President Barack Obama's hopes for reforming the NSA, as outlined in a speech Friday, are naive at best and not addressing the true root of the problem, says a former director of the agency.
In a 45-minute long speech at the Justice Department, the president said the U.S. would cease surveillance of the political leaders of America's allies. He also called for the creation of a non-governmental group, perhaps a private organization, that will hold telephone metadata logs into which the National Security Agency may tap if it has a lead on a terrorist suspect – a task Obama admitted would pose difficult problems.
"It's a nice thought, but it's impractical," says retired Navy Adm. Bobby Ray Inman. He served as director of the NSA from 1977 to 1981, a tumultuous time for U.S. government surveillance in the wake of President Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation.
Inman, now a professor at the University of Texas, faced a similar quagmire at the intersection of espionage and the public trust during his tenure, when the NSA sought to use a private company that maintains stock certificates to house government codes.
"We found it was unworkable," he says. "The problem was you have no oversight. People who hold stock certificates are not going to be willing to have their activities reviewed by the select committees of Congress."
"Someone in the commercial business is not going to willingly sign up to the intrusion of government, of congressional committees, coming to examine what they're doing."
This approach is fine for retroactive analysis, Inman says, or figuring out what the NSA missed or did not know. But such a system cannot work when an imminent incident is likely to occur.
"If you want to prevent attacks, that will not work. You can't afford the time delay," he says.
Inman also faults Obama's blanket decree to cease surveillance on friendly heads of state, almost certainly a nod toward the very public frustrations of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The president's speech comes at a time of good relations with those countries. But it is starkly contrasted against the origin of such taps under the tenures of German Chancellor Gerhard Shroder and French President Jacques Chirac in the early 2000s, he says. Both leaders were openly critical of U.S. policy, and at times anti-American.
"The country may be an ally, but the leader may be hostile toward you," Inman says, adding that the national security adviser and other executive branch officials help decide whose communiques the intelligence services will monitor. "They can tune up who they want to collect against and who they don't want to collect against."
Inman remains confused with what Obama hoped to achieve with Friday's speech. He also faults Congress, which must act as the people's "surrogates" inside the classified realm in which intelligence services must operate. He calls the issue of getting the American public to offer support to intelligence agencies "a non-starter."
"You have to rely on [Congress'] oversight for the public to know that these are legal activities operating under the long-term national security interests of the country," he says. "If you cannot rely on those congressional surrogates to do the overview for the public, then there's no point in even having an agency and giving up any hope you're going to be informed about what's happening in the outside world."
"It's playing to an audience to try to satisfy people whose first concern is privacy and not national security," he says.