Is U.S. Ready Rethink Sept. 11 Security Policies?
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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And I'm David Greene. Good morning. President Obama says he will soon propose changes at the National Security Agency. Former contractor Edward Snowden's disclosure of NSA surveillance programs widespread criticism and prompted a review of the agency's operations by Congress, the courts, and the White House. NPR's Tom Gjelten looks at whether the country is now at a turning point, ready to rethink the security policies in place since 9/11.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The country's intelligence agencies have come under scrutiny before. In the 1970s, a Senate committee found the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA were involved in improper - in some cases illegal - activities. Those disclosures led to major intelligence policy changes. This past year brought the news of secret NSA telephone and Internet surveillance operations. But Richard Clarke, a counter terrorism adviser under Presidents Clinton and Bush, argues this scandal doesn't measure up to what happened in the '70s.
RICHARD CLARKE: We don't see any indication that NSA or other government organizations are abusing their power. They're acting clearly within the laws as defined by the Congress and the courts. We don't see them doing investigations for political reasons, or picking on minorities, or religious groups or ethnic groups.
GJELTEN: Another embarrassment for U.S. intelligence agencies came 12 years ago when they didn't foresee the 9/11 attacks and then erroneously reported that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Those failures also brought a round of reforms. Michael Allen, who was an intelligence staffer at the Bush White House and then on Capitol Hill, tells the story of the post 9/11 changes in his book "Blinking Red." But he doubts the NSA surveillance controversy will produce a reform push like the one he saw back in 2004.
MICHAEL ALLEN: Everyone thought, well, we have got to do something about the intelligence community's performance. This time, I think you have a lot of people who want to reform some of the activities, but it's not quite clear where to go yet.
GJELTEN: U.S. intelligence agencies can claim success in helping to prevent another major terrorist attack. The questions now are whether they've dug too deep in their search for terrorists or considered the cost to privacy and civil liberties. The White House review panel concluded last month that too often we have over-reacted in periods of national crisis. Richard Clarke was a member of the group.
CLARKE: It's probably a good time, because we have cooler heads, to rethink some of the procedures and see if we can't do things in a way more consistent with our traditional values, while at the same time not diminishing our defenses.
GJELTEN: A fine-tuning of U.S. intelligence gathering at this point might not count as a major policy change comparable to the big intelligence reforms of the past. Jack Goldsmith is a Harvard law professor who served as a Justice Department lawyer under George W. Bush.
JACK GOLDSMITH: We've been in the process of calibrating our response to 9/11 ever since 9/11, in some respects going back, in some respects going forward. It's a constant process of learning new information about what the nature of the threat is, what the costs of our particular counterterrorism programs are, what the nation is willing to accept.
GJELTEN: The White House review group recommended that the NSA halt its bulk collection of telephone records, saying the records should be stored outside the government's direct control and searched only with a court order. One federal judge recently ruled that the bulk collection was unconstitutional; another judge concluded the opposite.
Members of Congress are similarly divided over what NSA changes, if any, are needed. Michael Allen says the second-guessing of U.S. counter terrorism policies in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's disclosures has reached the point that something will have to change.
ALLEN: I think there's going to have to be some sort of catharsis, either a legislative act or perhaps solid action by President Obama, for us to be able to say all right, well, we've addressed the NSA issues, and now it's time to move on.
GJELTEN: Critics and supporters of the intelligence agencies do agree the days of big budgets and broad authorities are over. And President Obama has already signaled he'll propose some changes in the way the NSA carries out its mission. But the memory of 9/11 eleven is fresh enough and the fear of terrorism still strong enough that a major course correction seems unlikely. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.