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Who Gets The Blame For NSA Spying? NSA Says Not Us


Over at the NSA, officials say they welcome the president's policy review on surveillance. But they and other intelligence leaders bristle at the idea that they've overstepped their bounds in gathering information, both here and abroad. For months, the NSA has been on the defensive as a result of the Snowden disclosures.

NPR's Tom Gjelten says the agency is now trying to get out in front of the story.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: It was bad enough when the NSA was getting heat over its surveillance programs from civil libertarians and members of Congress. But when anonymous White House officials started saying they were shocked to learn the NSA was spying on foreign leaders, the agency apparently decided enough was enough.

Take the appearance by NSA Director Keith Alexander two weeks ago in Baltimore. A former U.S. ambassador, James Rosapepe, challenged Alexander to justify snooping on allies. Alexander used the question to make a point he was clearly itching to make that the NSA is required to snoop for information.

KEITH ALEXANDER: As an ambassador, you have part of the answer because we, the intelligence agencies, don't come up with the requirements. The policymakers come up with the requirements.

JAMES ROSAPEPE: And I agree with you. You're the implementer.

ALEXANDER: That's right.

ROSAPEPE: I'm asking you the question, what was the policy justification?

ALEXANDER: That's right. And so, one of those groups would have been let me think, hold on - oh, ambassadors.



GJELTEN: Ambassadors asking the NSA to snoop. Requirements is intel jargon for assignments, requests for specific information about some foreign leader or threat. And many of those requests to the NSA do come from other parts of the U.S. government.

The rap on the NSA these days is that it's the agency with an insatiable appetite for secrets. But maybe it's the other way around; maybe it's the White House or the State Department or the Pentagon with an insatiable demand for intelligence.

Leon Panetta was a White House chief of staff under President Clinton and a CIA director under President Obama. Here's what he said this week on the CBS program "Face the Nation."

LEON PANETTA: You know, these agencies don't go out and just gather intelligence on their own. They do it pursuant to priorities that are established by the National Security Council and the White House.

GJELTEN: In fact, not just the White House; across the whole U.S. government, agencies come to the NSA with requests for information - requirements, as intel professionals say - that can only be met through electronic intercepts, the NSA's specialty.

Richard Ledgett is the NSA executive in charge of dealing with the Snowden disclosures.

RICHARD LEDGETT: Standing requirements levied against NSA right now total about 36,000 pages. So there is a large demand for the information that NSA produces.

GJELTEN: Thirty-six thousand pages of intelligence requests at the NSA right now, including several thousand each from the State Department, the Pentagon, the FBI and other agencies.

Publicizing the number of those requests is one example of how the NSA is trying to get its side of the story told these days. It is a challenge. General Alexander says Edward Snowden may have taken as many as 200,000 documents. That would mean most of the secrets have yet to be disclosed. Some outsiders say the agency should take a really bold step and reveal on its own what's likely to come out, so it's not always reacting to disclosures.

Ledgett says that could actually happen.

LEDGETT: We're working on how we do that, because there are aspects that lend themselves to public discussion. And there are aspects that don't lend themselves to public discussion.

GJELTEN: One example, officials say Snowden took documents detailing some of those intelligence requests the NSA gets from government agencies. Those secrets have not yet been revealed. If they become public, it could reveal the gaps in U.S. intelligence. That's one of the things the government would not want to talk about.

LEDGETT: And so we have to walk our way through that and make sure that when the U.S. government proactively discloses something like this, it's done with all those wickets having been gone through.

GJELTEN: Nothing to announce just yet, Ledgett says. But there is now this effort across the whole U.S. government to put this NSA embarrassment behind.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.