A veteran intelligence official with decades of experience at various agencies identified to me what he sees as the real problem with the current NSA: “It’s increasingly become a culture of arrogance. They tell Congress what they want to tell them. Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein at the Intelligence Committees don’t know what they don’t know about the programs.” He himself was asked to skew the data an intelligence agency submitted to Congress, in an effort to get a bigger piece of the intelligence budget. He refused and was promptly replaced in his job, presumably by someone who would do as told.
The response to all of this by some NSA supporters is to point out that the nation hasn’t been attacked in the dozen years since 9/11. As someone who stood on the street across from the World Trade Center as it collapsed on 9/11, I can appreciate how we must strive to prevent similar atrocities in the future.
But steadfastness must be accompanied by a clear understanding of the role of bureaucracies. General Keith Alexander, the current head of the NSA, told Congress in June that data “gathered from these programs provided government with critical leads to prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world.” But my veteran intelligence-agency source says that no one can be sure if that’s the case: “The NSA grades its own report card, and it wouldn’t be the first bureaucracy to exaggerate its effectiveness.” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a moderate Democrat who has been on the Intelligence Committee since 2001, said in a speech last month: “I have not seen any indication that the bulk phone-records program yielded any unique intelligence that was not also available to the government through less intrusive means.” Presumably, NSA would have shared such positive evidence with the intelligence committees.