The Duck of Minerva

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Get Ready to Rumble….. NSA vs. State

November 1, 2013

OK, so it’s not exactly Ali vs. Frazier, but NSA and the State Department are not happy with each other. From this morning’s Cable at Foreign Policy, Yochi Dreazen reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry touched off the furor when he said some of the NSA’s overseas surveillance efforts — which also included tapping into tens of millions of calls in France and Spain — had been carried out without the Obama administration’s knowledge or explicit approval. The remarks highlighted what appears to the White House’s emerging strategy for dealing with widespread public fury over the programs: blame it on the NSA.

“The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there,” Kerry told a conference in London. “In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, responded by putting responsibility for the spying efforts squarely on the State Department itself. He said diplomats around the world were asking for information about the “leadership intentions” of top foreign officials, and that his agency was simply trying to respond to those intelligence requests.

Alexander, according to a report in The Guardian, was responding to a series of sharp-edged questions from James Carew Rosapepe, a former American ambassador to Romania. Rosapepe had asked the general to explain how U.S. national security interests justified the NSA’s spying efforts on “democratically elected leaders and private businesses.”

“That is a great question, in fact as an ambassador you have part of the answer. Because we the intelligence agencies don’t come up with the requirements. The policymakers come up with the requirements,” Alexander said. “One of those groups would have been, let me think, hold on, oh: ambassadors.”

Ouch! So what to make of the feud?

I’m not a big fan of NSA’s actions here, but there is a pretty formal structure that establishes collection priorities on SIGINT and it is disingenuous to proclaim that this is simply reducible to the NSA run amok. In short, intelligence consumers set the collection priorities. These consumers include policymakers (and yes, ambassadors) and analysts who meet regularly to assess what information is needed to make informed policy judgments, to review collection assets (capabilities), and to set collection priorities. So, on that score, Alexander is spot on — “the intelligence communities don’t come up with requirements.”

But, Kerry is also probably reflecting some truth as well — there probably is a bit of an auto-piloting going on here. I doubt that either Kerry or President Obama were briefed with specific SIGINT reports on Merkel’s conversations — again, it’s probably pretty mundane communication intercepts that don’t add much to the analysis and wouldn’t warrant either of their direct attention. Furthermore, neither of them — nor any of the principals or deputies of the NSC — participate in the collection priorities review. They approve the final document, but all of the details are developed at a level (but still senior) below the principals and deputies by officials who are anticipating what the principals and the President might need or want to know. And, as I posted last week, many of these officials at this level who read the output of this collection have an almost voyeuristic addiction to highly classified information. My bet is that somewhere along the line –looks like in Bush’s second term — some of these consumers from the policymaking community tasked the NSA to collect on Germany and others at all levels of national capabilities. And, once in place, there was nothing in the intelligence that was collected that was particularly significant to send directly to the principals or trigger any kind of review of the overall strategy.

As for poor Ambassador Rosapepe? As with many ambassadors — they provide general input into the collection requirement process, but many do not see the most sensitive (esp. SIGINT) intelligence and he could very well have been in the dark about what was being collected and why.

Overall, I’m judging this round a split decision.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.