Security experts are warning that Obama's NSA proposals could turn the intelligence services into lame ducks. DW talked to former CIA agent Fred Fleitz who cautions against making fatal mistakes.
Fred Fleitz is a 25-year veteran of national security politics. He spent most of that time with the CIA. For many years he was a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. Today, he works for the Center for Security Policy.
DW: You have evaluated the assessment of the NSA put together by President Barack Obama's team of experts. In a report you and your former CIA colleague Clare Lopez criticize that Edward Snowden's revelations could trigger measures that are diametrically opposed to crucial intelligence operations. What measures are you referring to?
Fred Fleitz: Our view is that steps need to be taken to reassure the American people about the NSA programs compromised by Edward Snowden. That is just what happens in a democracy that people have concerns. I believe these programs have been well monitored and well overseen. The American people have to be reassured of that. So, I'm not saying that nothing should be done. However, on the other hand, we've looked at this report very closely and it calls for some outrageous proposals; such as providing US privacy rights to non-US-citizens outside the United States, and barring the NSA from breaking Internet encryption and the security of foreign software.
Now, I assume that as a German citizen you think those are good ideas and you don't want the NSA listening in and breaking into your software. And I understand that. But in the world we live in today with terrorist groups that are increasingly tech savvy we can't tie the hands of our American or German intelligence from doing what they have to do to find terrorist suspects and to monitor their communications. If we lived in a perfectly democratic world where everyone honored codes of human rights and human decency that would be different. But we don't live in that world. And it's necessary to have aggressive intelligence efforts to defend Western democracy and liberty. It's an unfortunate fact, but that's why I support the NSA breaking into that encryption. I support NSA breaking into the software of foreigners. Not to listen in to the German people or the people of any European country, but because we know al Qaeda has become so sophisticated. We can't close off important weapons from the NSA for monitoring what they are up to.
Studies on the efficiency of the metadata programs reveal that they have not played a key role in preventing terror attacks.
That is what the review group that was making recommendations for President Obama said. However, Michael Morell, a former CIA senior official - he was acting CIA-Director and a member of the panel - said in a Washington Post op-ed that if the metadata program under section 215 of the Patriot Act had been in place before 9/11 it may have stopped the 9/11 attacks. One of the district court judges that ruled that the 215-program was legal came to the same conclusion in his report. It's difficult to determine what piece of data stops a terrorist attack, especially if the terrorist attack doesn't take place. You can't prove a negative. But, from my experience working in intelligence you need these pieces to pursue leads that will lead to other leads to stop terrorist attacks. There's a report out right now by the New America Foundation , that says that the metadata program did not stop terrorist attacks. It is written by people without security clearances who have no idea what's going on inside the government. And I think a lot of the other assessments have the same problem.
How easy will it be for Obama to implement his reform plans, given that he will need the support of Congress?
There are some things the president can do administratively. But, you're right. He can call for some of these things to be done, but many of them have to be done through legislation. There's a great deal of acrimony within the US Congress on what to do. There is an odd alliance - on the right and left - of politicians who want to roll back the metadata program and put severe limits on certain NSA surveillance programs because they believe they infringe on the privacy rights of Americans. However, there is also a very strong bipartisan Senate intelligence committee bill which would improve the NSA program and address concerns about it without shutting it down. I believe that bill has a pretty good chance of passing and I'm hoping that the president will endorse this bipartisan bill that passed the committee by a vote of 11 to 4. I think it's a good way to reassure the American people and not shut down vital intelligence programs that are fighting terrorism.
In your report you make recommendations on how to solve the dilemma of guaranteeing national security and upholding civil rights at the same time. What would you and your colleagues change?
I think the key to defending American freedom and liberties is making sure there is aggressive oversight. I think there is good oversight right now. I think there are ways it could be improved. For example, we believe we should create better avenues for intelligence whistleblowers to raise their concerns when they have them. This is not an excuse for Edward Snowden. There are avenues right now. But those avenues have to be improved. They have to be publicized and I think more legal protections have to be offered to people who have these concerns. I think that there could be additional reports sent to the intelligence committees explaining how and when some of these sensitive intelligence collection programs against electronic communications are used.