Spy vs. Spy

National security expert Jeffrey Taliaferro talks about Snowden, surveillance and the unthinkable future

Jeffrey Taliaferro

Last year Edward Snowden released thousands of classified documents revealing that the U.S. National Security Agency operates a massive worldwide surveillance program, compiling information stored by U.S. technology companies, spying on leaders of other countries and amassing emails and phone call information on U.S. citizens.

Snowden, who was working as a private contractor when he had access to the information, has been labeled a hero by some; others call him a traitor. This semester, Tufts political science and international relations students are debating Snowden’s actions, and digging deeper into the world of intelligence, in a new course, Intelligence and National Security, taught by Jeffrey Taliaferro, an associate professor of political science.

Taliaferro is a scholar of international security and U.S. foreign policy and has served on the CIA Historical Review Panel, a group of historians, political scientists and legal scholars that advise the agency on declassification. His course is an outgrowth of a book he is writing about U.S. foreign policy, but he says he had long been thinking about offering a class on U.S. intelligence, and with the Snowden incident, the timing was right.

Taliaferro, a Tisch College Faculty Fellow, sat down with Tufts Now recently to talk about the state of U.S. intelligence.

Tufts Now: What is your opinion about Snowden?

Jeffrey Taliaferro: I’m of two minds: Edward Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen and had signed a secrecy oath. He had access to highly classified information and raw data, and he violated the law. His revelations have been an embarrassment to the Obama administration and have arguably hurt U.S. intelligence. On the other hand, he has sparked a debate about privacy that we really needed to have, and haven’t had, since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It’s also getting us to look at the role of the U.S. intelligence community now that we don’t have rival great powers to contend with, like the Soviet Union, but instead have transnational terrorist groups, international money laundering and weak states that seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Snowden broke the law, and unlike Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the Pentagon Papers, he fled the United States. My personal view is that he’s a narcissist. If he truly believed in his principles—that the collection of this type of data was in violation of the Fourth Amendment, that these programs were wrong and the American people deserved to know—he should have been willing to face the consequences.

What potential harm did he do?

One area we’re focusing on in the course is cyber-espionage and cyber-warfare. This has been a concern of the U.S. intelligence community for the past decade, especially since China and Russia have been active in this area, targeting companies to steal proprietary information.

For a number of years, academics working in this area, as well as people in the intelligence community, have been calling for greater cooperation between the government and the private sector—Google, Apple, Microsoft as well as public utilities and major financial institutions—to harden their electronic systems, coordinate their defenses and develop a new type of relationship to deal with evolving threats.

Snowden’s revelations show these companies were turning over massive amounts of data to NSA. Now these companies are understandably wary of cooperating, and it has harmed the prospects for combating cyber-warfare.

Are there checks and balances on the intelligence community?

Yes. There is congressional oversight in the form of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. There are safeguards within the intelligence community. The position of director of national intelligence was created, separate from the CIA, so there is a so-called honest broker to advise the president on these issues; there’s also the National Security Council, which can adjudicate disputes among the intelligence groups. The appropriations process is another check. Although budget figures have historically not been made public, intelligence agencies have to go to Congress every year for appropriations.

The FISA court—the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—is another check; the NSA and FBI have to go to FISA to get warrants. There are 11 judges in the court appointed by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for fixed terms. But on the other hand, there is no one to argue against the government’s requests. The president has talked about creating an advocate, but whether it will be a reform and be useful, I can’t say. We really won’t know, because we won’t be privy to the court’s proceedings.

Should we be using private contractors for intelligence work?

In the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Cold War, there was a lot of talk about a peace dividend and a tremendous effort to slash both the defense budget and the budgets for intelligence programs. A lot of positions were eliminated and a lot of people retired; we lost expertise and that capacity was not built back up. The Snowden incident raises troubling questions about how well contractors charged with dealing with complex information are monitored and vetted, not just by superiors in their own companies, but by superiors in the federal agencies.

Has all this is surveillance prevented terrorism?

Whether these types of programs have prevented or helped prevent terror attacks is debatable. Certainly there’s an incentive for proponents of the NSA and for the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence to say yes, they have. On the other hand, you can’t really reveal information about specific plots that were foiled without revealing sources and methods. So we don’t really know.

Could 9/11 have been prevented?

I doubt it. The charge made against the CIA, the FBI and NSA and other intelligence agencies is that they failed to connect the dots. But that’s a very poor metaphor for the dilemmas of strategic intelligence. It would be useful if we were talking about a jigsaw puzzle with a defined number of pieces that had to fit together in one pattern. But there was fragmentary information. No one could conceive then of using commercial aircraft as guided missiles.

It’s easy to be critical and go back and say, Well, if only they had done this, that wouldn’t have happened. It’s far more complex than that. The future is always unthinkable, and the past is always inevitable. That’s what I tell my students every week. In international politics, the unthinkable happens on a regular basis.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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