conflict and maintain the peace; the overarching challenge, which US intelligence met so brilliantly, was to collect ever more refined insights about a known antagonist. Today, the collection targets are unknown (what are the indicators of terrorist activities that we should be watching?), and our principal objective is to take action to defeat and dismantle threats in order to keep us safe.

The urgent post-9/11 intelligence directive became: “Do more, do better, do it differently, and do it now.” In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing—a scant two months before Snowden’s first leaks—the FBI was accused of not doing enough to track suspected terrorist sympathizers (even though those suspicions had come from the Russian intelligence service formerly known as the KGB). Two events, two contradictory reactions by the American public: one demanding that the government take action to identify and defeat terrorist threats, the other wary and untrusting of that same government.

Don’t intrude but keep me safe. How to square such a circle? Today, when a personal video can “go viral” in an instant, five hundred million people have a follow-me-right-this-second Twitter account, and some two billion people have access to the Internet, the digital records of US citizens are comingled with the rest of the world in a maze of activity that is a fount of intelligence information.


I confess, when the Snowden leaks first appeared my reaction was, “Of course NSA is acquiring metadata of US telephony. Haven’t these people been paying attention?” Recall the public debates in 2005 when details about the early Terrorist Surveillance Program were leaked to the New York Times, or again the next year when Congress extended the Patriot Act, including its provisions authorizing metadata collection (Section 215). Simply put, if you want to know who the terrorists are talking to, you’ve got to check the phone logs. Dot-connecting 101.

Here is how the law works. The telephone companies store vast databases of transactional information for billing, customer service, and other business purposes. The government may “query” those business records only when there is a “reasonable suspicion, based on specific and articulated facts,” that specific foreign terrorist organizations are involved. (In practice, that amounts to fewer than three hundred queries a year.) In order to follow up on any leads—in other words, to get the locations or names of individual subscribers in the United States—the FBI has to go back to the court and get a warrant.

Is our privacy being violated when computers churn through billions of strings of digital data looking for signals of terrorist activity? Or is that something that we need the government to do to keep us safe?

Consider the related case of potential cyber attacks against critical US infrastructure systems, such as telecommunications, transportation, power generation and distribution, banking, and so forth. Part of a national cyber defense would need to include automated access to those computer pathways to detect and warn of anomalous activity in the split second needed to take action. If these privately owned and operated networks must be monitored to enable their protection, is that an intrusion into their customers’ autonomy, or an inherent duty of government to provide for the common defense?

To my mind, far from being “Stasi-like,” as some overheated critics have charged, such automated systems analyzing digits (not people) are non-intrusive public safety responsibilities of the US government, subject to careful internal checks as well as both judicial and congressional oversight to ensure they do not go beyond those clear boundaries.

I find the loss of privacy in today’s digital world very troubling—but not because of the US government. It’s the cookies that enable some Web merchant to track what I buy online and send me tailored ads to buy more. It’s the manner in which the Apple cloud insists on scooping up all of my personal calendar and contact information—and I can’t opt out if I want my cell phone to work. It’s the ever-vigilant, ever-ready Chinese microchip in my laptop computer, including the little extra that takes over the video camera and watches the room. Where is the public outrage about all of that?

To call Snowden a “whistleblower” demeans the dignity of the term. As for the public’s right to know about these collection activities, we already knew. As for the decisions of our democracy whether these activities were right and proper and necessary, those decisions had been and continue to be made by the executive, the Congress, and the courts acting in accordance with their constitutional responsibilities and the authorities we the people have entrusted to them. As for the worth of the collection activities themselves, we subsequently learned of their indispensable role in tracking or disrupting more than a dozen terrorist operations in the US and another forty abroad.

But now their worth has been severely degraded. Even though what NSA does for a living is known to the world, some significant part of its success depends on a simple lack of awareness, or the bad guys just letting their guard down, which is one reason why the huge publicity given to these collection activities has been so harmful.

Across the globe, al-Qaeda networks and virtually every other terrorist group have changed their communications practices in response to Snowden’s leaks. To make matters worse, the more that sophisticated adversaries understand about how NSA works, the better they will be able to hide. You can’t connect invisible dots.


For my old business of US counterintelligence, the Snowden case is something of an unraveling nightmare. At this stage, there is no telling whether or not he acted alone, or what he compromised. Four months isn’t much time on-site, yet he used his access to identify and download highly classified information that would be of particular use to him. How did he decide what was of value to snatch? Where did he find it? How did he take it without getting caught? He admitted that he took the NSA contractor job in March of this year in order to gain access to this material, so his preparations had been under way for quite a while. The deeper question is at what point along the way he started to get outside help and direction, and from whom.

At a minimum, the press leaks were very well scripted to provide cover for the rest of the operation, which has received far less attention. Snowden passed documents allegedly showing US and UK surveillance of Russian and Turkish representatives at a Group of 20 meeting. He passed ostensible records of US signals intelligence operations in Hong Kong and elsewhere, as well as Britain’s signals intelligence arm, GCHQ. He passed information about top-secret plans to counter Chinese cyber-attack capabilities, and about joint intelligence undertakings among Western allies, including US and German cooperation. That’s just what has been reported publicly. Then of course there is whatever else he stole.

Whether or not there are audit trails for IT administrators like Snowden we can only guess. If not, there may be no way of bounding the potential damage. And since we don’t know what secrets may have been lost, we won’t know what or who may now be at risk. That uncertainty alone is an intelligence bonanza for our adversaries.

Whatever else Snowden may be, he has been a voice of disinformation. For example, here’s an excerpt from his Guardian interview: “Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere. . . I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal e-mail.” If that were true, it would be an outrageous abuse of authority. But it is not true, not a whit. Now maybe Snowden is just delusional. Or maybe someone is coaching him a little, the better to inflame public opinion.

But who would know, when there is an immediate rush to judgment to pronounce the man a “hero” or a “conscientious objector” or “deeply idealistic” or whatever other bouquets of virtue were thrown his way. By such means, some of the West’s best and brightest (looking less bright all the time) become part of the disinformation campaign directed against America’s moral standing in the world. That campaign has a long history.


Two inherent qualities make US intelligence unique among the world’s intelligence services. The first is its accountability and unparalleled openness to public scrutiny and the rigorous oversight of the political process. The fact that we measure these things against civil liberties, and bring them under the careful checks and balances of our Constitution, is the bedrock of their strength. Even more fundamentally, US intelligence is part of the great experiment in governance that is our democratic republic. Beginning with George Washington’s first State of the Union Address, in which he requested a secret fund for clandestine activities, intelligence has been an instrument to achieve the broad goals of the American people and the policies advanced by their duly elected representatives. That is why any rupture between public confidence and the US intelligence enterprise is so destructive. It is also why America’s adversaries have long sought to provoke one.

During the Cold War, the KGB expended a great deal of energy and treasure in undermining the credibility and effectiveness of US intelligence in general and the CIA in particular. Soviet disinformation campaigns included some breathtaking lies, deceptions, and fantastic tales (e.g., forged documents, planted news reports, and grotesque accusations that the CIA was responsible for trafficking in baby parts, assassinating President Kennedy, and inventing AIDS).

It took decades for the CIA to recover from the Church Committee investigations of the 1970s—years that the Soviets used to advantage in undermining pro-Western governments, supporting insurgencies, and implanting spies. And here we go again.

Whatever Snowden may have had in mind when he decided to break his oath, the secrets he disclosed have been used to discredit US intelligence among the very democratic populations that depend most on the American defense umbrella. Across Europe, there have been lawsuits to stop NSA operations. Round two of Snowden’s leaks included purported US collection activities directed against members of the European Union, so the EU, the French, the Germans, and others lodged diplomatic complaints and suspended trade and other talks and loudly proclaimed their indignation. (This is more than a little hypocritical, given their own intelligence activities against one another—not to mention the value they derive from ours.)

To make matters worse, a whole series of damaging leaks in recent years, ranging from WikiLeaks to include some from the highest levels of the US government, have called into question America’s reliability as an intelligence partner. For friendly intelligence services, trusting the Americans to keep secrets secret has become a far riskier proposition. In fact, our stock as an intelligence partner has never been lower, which is exceedingly worrisome in an era when we rely so heavily on liaison services for essential intelligence about terrorist targets.

For American intelligence personnel, doing their jobs has become that much more difficult and that much more thankless. You can be sure that the Russians, the Chinese, and others, knowing about the demoralizing effects of the Snowden leaks, are working overtime pursuing new recruitment prospects within US intelligence ranks. They know from long experience that low morale is a key factor in persuading Americans to spy on their own country.

Today, there are more Russian intelligence personnel operating in the United States than there were at the height of the Cold War, and they are far from alone. By some counts, China is here in even greater numbers, and even more active against us through cyber means. Add to that the Cubans, the Iranians, and most of the rest of the world’s governments—plus some thirty-five suspected terrorist organizations—all here, taking advantage of the freedom of movement, access, and anonymity afforded by American society.

And then there is the phenomenon of the hacker culture and virtual anarchists like “Anonymous,” which is hard at work to set the conditions for what it calls a “global secrets meltdown.” Their ostensible plan is to recruit individuals to infiltrate governments to steal classified information or enable Anonymous hackers to steal it. Then, when the message “do it now” goes out, they will simultaneously reveal all of the world’s secrets (but of course mostly concentrated in the West because that’s where the access is). It may sound ridiculous until you realize just how many disaffected, cynical youth like Snowden are drawn to these circles to find some sense of belonging and self-importance.


The United States has built a global intelligence apparatus because it has global interests and global responsibilities. We have taken seriously the duties of leader of the free world, as two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and freedom fighters in many parts of the world can attest.

None of these duties in the last sixty years could have been met without the exceptional resources of NSA. Successive presidents and Congresses, entrusted with preserving and defending our freedom, have judged these investments to be vital to our nation’s security. They have protected the core secrets that enable collection programs to succeed, as have those in US business and industry who have been integral to their success. The unquestioned qualitative edge of US intelligence has been as essential to defending this country and preserving our freedom as have the forces we have built to arm and equip our military.

But time has not stood still. China is attacking computer systems throughout the world, stealing information and implanting features to enable future control. China’s prominence in IT commercial markets means that they are in the supply chain, and their market share is growing as part of a purposeful, state-run program for strategic position. A long roll call of spies from Russia, China, Cuba, and other nations have targeted the essential secrets of US intelligence capabilities in order to be able to defeat them. And now they have the Snowdens and the WikiLeakers of the world helping them out.

Interconnected global networks of digital data have become the single most important source of intelligence warning of threats, enabling our defense at home and the advancement of freedom abroad. To say “hands off,” as some shortsighted privacy advocates have been doing, will not preserve our liberties, it will endanger them. It should be possible for an enlightened citizenry to empower government action in that sphere without forfeiting the very rights that our government exists to secure. That challenge is, at the very least, a part of the continuing experiment that is our democracy.

Michelle Van Cleave served as the head of US counterintelligence under President George W. Bush and is now a principal with the Jack Kemp Foundation. This article is adapted from a speech delivered at the Earhart Foundation conference in July.

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