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Should the NSA be reformed? Fierce debate rages

Ellen Messmer | Nov. 14, 2013
Edward Snowden leaks have fueled calls for change by lawmakers, industry, U.S. allies.

Asked whether the NSA truly serves a worthwhile purpose, Bamford says the NSA "is most useful in terms of collecting intelligence, not good at terrorism. The problem is it was never designed to detect terrorism." The NSA roots go back to the Cold War era when there was worry the Russians would launch a nuclear attack and intelligence gathering was focused on what the Soviet Union would do. Diplomatic spying was against adversaries. Bamford says today the NSA is "overextended" and "they overreach so much." The NSA has "so much money, they collect everything from everywhere." The NSA should "stick to collecting intelligence on adversaries," he advises.

If the NSA in some way is able to get backdoors into U.S. tech industry products and services, as some Snowden revelations contend, it "ends up hurting the U.S," Bamford says, adding who is going to want to buy American tech products or encryption if the U.S. has backdoors in them? "It's ruining industries like that."

The NSA should "stick to collecting intelligence on adversaries," he advises. "Leave our allies out of it." The NSA traditionally was there to gather intelligence for the chief of Naval Operations, for example, about what aircraft there was in China or other places., says Bamford, and the NSA worked off a priority list. Any reform of the NSA should make it clear what the mechanisms for priorities are, and these priorities should be "more restrained." The NSA also doesn't need the amount of money they get now, he added. Bamford said Congress needs to set up the modern-day equivalent of the Church Committee of 1975 that where Sen. Frank Church back then investigated abuses in intelligence operations.

As to whether the director of NSA should hold the dual position of head of the signals intelligence and espionage function, plus the head of Cyber Command for potential cyberwar operations, Bamford suggests splitting up those responsibilities. Gen. Alexander has "way too much power" in the current arrangement combining both positions, Bamford asserts.

Stewart Baker couldn't disagree more.

First off, Baker said it's clear that the NSA serves a worthwhile purpose. "NSA is essential to the role the United States plays in the world. It was the key agency in hunting terrorists over the last ten years, and its capabilities allow the U.S. to play a global role and to avoid unhappy surprises when it does so."

As to whether the NSA should be banned from certain activities that have come to light, such as collecting a treasure trove of phone-call metadata from U.S. carriers or spying on foreign leaders who are allies, Baker simply notes that NSA activities "were lawful. The President has decided that some of them (collecting intelligence from the communications of world leaders and U.N. diplomats) are a bad idea from a policy point of view. While I think he is over-reacting to personal embarrassment, the greatest sin a spy can commit is to get caught spying. NSA and the United States are being punished for getting caught, and some changes in policy may be inevitable."

 

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