Surveillance Is Too Important to Be Left to the Generals
With each revelation of the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance network, one thing is becoming clear: The generals charged with designing and managing the agency’s initiatives—NSA Director Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper—have been unable or unwilling to call attention to critical program details with broad societal implications. The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that Alexander offered to resign soon after the first NSA revelations, but the agency’s troubles are much larger than any one person: It’s time for civilian management of our surveillance programs.
Quite simply, there is a palpable disconnect between the broad surveillance some have come to believe is necessary to keep the country safe and the broad perspective needed to design and implement programs in ways that are consistent with our national—and, increasingly, global—interests and values. Such disconnects, if left unaddressed, have historically proved harmful to democratic societies.
Tweaking the NSA’s authorities on the margins or adding token transparency measures will not be enough. We need reform on the scale of something like the Church Committee or the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The legislation offered by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), which would end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone data and add important transparency measures, is a good start, but it will not be sufficient—Congress has not proved itself capable of fulfilling its oversight mission. To ensure that economic, diplomatic and privacy impacts are always considered, the next director of the NSA should be a civilian, confirmed by the Senate, whose assumptions can be freely challenged by lawmakers without fear of calling into question the expertise of a professional military officer. We also need more senior civilian technical oversight to ensure that the government’s surveillance and cybersecurity capabilities do not again outpace essential privacy constraints.
While no doubt well-intentioned, the career military and intelligence officials charged with developing and executing NSA programs lack the expertise and perspective needed to determine whether these programs are in the public’s best interest. This is understandable. Our warfighters should concern themselves principally with security and not the questions of whether our privacy norms or economic competitiveness are at risk. But, because technology has become so powerful and integral to our lives, our nation’s surveillance capabilities now affect far more than just our security. Many of our family, social and professional interactions now occur online, and technology now allows these myriad relationships to tell a personal story about each of us that was unfathomable in 1979, the year the Supreme Court ruled that collecting telephone metadata was lawful.
To date, the government has judged the legality and appropriateness of surveillance tactics based on factors such as the location of the activity and the difference between the content and metadata of communications. However, technology advances have blurred these traditional distinctions to the point of near irrelevance. Businesses based in the “Cloud” now seamlessly cross geographic boundaries, and big data analytics allow intelligence agencies to aggregate seemingly innocuous metadata into rich, revealing mosaics. Relying on geography or content types to assess communications activity systemically is no longer practical. Technology paradigms have changed—and we must adapt as well.
Real structural reform will not be easy. Many contracting firms and members of Congress have a parochial interest in maintaining the status quo. But we need a system that incentivizes the managers of surveillance programs to consider the economic, diplomatic and privacy implications in the same way that they consider potential security benefits. We also need leaders capable of understanding both the technology nuances underlying these programs and the American public’s views on data collection and privacy. A new Cabinet-level or deputy Cabinet-level civilian position with budget review authority to oversee all government surveillance and cybersecurity efforts would be worth debating.
The thousands of men and women of the NSA are dedicated public servants who work tirelessly to protect the nation and our allies. We owe them our gratitude and support. But the implications of their awesome capabilities now extend beyond the scope of the agency’s military management structure. We shouldn’t politicize our intelligence community—we’ve witnessed the disastrous consequences that can yield—but the government’s powerful surveillance capabilities need to be managed by leaders able to balance the broader societal implications and national security risks.
After the World War I armistice, Georges Clemenceau—the battle-hardened prime minister who had to navigate France out of the trenches its military leaders had led the country into—lamented that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” As we are now learning with each revelation, surveillance is, as well.