The National Security Agency (NSA) is being relentlessly pilloried by resentful detractors abroad — and strident critics on the left and right at home — which could force the Obama administration to weaken the intelligence community's ability to protect critical U.S. interests, former CIA head Michael Hayden wrote Thursday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed
Hayden, who was CIA director from 2006 to 2009, cautioned that the White House "needs to be careful not to overachieve."
It is not the place of an American president to invite other countries to tell him "what aspects of our espionage make them uncomfortable," Hayden wrote.
In the 1990s, criticism of the CIA's human-intelligence operations led to reforms that held back the agency's ability to collect information from "bad" people.
"If we tell signals-intelligence collectors in the NSA that they cannot listen to any 'good people' similar damage is in store," Hayden warned. The agency only recovered from the order not to talk to "bad people" after 9/11.
Hayden insisted that "a formal framework for national intelligence priorities" is regularly agreed upon at the National Security Council level. So when U.S. policy makers confirm they want to better understand the strategy of a friendly, but headstrong ally, "What is it they think they are asking the intelligence community to do?"
Even if European leaders are pandering — theatrically — to their outraged constituencies, and notwithstanding that some concerns about privacy are legitimate, the end result could be "reduced cooperation with the U.S. on a variety of issues," he cautioned.
America's allies ought to appreciate that, "It is bad politics and bad policy for good friends to put their partners in politically impossible situations, and recent reports of aggressive American espionage have done just that."
Espionage may well not be compatible with a "political culture that every day demands more transparency and more public accountability," Hayden wrote. A balance is needed that preserves the confidence Americans have in what their spy agencies are doing with the ability of the intelligence community to get the job done.
Morale is also a factor. Hayden warned that the men and women of the intelligence community — whose work is being branded "excessive" "unconstrained" and "out of control" — could lose heart.
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