The Growing Divide Between Americans and Their NSA

Cold-war era intelligence agency now faces a 'totally different problem,' former spy chiefs say.


The NSA is struggling to manage growing discontent over its surveillance practices and increasingly complex national security threats.

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The American people and the NSA have a lot of making up to do, following reports that the cloistered spy agency collects and analyzes bulk records of telephone and internet usage.

The NSA has conducted an intense public relations campaign in the months since expatriate Edward Snowden's leaks, releasing formerly classified documents it says demonstrates the government's oversight of its spying practices. President Barack Obama has also ordered an internal review of these techniques.

[READ: Declassified Documents Reveal NSA Privacy Violations]

But privacy experts and many in the public say this is not enough, citing the need for fundamental change at the agency, founded in the wake of World War II and honed against Soviet intelligence during the Cold War.

Two former directors of the agency recognize the growing disconnect between these cyber spies and the people they are trying to protect.

"I never contemplated in 1978 what would happen with the digital revolution," says Bobby Ray Inman, a retired U.S. Navy admiral whose tenure as director from 1977 to 1981 included the implementation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. "I also never contemplated people coming to the U.S. on legitimate travel visas, and then engaging in reconnaissance, training, and then flying planes into buildings."

"Suddenly the need to track individuals moving around the country as opposed to identifying foreign representatives was a totally different problem," says Inman, 82, now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs.

He cites the Edward Snowden leaks as an example of why the closest-guarded intelligence should be more compartmentalized, to prevent one person from being able to hack it.

"I do not comprehend how Snowden could have accessed as much as he did with so little check and balance," says Inman.

The former director also points to what he says is a double standard in how the average Internet user views privacy. Web giants such as Facebook and Google sell advertising information from what they gather on a particular user's preferences.

"You're going to trust Google, but you won't trust the government," says Inman. "I find that offensive."

"If you really want privacy, don't go on the Internet. If you do, you make a personal trade-off," he says. "Post things for your friends, enjoy it, but accept you make a decision to surrender your personal privacy."

[ALSO: Yahoo, Facebook CEOs Criticize the NSA]

Privacy advocates and critics of the NSA's espionage, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also recognize this growing divide.

"National and international laws have yet to catch up with the evolving need for privacy that comes with new technology," EFF says on its website.

"Respect for individuals' autonomy, anonymous speech, and the right to free association must be balanced against legitimate concerns like law enforcement," EFF says. "National governments must put legal checks in place to prevent abuse of state powers, and international bodies need to consider how a changing technological environment shapes security agencies' best practices."

Leakers like Snowden and former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning were born into a generation that views privacy entirely different than those who instituted the 1947 National Security Act, which created the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says Michael Hayden, who served as NSA director from 1999 to 2005. The act established the traditional organization that would work to anticipate and respond to threats against the U.S.

Hayden questions whether that composition will be able to address 21st century electronic threats that stem from outside traditional sovereign governments.

"Are they the right players in the room?" Hayden said, while speaking at the Air Force Association's annual Air and Space Conference. "In a world in which hard power is less efficient, what other things can we contribute?"

[MORE: Making Spies Play by the Rules]

"Snowden and Manning are bad and they're criminals," said Hayden, a retired four-star general who also served as director of the CIA. "They're also representatives – they're bad representatives – whose definition of privacy and secrecy is pretty much unlike anyone else in this room. It's generational."