In an October 31, 2013 meeting of the Baltimore Council on Foreign Relations, General Keith Alexander, Commander of U.S. Cyber Command and Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) got into an interesting exchange with Maryland State Senator James Carew Rosapepe (D), who served as an ambassador during the Clinton administration, when Rosapepe challenged him on the ‘national security justification’ for the NSA’s surveillance against ‘democratically elected leaders and private companies.’
Alexander’s response was facile, and drew laughs from many present. I reprint here what appeared on The Guardian’s news site:
“We all joke that everyone is spying on everyone,” he (Rosapepe) said. “But that is not a national security justification.”
Alexander replied, “That is a great question, in fact as an ambassador you have part of the answer. Because we the intelligence agencies don’t come up with the requirements. The policymakers come up with the requirements. One of those groups would have been, let me think, hold on, oh, ambassadors.”
You have to credit Alexander with being quick with a quip, but, had he thought to engage his brain before starting his mouth, he might have realized just how off base his remark was. Instead, he merely demonstrated that even some of our senior officials are ignorant when it comes to the role played by ambassadors in developing our foreign policy. Instead of clarifying the issue, he only muddied the water further, and in this case, not with anything approaching the truth.
To put that comment in perspective, let me state that I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who served as an ambassador twice, as a senior Department of Defense official for three years, and spent more than 15 years of my 20-year army career involved in intelligence and counterintelligence.
Item one: ambassadors do not establish intelligence requirements. And, I would challenge the good general to show concrete evidence of an NSA requirement that came directly from a serving ambassador. Intelligence requirements are established by committees in Washington. They are sent to the field for ambassadors to comment on. And, here I’m not naïve enough to think that we were told everything. I’m quite sure there were times it was determined that even as ambassador, I had no ‘need-to-know’ what a particular agency was up to in my country of assignment, the president’s letter to me giving me authority over U.S. agencies notwithstanding. Having been a military intelligence officer, I now that this is just the way the world of intelligence works.
Item two: An ambassador who asked intelligence officials at his embassy to spy on the head of government to whom he’s accredited would be taking a grave risk. His or her job is to maintain bilateral relations (even when we have disagreements with the government), and should such an operation be discovered, whatever short-term gain it achieved would be outweighed by the long-term negative consequences.
Sure, we would like to know leadership intentions, but there are other ways to determine them that don’t risk provoking an unnecessary crisis or causing a break in the relationship, especially with an ally.
Was Alexander joking, or was he serious? If he was joking, it was in extremely poor taste. If he was serious, one has to wonder just how much he really knows about how Washington works. At any rate, malicious statements like this must not go unchallenged. As Secretary of State John Kerry said recently from London, NSA’s programs have gone ‘too far.’ Too much of what they’re doing is on ‘automatic pilot’ and being done because they have the capability to do it. Just because we can do something, though, doesn’t mean we should do it.
The same thing goes for what we say. Just because Alexander could say what he said, and without offering any specifics to support it, doesn’t mean he should have said it. In fact, he most definitely should not have said it, and he owes a statement of apology to every man and woman who has served this country as an ambassador.