The latest revelations make it hard for even the intelligence communities stanchest friends to continue to defend it. It is now apparent that the NSA spied on vast numbers of people, misled the courts, Congress, and (if Obama is to be believed) even the White House about what it was doing. Yet it continues to act in complete denial of the position it is in.
The damage done by the intelligence community is immense. The spying exceeds even the worst case imaginings of many civil liberties groups. Its scope, as well as the reluctant responses of the intelligence community, have shaken public confidence in the those who say they are defending us. The ability of Congress to oversee a major part of our defense establishment is severely compromised. America’s leadership in the Internet and cloud computing is threatened because the federal government apparently takes the position that it should have complete access to the data of foreign citizens who use Google, Facebook, and similar services. The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s role in helping to set encryption standards is jeopardized because the NSA apparently built a back door to one of the common standards. Our relationships with key allies has been set back because we apparently tap their leaders’ communications.
And yet, to hear the intelligence leaders talk, none of this is their fault. It is all Edward Snowden’s. Its as if you met someone who recently lost their job, their family, and their freedom because he watched child pornography and all he can talk about is how their secretary ruined his life by turning him in. An agency and a community that continues to be in this type of denial is probably beyond redemption. Since the beginning of these revelations, the response of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA Director General Keith Alexander remind me most of Anthony Comstock, whose single-mindedness in setting himself up as defending America against his own demons ruined many lives before the country regained its common sense.
The irony is that if the agencies had asked for this power openly and visibly subjected themselves to the type of strong controls needed to protect democracy, they probably would have gotten strong support for using most of the data they seek.