"It is often said NSA
stands for 'never say anything,' but tonight the agency breaks with that
tradition," John Miller, the reporter behind Sunday night's 60 Minutes report on the National Security Agency, announced
bravely in the program's introduction.
You could say that 60 Minutes set itself up to fall short in promising to ask the
nation's most opaque intelligence agency the hard questions -- but what
followed fell short spectacularly. The
interview with NSA's top brass was riddled with so many glaring omissions that
at times it seemed an accomplice to an NSA public relations campaign -- a sentiment
the national security Twittersphere on Sunday night.
Here are the five worst moments from a report that failed to question the agency's intelligence gathering methods, omitted serious conflicts of interest, and overhyped its level of access.
Where were the NSA
NSA critics are known for being a vocal bunch, but they were nowhere to be found in the CBS report. The line-up of NSA officials certainly wasn't
lacking. It included the NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander; the head of the NSA's Snowden
leaks task force, Rick Ledgett; the director
of cyber defense, Debora Plunkett; plus a handful of NSA analysts, among others. But, alas,
not one person who isn't completely onboard with the NSA's techniques. For a program that vowed
to "address serious questions about whether the NSA delves too far into the
lives of citizens," leaving out the critics not only fails to deliver on the premise of the report but fails that most basic principle of journalism: telling both sides of the story.
John Miller's fake-out "full disclosure"
John Miller, the show's correspondent, wants you to know that he's a journalist you can
trust. "Full disclosure, I once worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence," he says
at the start of the program.
But that's a disclosure that undersells the potential conflicts of interest at play in Miller participating in such a program. Miller failed to mention that he was once the assistant director for the FBI's Office of Public Affairs. The FBI has been one of the main beneficiaries of aggressive NSA surveillance practices, but having a former bureau spokesman report on those programs apparently didn't raise eyebrows at CBS. Moreover, Miller
is reportedly leaving
journalism for a "top intelligence or counterterrorism role" with the NYPD. That career move received no mention on Sunday night.
Miller joins in on the scare tactics
Later in the program, Miller posed a series of questions about the
extent of the dangers posed by "intelligence adversaries" -- and listens with rapt attention
as Alexander lists them. Trumping up national security dangers is Alexander's
specialty: In October, he painted
himself as a martyr who would rather "take the beatings" from the public rather
than "give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked." Instead of questioning that well-known tactic, Miller eggs on the fear-mongering, failing to put any real pressure on the claims made by Alexander:
Miller: Could a foreign country tomorrow topple our financial system?
Keith Alexander: I believe that a foreign nation could impact and destroy major
portions of our financial system, yes.
Miller: How much of it could we stop?
Keith Alexander: Well, right now it would be difficult to stop it because our
ability to see it is limited.
Miller does not question that last statement, opting instead to let it resonate
as a fact. Alexander has been handed an extraordinary set of powers, but here he gets to plead on national television for additional authority. Miller lets that plea go unquestioned.
Miller is equally enthralled with Debora Plunkett after she describes a
virus that an unnamed "nation-state" had developed, basically concluding her
anecdote for her:
Miller: So, this basically would have gone into the system that starts up the
computer, runs the systems, tells it what to do.
Plunkett: That's right.
Miller: -- and basically turned it into
Plunkett: A brick.
Miller: And after that, there wouldn't be much you could do with that computer.
leave it to NSA officials to dramatize the precariousness of U.S. security when
Miller will do it for them?
Regardless of the degree to which Miller parrots the NSA's claims, the idea that a foreign power would be able to cripple the U.S. financial system is seriously disputed by technology experts. As Spencer Ackerman, one of the journalists heavily involved in reporting on the documents provided by Edward Snowden, writes for the Guardian, the likely culprit behind the plot, China, has next to no motive for crippling an economy in which it is deeply integrated. Moreover, past Chinese hacking attempts have been largely aimed at stealing information, not destroying computer systems. Additionally, the U.S. financial system is so complex and made up of so many components that a virus capable of destroying "major
portions of our financial system" would be extraordinarily difficult to construct.
The interview was
more restricted than the program suggested
The premise of the 60 Minutes story was that it was
offering near-unprecedented access to the agency. Ledgett, for instance, tells
Miller he's done only one interview in the 25 years he's been with the NSA --
this one. But take a look a look at 60
Minutes Overtime, a set of additional clips posted online, and you'll discover that that wasn't the full story. The camera
crew reveals that
they were never alone during filming, and in the outtakes analysts are interrupted
because they're not allowed to respond to certain questions. While it's not so extraordinary that
NSA employees might not be able to answer every question in an interview, it is
curious that 60 Minutes omitted those interruptions in favor of keeping up the impression of unprecedented access they seem
intent on selling.
The outtakes also include a response in which Alexander flat-out
dodges a tough question. At one point, Miller asks:
"Did the NSA actually find a foreign power that had identified this capability and
discussed using it offensively?" Alexander breaks eye contact and looks to a
group behind him. He simply responds, "I
need a time-out on that."
Again, the issue here isn't so much that he refused to
answer as much as 60 Minutes omitting
his response from the version of the program that aired on national television.
Miller says Americans
are just confused
After describing metadata in a voice-over, Miller lends
Alexander another helping hand.
"So you understand then, there might be a little confusion among
Americans who read in the newspaper that the NSA has vacuumed up, the
records of the telephone calls of every man, woman and child in the United
States for a period of years -- that sounds like spying on Americans."
Of course, Alexander clears up the "confusion," with Miller
handing him cues. "You just see that this number called this number," Miller
offers. Critics of the agency argue that metadata collection can be just as revealing as the content of communication -- such as the voice recording of a phone call or the text of an email -- but those critics are of course never allowed to counter the NSA's contention that metadata collection has no real consequences for individuals' privacy.
Even if Miller isn't inclined to take privacy concerns very seriously, he is nothing short of awe-struck in the way he describes NSA codebreakers. "Many
of the cryptologists skipped grades in school, earned master's degrees and Ph.D.s
and look more like they belong on a college campus than at the NSA," he says. He then watches one of them solve a Rubik's cube in "one minute and 35 seconds."
Journalist James Bamford put it most succintly:
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