U.S. intelligence blunders pile up

Friday , July 18, 2014 - 9:51 AM

Arthur I. Cyr

“That is just so stupid, and so much stupidity makes you want to cry.”

That is not a line from a soap opera, including the ongoing partisan soap opera in Washington, but rather an expression of devastating disdain from the finance minister of Germany.

Wolfgang Schäuble was reacting to the latest revelations about United States spying. In addition to overseeing finance in the largest economy in Europe, he is a particularly close confidant of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has shown notable stoicism in the face of ongoing awkward revelations, including hacking of her phone by members of American intelligence agencies.

This time, the trouble is not in indiscriminate electronic surveillance of citizens, including top government leaders. Rather, the latest embarrassments involve clumsy human snooping, apparently on the level of the legendary inept operative Inspector Clouseau, as portrayed by Peter Sellers in the “Pink Panther” films.

Clouseau, with equal parts egotism and incompetence, blunders through inept serial social encounters, physical pratfalls, and potentially monumental disasters. Happy resolutions occur despite his efforts, though he quickly takes the credit, moving on free of doubt to his next bout with himself.

No-nonsense German police on July 10 searched the home and office of a military employee who is accused of passing sensitive secrets to the U.S. government. Just before this event, there was an announcement that a member of German BND intelligence has been arrested, accused of selling an estimated two hundred documents to the CIA. They reportedly contained details of investigations by a German parliamentary panel into the vast electronic surveillance of European populations by the NSA, which included hacking Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone.

Relations between U.S. intelligence agencies and Congress have been deteriorating following surprising surveillance revelations about actions at home as well as overseas. James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, took a hard line last October in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. His complacency as well as apparent disdain for questioners fuel reform efforts.

Senator Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, reacted by calling for a “total review” of all U.S. intelligence programs. Reports of CIA spying on Congress have further stoked reform fires.

Simultaneously, the U.S. government is working to restrain intelligence agencies. Proposals announced by the Obama administration in March seek to end government bulk collection of phone records by the NSA, and require court approval to monitor individual phone numbers.

The White House has presented detailed proposals for greater oversight of the NSA and other intelligence agencies. The NSA has been ordered to make more information public, including a Web site to serve as a mechanism to promote transparency. An outside review panel is being established to monitor intelligence activities.

Yet there is an eerie disconnect between White House proposals, which invariably have been in response to unwelcome news, and actual developments in the field. In commenting on the latest embarrassing news from Germany, President Obama is described having been completely unaware. This ignorance extends explicitly to counterproductive efforts to “turn” employees of one of our most important — and powerful — allies.

Preserving “plausible deniability” for those at the top is a well-established practice in the intelligence trade. However, in this case there apparently is no need to create the fiction — our chief executive seems surprisingly disengaged from the implementation of security policies. Clapper’s arrogance before Congress implies he is without any direct ongoing supervision.

These events recall Clouseau, but this is no joke.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu.

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