What to Make of Obama's Security Scandals

The fact and fiction behind Obama’s security scandals.


We seem to be in a perpetual "scandal a month" mode in Washington. Especially our foreign observers must be wondering whether there is something in the water making our politicians behave so strangely. Sure, the Europeans have scandals too, but rarely do we see a string of them there like we have had here of late.

It reminds me of a story told by a departing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman to an incoming Secretary of Defense. The new "SecDef" asked the chairman if he had "any advice?" The chairman replied, "yes, imagine the worst thing you can think of – the absolute worst – and there's probably some ‘SOB' out there doing it right now".  

However, when we have a series of these "worst things," it raises issues of the basic competence of our leadership from the top down. In fact, in a recent poll "71 percent of voters wonder if America's political class is comprised of the best people we can find to lead our country."

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

So, the goal here is to try to identify what's really behind our current "scandals", as well as the various political and media moves related to them.

Benghazi: This is an easy one. We had a huge failure of diplomatic security on the anniversary of 9/11, resulting in the needless death of four Americans in a carefully pre-planned terror attack – one that should have been anticipated. However, because of the proximity of the attack to the presidential election (and the dreaded political "October surprise") there was a collective spin put on the facts by all concerned. The chief spinners at the State Department and the United States Mission to the United Nations were rewarded with promotions, and no one has been held responsible for the security lapses that actually led to the terror attack, nor is it likely that anyone will be. This was just a simple political "smoke job."

However, the consulate in Benghazi was so poorly protected, and the threat so obvious, that it truly meets the "worst thing you can think of" test and rises to colossal incompetence of all concerned, including the former secretary of state. Yet, to this she said, "what difference does it make?"

Internal Revenue Service: This one is also easy. Anyone who has ever worked at or with, or who knows much of anything about the IRS, knows that it is an extremely  "top down" organization, and that no one there does anything – especially implementing a new policy or practice – without being told to do it. I suggested here in an earlier piece that the "direction" to do it could have been indirect, but nevertheless the "worker bees" in the IRS simply would and could not have done this on their own motion. Accordingly, and because this was clearly such a politically based hatchet job, "heads must roll" at the IRS.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the IRS Scandal.]

The Senior Executive Service professionals there must re-learn – apparently the hard way – that politics and our unique voluntary tax collection system just don't mix; accordingly, they should be fired "for cause" or simply dismissed after a major IRS reorganization.

Drones: Lurking just behind this issue are mostly traditional arms control supporters and various multilateral political opponents. For example, most state/country opponents and critics oppose drones because they don't yet have the capability and it puts their leaderships at risk for supporting or covertly sponsoring terror. The United Nations opposes drones for traditional 60's and 70's arms control faulty logic: They transparently allege that we are more likely to use them against weaker opponents – read terror sponsors - than if we didn't have them. For sure, and most hope this is established U.S. policy, now that the Obama administration has discovered how effective drones are against terrorist leaderships. In addition:

  • Using drones against the occasional American overseas who has allied themself with an enemy is simply a reality of today's "foreign affinity terrorism" and is a threat to no one here.
  • "Kill lists" are nothing but a very, very poorly chosen name for leadership targeting, which are traditional and legitimate targets in armed conflict.
  • Will drones be used in domestic law enforcement? Sure, but they will be governed by the same "use of force" rules and concepts as are other law enforcement technologies.
  • In short, law abiding Americans have nothing to fear from our drones or drone technology – in fact it will make us all safer.

    [See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

    National Security Agency leaker/spy: This is a very complex "worst thing you can think of" involving a lot of serious issues. But mostly it's a sad study in what we used to call "human reliability," when we had a special set of requirements for people who handled or were otherwise in close proximity to nuclear weapons or for certain space programs. There are several similar programs in place today.

    Also, we have obviously lost track of how we assess the "need to know" and the physical/electronic access to highly classified information, just as we did with the Army Private who also walked away with lots of very sensitive information. The NSA leaker/spy used – we are told – a zip drive to collect all the documents and other information he stole. I have written for years about the huge disproportionate risks associated with such unrestricted accesses, and the very worst of my predictions has come true with this case: "This insider threat can't be emphasized too much: Probably the largest short-term risk to cybersecurity is human: people motivated by traditional reasons for espionage or sabotage who access and pass information, or who weaken, damage, infect or disable cyber systems. In the final analysis, truly effective cybersecurity depends on truly reliable people."

    However, in an odd twist, the various comments from the leaker/spy indicate that he didn't fully understand the programs that he revealed. In particular, his assumptions and conclusions about NSA's access to the actual content of communicationsare generally wrong; however, the media had a field day with each wild accusation made.

    [Take the U.S. News poll: Is NSA leaker Edward Snowden a true whistle-blower?]

    Unfortunately, the same can be said about some very senior administration people who commented about the leaked programs. Not only is this inexcusable, it made the situation worse. And not only were administration seniors poorly informed on the merits of the leaked program, they took way, way too long to respond to the leakers more silly allegations, giving credence to what he was alleging. In addition, we are told that an oversight briefing on the leaked NSA programs was offered to Congress, but was poorly attended.

    Now, the $64 trillion question: Do ordinary, law abiding citizens have reason to be worried about our privacy, based on the revelations of the leaker/spy? My almost 90-year-old mom worried about such activities too, but it turned out that she understood the basic concepts behind them pretty well, as I think do most other law abiding Americans. Here is her insight. As can be seen, some common sense gets us through most of the hysteria raised by the leaker/spy and the media.

    What is the longer-term solution to the insider spy/leaker in today's complex cyber world? This is probably the most important issue (in addition to far more effective and responsive public relations about such programs). Here's what must be done:

    • Strict adherence, management and oversight of "need to know" about our more sensitive programs.
    • Far less reliance on outside contractor support.
    • Build an internal government infrastructure for recruiting, training and, above all, retainingnational security cyber experts, drawing from what we already know from human reliability in other sensitive programs we have managed over the years e.g., nuclear, space, and stealth.
    • We also need a national review of our classification policies and practices – we did this in the 90's but need to do it again. We still tend to "over-classify" and need to limit the process consistent with good sense and requirements for eventual disclosure, when the need for secrecy has passed.
    • [Read the U.S. News debate: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Agency's Data Collection?]

      DOJ investigation of other classified "leaks". This one is much ado about nothing; however, it fits right in with the NSA/spy/leaker "worst thing." Here we apparently have: a) media people actually soliciting classified information from federal employees, and/or b) federal employees approaching the media with classified information, and c) the Department of Justice investigating these events because of clear violations of federal law. This is only a "scandal" because of the squealing from the media: According to them, they are above the law and can publish anything they want. Wrong:

      • We probably need an "official secrets act" that makes it a criminal offense to publish properly classified information. It is simply outrageous that a U.K. newspaper publishes our highly classified information, but won't dare publish U.K. secrets – because it's a crime there and in most other democratic countries.
      • There is simply no First Amendment right to publish properly classified information.
      • So, what is going on in Washington?

        While no one person will ever know for sure, here's what a sage former boss of mine used to say – in reaction to some strange, silly or just dumb thing we found when inspecting DOD intelligence operations: "Remember, we can never outwit the human factor." How true.

        Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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