“Together, we all prevail”

For a 1,500-word Shane Harris piece that could be part of Lawfare’s Empathy for Wiretappers series (brought to you by NSA contractor Northrop Grumman!), Stewart Baker blames the White House failure to mount a vocal defense of NSA on John Brennan’s departure.

“I think actually this is the first signal that John Brennan is gone,” said Baker, the former NSA general counsel. “I think that if Brennan had still been there he would have immediately appreciated the importance, and communicated that to the president, of defending the program.”

John Brennan, of course, played a key role in rationalizing Dick Cheney’s illegal wiretap program, and therefore not only has a stake in protecting NSA, but also in insisting that the current program — which is just a rehashed version of the illegal program — is critical for detecting terrorists.

By comparison, Lisa Monaco, whom Baker implicitly criticizes (and the article explicitly notes) for her silence in the face of NSA’s problems, headed DOJ’s National Security Division from 2010 2011 until this year, and so likely had to deal with the aftermath of the phone dragnet problems, the full brunt of the Internet dragnet problems (which purportedly got shut down under her tenure), and the upstream collection problems — all three “features” of the illegal program that never got shut down when it moved under FISA Court supervision, and got called “bugs” when DOJ (Monaco!) had to reveal them.

And while the piece provides interesting new details about White House’s chilly relationship with a man they’ve nevertheless given vastly increasing amounts of power to,

The weak backing from top administration officials has aggravated the relationship between Alexander and the White House, where he has never been warmly embraced.


Alexander has never been especially close to Obama or White House officials. Some thought he had tried to amass too much surveillance authority without appreciating the legal constraints on his agency, according to a former administration official. “I don’t understand why the White House didn’t throw Alexander under the bus,” the official added.

It actually doesn’t consider whether the Administration might be pursuing a conscious strategy of weakening Alexander’s considerable power (I have no reason to believe they are, but I can imagine why they might want to weaken someone who has only expanded his power since 2005 and got caught in serial fuck-ups as well).

It also doesn’t consider the possibility that one reason NSA employees are dispirited is because they’re learning about programs that violate the self-image they’ve got of their Agency.

Former intelligence officials who remain in regular contact with those still in government say that morale at the NSA is low, both because of the reaction to leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden, which put the normally secretive agency under intense scrutiny, and because of budget cutbacks and the continuing government shutdown, which has left some employees furloughed without pay.

Ah well. The NSA spokesperson is issuing slogans, so all is well in the national security world.

An NSA spokesperson downplayed any rift between the agency and the administration. “National security is a team sport. For us, collaboration is built into the very fabric of who we are,” said Vanee Vines. “There is no truth to rumors of dissension between NSA and the administration regarding the Agency’s mission to help defend the nation and save lives. Together, we all prevail.”

Together, we all prevail.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

17 replies
  1. allan says:

    “The President is uncomfortable defending this. Maybe he spends too much time reading blogs on the left.”

    If only.

  2. orionATL says:

    ew writes:

    “..it actually doesn’t consider whether the Administration might be pursuing a conscious strategy of weakening Alexander’s considerable power (I have no reason to believe they are…”

    i have long thought that is exactly what the white house has been doing.

    how else can one explain the w’house’s tolerance for a stream of articles over FIVE months, each one detailing some aspect of illegality, impropriety, dishonesty, incompetence, ignorance?

    how is it that o’s pal in the doj hasn’t shut down newspapers and legally attacked reporters?

    how is it there have been no midnight raids or assassinations of greenwald or poitras?

    the white house must be secretly delighted that snowden and media allies are doing what the w’house did not have the political courage to do.

    story by story by story, the picture of alexander’s foolish, largely useless folly is being painted. grain by grain by grain, his power and presumed competence are draining away. the sucker can’t even keep the lights on in utah.

    soon it will be time for him to retire with honor, as do all our other incompetent military commanders.

    “day is done, gone the sun…”

  3. Arbusto says:

    @orionATL: It could be damning by faint praise, or incompetence. With O’s track record on managing anything, I’d go for the latter, such as forcing Bolivian’s President to divert his Plane to Austria because someone thought Snowden was aboard. While I’ve realized O is far right on many areas, he is especially so on the security state and defense, possibly as an investment after he leaves office and heads toward he dotage. NSA and the security apparatchik will hopefully implode from their own lack brought to light, but O won’t be anymore effective or willing to affect that change than he has been elsewhere.

  4. Nigel says:

    Stewart Baker blames the White House failure to mount a vocal defense of NSA on John Brennan’s departure

    This being the same Stewart Baker who is not prepared to defend his own blog posts ?
    (I don’t frequent Volokh that often but Baker’s recent efforts are the first time I’ve seen three posts in a row where comments have not been allowed.)

    I think he means mount a vocal propaganda campaign, rather than vocal defense.

  5. joanneleon says:

    Your title is the statement that jumped out at me too, after reading the two-page article. Of course the V for Vendetta movie came to mind. The “England prevails” phrase that all loyal establishment figures and hacks used as a sign off.

    I’m not surprised that the White House hasn’t officially thrown Alexander under the bus. Yet. I think he’s waiting until the Guardian is finished publishing stories and after the Congressional hearings are over, etc. Then Alexander and Clapper are gone. The signs that he’s going under the bus are all around. They are the ones who have to testify at the hearings. Michael Hayden threw him under the bus in that long FP article.

    However, you have to wonder about whether it’s a tricky thing to throw a guy like that under the bus when he’s had access to all that data for years and when he’s regularly in partnership with so many other intel agencie, and now hackers too (whom the govt secretly pays for zero day exploits and god knows what else).

  6. der says:

    Reading the article in another way I can see Dick Cheney’s Dark Side moles fingerprints all over it, and the Team America players meme – “Democrats are pussies, and national security weaklings” when naming 2 of the Administrations “feminists who ruined everything” – Susan Rice & Lisa Monaco.

    And for me further confirmation that the generals and the Pentagon run things. It’s also reasonable to see that Obama could be pretty pissed at Alexander for letting Snowden happen, after all Will Smith and Gene Hackman were found out and chased down without the whole world knowing about it why couldn’t this skinny libertarian drop-out wimp be known about and silenced. Snowden has embarrassed the country and therefore Obama (as he narcissistically sees it, like Bush and those many before him, the President is the Country). The White Houses lukewarm push back shouldn’t be a surprise if it’s hope is that the public will grow bored and tire of reading about Snowden and the expected/accepted government intrusive secret police state spying. Alexander, like Petreaus, inside the government is mostly a celebrity threat to the prickly Great One Decider. He’s here to stay, in uniform or out, a Hayden like leech attached to the National Security teet.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: Yeah, but then I think about how willing Obama has been to fire generals, up to and including McChrystal and (tho he had moved to CIA) Petraeus. If he doesn’t like him, why not fire him?

  8. Valley Girl says:


    ~the white house must be secretly delighted that snowden and media allies are doing what the w’house did not have the political courage to do.~

    comment above seems very unlike you- I found it surprising. imho you are heading into that eleven dimensional chess thingy…

  9. thatvisionthing says:

    An NSA spokesperson downplayed any rift between the agency and the administration. “National security is a team sport. For us, collaboration is built into the very fabric of who we are,” said Vanee Vines. “There is no truth to rumors of dissension between NSA and the administration regarding the Agency’s mission to help defend the nation and save lives. Together, we all prevail.”

    From V:

    V: Good evening, London. … I thought we could mark this November the 5th, a day that is sadly no longer remembered, by taking some time out of our daily lives to sit down and have a little chat. There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.

    Lewis Prothero: Did you like that? USA… Ulcered Sphincter of Arse-erica, I mean what else can you say? Here was a country that had everything, absolutely everything. And now, 20 years later, is what? The world’s biggest leper colony. Why? Godlessness. Let me say that again… Godlessness. It wasn’t the war they started. It wasn’t the plague they created. It was Judgement. No one escapes their past. No one escapes Judgement. You think he’s not up there? You think he’s not watching over this country? How else can you explain it? He tested us, but we came through. We did what we had to do. Islington. Enfield. I was there, I saw it all. Immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals, terrorists. Disease-ridden degenerates. They had to go. Strength through unity. Unity through faith. I’m a God-fearing Englishman and I’m goddamn proud of it!

    Lewis Prothero: [shouting into phone] England prevails because *I* say it does!

    All together now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZGNFmugLS4

  10. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    The NSA’s lack of support by the White House now is nothing compared to the lack of support they will have in 6-12 months.

    The revelations about their activities have so far largely been focused on their spying on individuals. And while serious and causing some major irritation, that irritation is mostly from individuals expressing indignant outrage for breach of privacy, and carries only limited economic repercussions.

    But, with the latest revelations about economic espionage against Brazil, and soon to be exposed revelations about economic espionage against Spain and France, and one can only guess how many other countries after that, the outrage will be that of sovereign nations and could and likely will result in major economic punishment.

    Snowden did say that the NSA spying was largely economic.

    And if we look at the Diplomatic Cables the thing that we learned that surprised everyone is the extent to which State diplomats were actually salesmen for US corporations. In short, the Cablegate realization that may have been most damaging was learning about all the economic activities carried out by every foreign office.

    We are now learning that the spying was largely for economic advantage. And, no nation is going to be pleased to hear that.

    Imagine if each of these nations that are victims of this espionage simply banned the US from doing business. No US Banks allowed to operate within these nations, no US mining, oil and gas companies, no US telecom, no US pharmaceuticals, and on and no. No US business able to do business in Brazil, Spain, France, etc, etc, etc.

    NSA’s support will not just be limited, NSA will be rolled up like the Stasi and terminated in its entirety.

    Yup, their lack of White House support is the least of their problems.

  11. lysias says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): State Dept. has always supported U.S. corporations, but NSA, when I was in military signals intelligence, steered well clear of economic stuff. I guess they changed their thinking when they had such difficulty coping with new communications technologies in the 1990’s (a major subject of Bamford’s Body of Secrets).

  12. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    @lysias: I could envisage it being one of those unexpected benefits that often show up when researching new avenues. Initially, NSA just started doing much wider collection of legitimate intelligence information and realized they were seeing valuable economic information, recognized they could probably get more and went for it.

    Overtime this economic info became so valuable that pursuing it largely overtook their primary tasking. They likely also made no judgements about the ethical validity of doing so nor the huge damage that would result if they were found out.

    Oversight might have assessed the ethics/risk and recognized the major downside but little or no oversight seems to have existed and what there was seems as ethically challenged as the operatives they were to be controlling.

    BUT, there is a component of this spying I’ve raised before and with proof now that it has economic advantages I will raise again.

    The whole thing about spending billion$ to keep people safe from a terrorist risk that represents a 1 in 40,000,000 chance it will result in a US citizen’s death never made sense to me. And I always suspected there was another benefit that could not be named but that did justify this expenditure.

    If this espionage returned profits to US corporations that far exceeded the cost, and it could all be hidden behind the terror banner, that would be a justification, unethical, but a justification none the less. Any amount of $’s thus invested is returning multiples of that amount in economic benefit, so no amount is too much.

    So, with this economic advantage now known as a primary benefit all the expenditure is easy to understand.

    As an aside, I now wonder if the claims that spying on individuals is not excessive, or being misused, may actually be partially true. Yes it is being done, but it is not the primary focus and is not being abused; the focus is spying on foreign corporations and gaining economic advantage and the collection of individual’s details is largely chaff that is ignored or discarded.

    Of course the NSA and oversight gang can’t under any circumstance admit this as it is so damaging that it will definitely have major economic repercussions, as I outlined above.

  13. thatvisionthing says:


    Evey: [reads] Vi Veri Veniversum Vivus Vici.
    V: By the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe.

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