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Congress must hold senior officials accountable for constitutional failures

NSA Data Center outside.jpg

FILE: An aerial view of the NSA's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. (AP)

My 6-year-old son recently informed me that he’d be the “door holder” for his class during break time as I dropped him off at school. 

He went on to tell me how much he had liked being the “line leader” they day before because “he got to help his class.” 

He spoke with pride in being of service to his fellow students and that he had been entrusted to lead.

What a concept – entrusted to lead.

We have leaders in positions of great authority – men and women who have sworn to uphold, support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We’ve entrusted them to lead…and they do pretty much everything but that.

It is clear my six year old son has more leadership, and more interest in public good and public service than current policymakers.

Let’s examine for a moment the recent National Security Agency (NSA) debacle. The tale of government overreach has presented challenges and calls for debate.  However, one of the factors lost in all the headlines is the cost to American taxpayers.  When a high school drop-out can pull down upwards of $120K, that is indicative of a larger system that is bloated and out of control.

Yes – it was brilliant – General Keith Alexander’s defense on Capitol Hill regarding the NSA program phone and data collection programs.  And how very impressive that they have “disrupted or prevented 50 terrorist attacks” since 9/11.  

But however glossy and rich this defense was, it failed on two levels.

First, NSA is part of a larger global team of intelligence, law enforcement and military operators that all, in coordination, had to act together.  This was part of an effort, and cannot be used successfully in a vacuum.

Second, there is the important matter of Fourth Amendment overreach which remains unaddressed and unanswered by any of Alexander’s comments.  

Please note that 100% of the examples used by Alexander had foreign sources or starting points. 

Once a U.S. citizen or entity is contacted by or affiliated with a terrorist individual or group, they become a valid interest by NSA; otherwise there is no possible justification for gathering any information on an innocent U.S. citizen to be retained by NSA or any other element of the intelligence community.

General Alexander, the director of NSA and commander of Cyber Command, sits atop an empire. The budget of NSA, not including Cyber Command, is estimated to be approximately $10 billion per year according to Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. If you add Cyber Command into the picture we are talking about an effective doubling of the NSA budget to $20 billion.   

Thanks to this we have created the Utah Data Center – a 1.5 million square foot building that will be collecting more data than the human mind can comprehend – at yottabyte levels – a yottabyteis equal to 500 quintillion pages. 

This does not make us safer; this does not help us identify and neutralize terrorists

How is it possible that a government agency charged with defending national security instead spends billions of dollars on programs that do nothing to protect us? It is possible because of a leadership failure.

Blame where blame is due. Congress has a large role to play in this debacle. 

Congress funded a very expensive and highly dubious intelligence program that is lead by officers who do not have any understanding of ethics or doing the right thing.  

Congress often knows (I’ve been told directly) that they are “lied to by executive branch” officers – and they accept it.   

Congressman Sensenbrenner, the author of the Patriot Act,  is now acting to curtail what most now recognize as constitutional overreach regarding the amalgamation of data of U.S. citizens (not accused of any wrongdoing or crime).

There should have been no doubt in the minds of any of the current leadership – Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, Keith Alexander or anyone else who was fully “read-in” to the scope and focus of the program that it was inappropriately focused and unable to accomplish its two primary missions: focus on foreign terrorist targets and produce actionable information to target foreign terrorist groups and individuals. 

But instead of adjusting to these facts, the intelligence agency leaders doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on their bad acts, building the “colossus” with Petabytes/Zetabytes of storage in the Utah hinterlands. 

The need is for data quality not data quantity –and by increasing the scope and access to unusable/irrelevant data you are increasing the chances of failure, not success, in obtaining “actionable” data necessary to disrupt or prevent acts of terror.

It is clear my 6-year-old son has more leadership, and more interest in public good and public service than current policymakers.  

This is a failure of leadership in the highest form at the highest level. Shame on these public servants for not only squandering the public trust, but also squandering the public’s money – money that has been spent on this massive data amalgamation and storage will not improve security or protect the American public in any demonstrative way. 

There is little doubt that instead of being held accountable, both Clapper and Alexander will go off to work for some defense contractor for some seven figure salary when they are done. And we, as the tax payers, are left holding the bill for a program that will not work, cannot work, and has now retained information (illegally) on every single adult in the nation.

Now is the time for Congress to perform its Constitutional oversight function. They need to hold these senior officers accountable for their Constitutional failures. 

They need to curtail the bad acts by these so-called leaders in their creation of the monstrous Utah Data Center. 

They need to force NSA and Cyber Command to focus on foreign threats by funding programs that protect our national security and cutting the programs that do not. With our tax dollars and our national security at stake, Congress must step up.

Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer (ret.) is a CIA trained former senior intelligence officer and the New York Times bestselling author of Operation "Dark Heart: Spycraft an Special Operations on the Frontlines of Afghanistan – And The Path to Victory."  His latest book is The Last Line. He is a senior fellow with both the London Center for Policy Research and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. The opinions reflected here are those solely of Lt. Col. Shaffer -- and are not the opinion of the London Center for Policy Research (LCPR), the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (CADS) or of any other group or organization with which Lt. Col. Shaffer is affiliated.