Saturday, June 22, 2013

The NSA and the NSA

THE UNITED States of America, in the name of its own national security, is now Officially looking for one Edward Joseph Snowden. The former intelligence contractor who slipped his leash while working for the National Security Agency has now been charged in U.S. District Court with willful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person and theft of government property. Some of the offenses come under jurisdiction of the U.S. Espionage Act, and carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison.

And on Saturday, the United States ratcheted up pressure on Hong Kong (where Snowden was last seen) to act on Snowden’s extradition, consistent with a 1998 treaty with the United States.

“If Hong Kong doesn’t act soon, it will complicate our bilateral relations and raise questions about Hong Kong’s commitment to the rule of law,” a senior Obama administration official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. No word yet on whether Snowden’s even still in Hong Kong.

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The Snowden affair has generated considerable blowback on the Obama White House specifically, and wreaked havoc on the nation’s trust in government generally, and its faith and confidence in that same White House.

What gives this scandal so much traction, what’s made it so powerful is its potential role in the wider world, the one we try to live in. It’s a given that, in a scandal that’s virally mushroomed since the news of Snowden’s data-collection disclosures, people in various high and midlevel places in Washington would be called to explain, if not called to account. But with the personal information of hundreds of millions of American citizens hanging in the balance, this is bigger than kabuki-on-the-Potomac.

And as noisy as it’s been the last two or three weeks for the NSA, one dimension of this farrago has so far flown under the radar. It’s the timely consideration of how the agency whose mandate is fortifying national security will mesh with the awesome latitude of the president’s next adviser on national security: Susan Rice.

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WHEN U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice blitzed the airwaves on a Sunday last September to deliver to the American people the best information she had available about the Benghazi disaster, it was more than a chance to discover the on-set lighting variables in the studios of ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Fox News. Despite the color temperature used by video engineers and the rhetorical temperature of her five questioners, Susan Rice stayed on message.

Problem was, the message she delivered on the Sunday gasbag programs was incorrect; that fact led to her being pilloried by conservatives for months after Sept. 16. Intentionally falling on a sword was never more painful; Rice was called everything by conservatives but a child of God. Congressional Republicans had her in league with Satan; she was an incompetent, she was a deceiver, she was the enabler of a vast Obama conspiracy.

Loyalty and patience have their rewards. Effective on July 1, if the protocol of transfer hasn’t functionally happened already, Rice will replace Thomas Donilon as the president’s national security adviser (a position sometimes shorthanded as “NSA”). From that day, Rice will face what may be her biggest test as a public servant: navigating the bureaucracy of Washington, exchanging the loftier, more public persona of ambassador for a government post whose importance has much to do with saying as little as possible.

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Some analysts have said that Rice may be in the catbird seat vis-à-vis the enunciation of American foreign policy for the next four years. There’s good reason to believe that could happen. The national security adviser is the president’s most reliably adhesive counselor, outside the chief of staff. While the Secretary of State travels the globe shaking hands, doing the native dances and performing a role as much ceremonial as substantive, the national security adviser stays home, by custom and by practice at the president’s elbow.

The legacy of the Eisenhower administration — Robert Cutler was named as the first national security adviser in March 1953 — the position has greatly evolved. Though the job necessarily varies from administration to administration, in our nervous post-9/11 world it’s become an office perceived as that of a secretary of the geopolitical shadows, a Richelieu on steroids. Condoleezza Rice had much to do with this perception, by accident or by design.

But what makes Susan Rice’s appointment as national security adviser so singular now is its arrival at an unprecedented time in the nation’s cultural and technological evolution, a period when — to go by the revelations of the PRISM program; Snowden’s actions opposing that program; and the recent disclosure by the Justice Department that it has surveilled everything from a Fox News reporter’s e-mails to the servers of Facebook and Yahoo — there are, it seems, no secrets. Only revelations we haven't uncovered yet.

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How will Rice, a former UN ambassador (and by definition a believer in the power of human interaction and the potential for consensus), be swayed by the antiseptic efficiencies of drone warfare replacing human intelligence with electronic intel? What’s her take on the U.S. government’s maximalist rationale for surveillance of Americans in pursuit of a subset of a subset of a subset of potential terrorists — the rationale offered by her once and future boss, and defended in his expansive interview with Charlie Rose on PBS?

Much of her previous job as UN Ambassador depended to some degree on transparency, making things clear, pursuing global consensus, staking out America’s stated position in the world forum, announcing her nation’s intention on the global stage.

Much of the job she begins on July 1 depends on her doing the exact opposite — depends on anything but transparency. As the national security adviser, how will she square that circle? What will she advise?

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WE’RE RIGHT to wonder. Rice’s obdurate support for the president, and her own proven ability to stick to administration talking points, suggest a support that may owe as much or more to the man who hired her as to the country on whose behalf she acts.

Susan Rice has been a brilliant career diplomat, and she’s distinguished herself in a variety of positions pivotal to this nation’s well-being. Her bona fides — Stanford, the State Department, Brookings Institution, the UN — couldn’t be more in order. There’s no doubt she’ll change the job.

The question is, in the face of a world that’s exponentially more dangerous than five years ago, and an administration as determined to keep official secrets as it’s determined to reveal the privileged secrets of the people it governs … how will the job change her?

Also published at Image credits: Rice: United Nations. Hillary in Africa: via Fair-use rationale for use of NSA seal: Agency and its policies figure prominently in a news story of general interest.

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