Tom Wither, author, “intelligence professional,” and apparent apologist for the NSA, has written two op-eds in hopes of impressing on Americans the grave dangers that await them in this post-bulk phone metadata collection era.
Wither lays the blame for future horrors on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. He frames his argument with the recent horror of the Paris attacks.
His first op-ed, written for The Hill, appeared two weeks after the Paris attacks. Titled “Stand with Our Watchers,” Wither’s piece asks the American public to put aside its concerns about domestic dragnet surveillance and allow the government to autonomously decide what it needs to do to “protect” us.
CIA Director John Brennan recently denounced the ‘hand-wringing’ over intrusive government spying and exposure of intelligence programs. We need organizations like NSA working to find, fix, and help eliminate terrorist threats to our nation’s and our ally’s citizens, and protect critical infrastructure like power, banking, and transportation; and those efforts must be grounded in our constitutional values.
Odd that Wither would bring up “constitutional values,” considering most of the objections to the surveillance he declares to be essential are predicated on these same values — ones that have been apparently ignored because they make terrorist hunting slightly more difficult.
Wither says the NSA (and others) are very conscientious of the limitations the Constitution places on its efforts. And, in many cases, this is true. But the combination of powerful tools and limited oversight has resulted in abuse in the past and likely will again in the future.
Snowden is mentioned in this op-ed, portrayed as a criminal who only revealed the NSA did nothing wrong before being welcomed by our former Cold War foe and praised by terrorist organizations for exposing surveillance methods.
Unmentioned in Wither’s op-ed — which uses fear (the terrorist attacks in Paris) to call for Americans to embrace their intrusive “protectors” — is the fact that current Public Enemy #1 (encryption) had little to do with the terrorists’ communications and, more importantly, thatexisting surveillance dragnets failed to prevent the attack from happening.
Before wrapping it up with a call for surveillance solidarity, Wither makes the following unbelievable claim.
U.S. intelligence officers of all stripes will be the first to tell you that they want clear, specific legal guidance that keeps pace with technology so that they can do their jobs effectively and within the constitutional framework they swore an oath to defend. I strongly believe that law enforcement professionals also want that kind of guidance – and need it as we learn more and more about law enforcement and IRS use of the ‘STINGRAY’ cell tower simulator and the FBI’s reconnaissance flights over Baltimore during the spring riots.
Intelligence officers may want “clear, specific legal guidance” but they only if it is written in their favor. And while it may be “clear” and “specific” to them, this legal guidance is withheld from the public and, in many cases, even from these agencies’ oversight.
And it’s abundantly clear very few law enforcement agencies are looking for “legal guidance” onStingrays. Any information we do have has been torn from the death grip of FBI/local law enforcement agencies by tenacious FOIA requesters and privacy activists. Wither is right: these agencies do need more “guidance.” To date, they have deployed parallel construction, dismissed criminal cases and utilized bogus paperwork to protect their secret cell tower spoofers. But legal guidance would mean inconveniences like warrants, restrictions and minimization procedures — not exactly the sort of things intelligence or law enforcement agencies actively seek out.
Wither’s second op-ed — this one for the Baltimore Sun — picks up where his last one left off. The Paris attacks are invoked again to argue for increased surveillance… or at least the surveillance we had until just recently. This time Wither is arguing for the return of the NSA’s bulk phone metadata collection, because the program isn’t “criminal,” but “ending it” is.
On Sunday, while you were eating the leftovers from Thanksgiving and watching the afternoon’s football games, the National Security Agency stopped acquiring the call data records of millions of Americans.
Lousy, inconsiderate American public, ignorantly watching TV and eating leftovers instead of spending the waning moments of the Section 215 program on their phones, patriotically generating a few last phone records for the NSA to store at its data centers. For shame.
It’s not just the public that’s to blame. It’s also the media. Wither says the intelligence community must become much more transparent about its surveillance programs (good!) but mainly to head off irresponsible journalists (??).
[T]he law and oversight they operate under to constrain their activities within our values and constitutional principles should continue to become more transparent to the general public. Such increased transparency will help to lessen the public’s wariness and rush to judgment about what must be inevitably a government conspiracy or illegal activity based on initial news reports.
Wither also takes a parting shot at Snowden, with a paragraph that is as laughably bad as his claim that intelligence agencies are crying out for more legal guidance.
More than two years after Mr. Snowden’s leaks, not one NSA employee, affiliate or senior leader has been indicted, tried or convicted with a crime related to violating the FISA. Mr. Snowden, however, has been charged with two felonies under the Espionage Act, and has been praised by members of the Islamic State for teaching them how to avoid U.S. surveillance.
This slam of Snowden might actually mean something if (a) this administration wasn’t so focusedon prosecuting whistleblowers and (b) the government didn’t routinely greet exposed wrongdoing by allowing the perpetrators to resign rather than face charges, or by issuing wrist slaps so light they might as well be pantomime. After all, the national intelligence director (James Clapper) lied to Congress, but still maintains his position at the top of the intelligence heap. And let’s not forget there are criminals the government likes and criminals it doesn’t, and they see two very different forms of prosecution when hauled into court.
That Snowden is a wanted felon is wholly unsurprising, given two consecutive administrations’stalwart defense of the government’s post-9/11 power expansion. But pretending this is somehow indicative of the NSA’s inherent “rightness” is cheaply disingenuous.