US Army Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and commander of US Cyber Command, speaks Oct. 30 during a discussion at the Reagan Building in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images)
Update: The White House released the report by President Obama’s intelligence review group Wednesday. You can read the report here (PDF).
The public and lawmakers responded with cries of outrage immediately following the first disclosures of classified data by leaker Edward Snowden.
It’s taken six months, but it appears lawmakers may be ready to take the next step: reforming the intelligence system. Any reform will likely have to come in spite of administration efforts to keep the status quo and concern from some experts that reform could put more Americans at risk.
The debate picked up last week after sources provided some detail into what President Barack Obama’s intelligence review group, which he created in the wake of the Snowden leaks, would include in its final report. The group’s report is set to become public, although a timeframe for that disclosure hasn’t been announced.
The five-member group’s report was due Dec. 15 and sources said among the recommendations would be the separation of command duties for US Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) and the National Security Agency (NSA). Army Gen. Keith Alexander currently heads both agencies.
The administration, acting quickly, put out news Friday morning that the president rejected that idea, less than a day after initial reports of the recommendation. But the discussion of NSA command was joined by loud public efforts from several groups pushing reform.
Tech giants including AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo banded together under the banner “Reform Government Surveillance,” jointly signing a letter to Obama and Congress calling for “reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law.”
In addition, more than 500 writers, including five Nobel Prize winners, posted a petition at change.org under the banner Writers Against Mass Surveillance arguing that protection from surveillance is a basic human right. “All humans have the right to remain unobserved and unmolested,” the petition said.
Within a few days the petition had easily cleared 100,000 supporters.
Any legislative action is unlikely to occur before the end of the year given Congress’ upcoming recesses, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing the campaigning for reform.
The combination of public pressure and official disclosure by the Review Group is setting up a moment for change, said Michael Allen, a former George W. Bush administration official who worked on the last round of intelligence reform in the 2000s and author of the recent book, “Blinking Red: Crisis and Compromise in American Intelligence after 9/11.”
“I think we’re about to hit a new period which is going to be an inflection point. So, this might give impetus to more legislative change to the intelligence community,” Allen said.
The Obama administration has responded to the increased pressure with an aggressive effort to justify the surveillance, including a lengthy piece on “60 Minutes” Sunday that provided an unchallenged view of the NSA’s mission, aiming to quell upset through transparency. It’s based on what officials believe is an issue of misunderstanding rising from incomplete or incorrect reporting on the programs unveiled by Snowden’s documents.
Some of the efforts at transparency have been controversial; the figures used by Alexander describing the number of terrorist attacks averted through surveillance have been disputed. But transparency remains the buzzword. It appeared nine times in written testimony provided to congress by Alexander, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, and ODNI General Counsel Robert Litt on Dec. 11.
Former CIA and NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, who supports the surveillance efforts and said they are necessary to protect US citizens, said the transparency approach while important as a long term model, will be a difficult sell.
“Being transparent when you’re being accused of something is a discounted return,” Hayden said. “The idea is to get ahead of this stuff.”
Despite what seem to be increased public cries for action, broad intelligence reform such as that which created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence less than a decade ago is unlikely, Allen said.
“I don’t think it’s going to be wholesale change like the Intelligence Reform Act, or the 9/11 recommendations,” he said. “There’s still reorganization fatigue that has discouraged people from doing anything large on the reorganization front.”