Comment: Post-9/11 Intelligence Turf Wars Continue
March 13, 2009 1 Comment
By IAN ALLEN* | intelNews.org |
The stern assurances given to Americans after 9/11, that destructive turf wars between US intelligence agencies would stop, appear to be evaporating. Earlier this week, Rod Beckstrom, who headed the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), announced his resignation amidst a bitter row between the DHS and the National Security Agency (NSA) over the oversight of American cybersecurity. In a letter (.pdf) addressed to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, and carbon-copied to nearly every senior US intelligence and defense official, Beckstrom blasted the lack of “appropriate support [for NCSC] during the last administration”, as well as having to wrestle with “various roadblocks engineered within [DHS] by the Office of Management and Budget”. Most of all, Beckstrom, an industry entrepreneur who remained in his NCSC post for less than a year, accused the NSA of subverting NCSC’s cybersecurity role by trying to “subjugate” and “control” NCSC.
Beckstrom’s allegations are direct references to an ongoing turf war between DHS and NSA over which of the two organizations will be appointed by the Obama administration to oversee the safety of America’s cyberspace. NSA, the gigantic agency whose mission is to conduct worldwide communications surveillance, as well as to supervise the security of the US government’s internal communications, claims through its government proponents that it alone has the technical expertise and computational power to assume the role of America’s cyber-guardian. On the other side, DHS, the main offspring of the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 security reshuffle, fears that NSA will prove unable to restrain itself from using its cybersecurity role as a platform to intensify its surveillance on American citizens’ communications. Rod Beckstrom expressed precisely this fear in his resignation letter, in which he argued that concentrating so much supervisory authority in the hands of the NSA would pose significant “threats to our democratic processes [by allowing] all top level government security and monitoring [to be] handled by any one organization”. Speaking later about his resignation, he explained that “we have a federated government, decentralized for a reason [...]. Our founding fathers never believed that power should be concentrated in one place. And what today is more powerful than information?”, he asked.
Key figures in the Obama administration do not appear to share Beckstrom’s concerns. Speaking before the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Dennis Blair, argued (.pdf) last month that NSA “has the greatest repository of cyber talent” and “because of the offensive mission that they have, they’re the ones who know best”. Admiral Blair’s support for the NSA is shared by Paul Kurtz, who headed US President Barack Obama’s cybersecurity subgroup during the administration’s transitional period, from November 2008 to January 2009. Speaking about US cybersecurity, on February 20, 2009, Kurtz echoed DNI Blair by stating that “NSA has the vast majority of expertise in information assurance inside the US government”.
Others, like Amit Yoran, a former CIA man and DHS official, beg to differ. Testifying earlier this week before a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives, Yoran agreed that DHS has shown “inefficiency and leadership failure” and its efforts have been marred by “administrative incompetence and political infighting”. He nevertheless warned that American cybersecurity will be “in grave peril if [it is allowed to be] dominated by the intelligence community”, which has historically shown disregard for democratic transparency and “will always prioritize its own collection efforts [i.e. spying] over the defensive and protection mission of our government’s and nation’s digital systems”.
It is not clear which path Barack Obama will follow. Even though key administration insiders, such as Dennis Blair and Paul Kurtz, have sided with the NSA, the Agency’s dismal civil liberties record after 9/11 has worsened its relations with most Democrats, as well as with many libertarian-leaning Republicans. The latter strongly favor DHS for the role of cybersecurity administrator. Meanwhile, however, turf warfare and political infighting among the 16 different US intelligence agencies is alive and well, and is already taking a heavy toll on American security objectives.
* Ian Allen has spent nearly twenty-five years working in intelligence-related fields, and is now active in intelligence consulting. He has worked in North America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently living and working in South Korea. He is co-founder and Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.