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Robert E. Prasch Headshot

To Reform the NSA, Slash Its Budget

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Thus far, the "debate" over the breadth and depth of the National Security Agency's (NSA) overreach has exclusively addressed its programs -- what it does, what it is authorized to do, its institutionalized contempt for our Constitution, etc. However, as citizens and voters, we must understand that this discussion is solely and exclusively for our own edification. What mere citizens think means next to nothing to the leadership of the NSA and its major contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton (other than its being a public relations nuisance). Yes, we can be sure that they are listening -- listening to too much for too long is exactly the issue here -- but we need to understand that public criticism, or pushing a reluctant Congress to enact a few guidelines over this procedure or that process, will not even begin to change the culture of defiance that has come to dominate a clearly out-of-control NSA.

To get the NSA to actually "hear" what we are saying we must speak to them in a language that they and their primary contractors readily comprehend. The language they understand, one that is guaranteed to get their full and undivided attention, is any discussion of their annual budget.

The first rule of rhetoric is to know your audience. To whom are we talking? The answer, of course, is the leadership of the NSA. Now, let us recall that the NSA is not managed by a representative sample of everyday American citizens. No, the people managing the NSA (and the CIA, DEA, etc.) are career bureaucrats in a secret, non-transparent and unaccountable bureaucracy. They have come to manage these massive bureaucracies, in our name, as a reward for successfully navigating the shoals of Washington "insider" politics over the course of decades. As with other bloated and unaccountable bureaucracies, such as Homeland Security or Too Big To Fail financial institutions like AIG or Bank of America, one does not advance by undermining the perceived interests of the organization's current leadership or its largest outside stakeholders -- and for a Washington bureaucracy that means the outside contractors fattening themselves at the trough.

Stated simply, the NSA is managed by people who respond solely and exclusively to power and opportunity. They did not succeed in their careers by getting hung up on anything so prosaic as "principle" or the Constitutional rights of the American people, and they know it. They also understand that they will face no penalty for blithely ignoring the rulings of a pathetically amenable (and toothless) FISA court, or misrepresenting themselves and their agency's activities to Congressional committees or the American public.

As with any government bureaucracy, the individuals who rise most quickly are those most capable of facilitating the short term ends of the organization -- and this invariably means growth -- growth in both the size and scope of the organization's writ and mission. For that reason, the individuals who manage the NSA neither speak nor think in terms of "rights," "privacy" or "safeguards." We, as concerned citizens, may speak of these things, but I guarantee that the NSA will not actually hear you. The communication gap is every bit as severe as that which you experience when you read fine poetry to a skunk.

If you want the attention of the individuals directing the NSA, if you want them to change their ways, you must speak to them about cutting their annual budget. This is best done if you start by demonstrating resolve -- by slashing their budget by a large arbitrary amount. Arbitrary is the crucial word in the previous sentence. Do not allow the NSA to bog us down in the details of their programs, their perceived needs, chatter about abstract "terrorist threats," etc. All such utterances are distractions. Take a large chunk out of their budget and I assure you that those running the agency will begin talking like long-time ACLU lawyers.

Let us consider a hypothetical. Let us suppose that the Congressional Democratic leadership were to get serious about restoring our civil liberties to where they were, say, during the Nixon Administration. Now, don't laugh. I did state that this is a hypothetical. Anyway, if such were the case, what should be done?

The first and most urgent reform is to have Congress publish NSA's budget. As with any other substantive reform, the NSA, its outside contractors, and proxies will yell and scream that our "enemies" will benefit from this knowledge and that the end of the world as we know it will be upon us, etc. But, as thinking adults not employed by Fox News or the White House, we can readily dismiss such nonsense. In this world of uncertainty, we can rest assured that intelligence agencies across the globe -- friend and foe alike -- have a fairly detailed understanding of the size and uses of the NSA's budget. Frankly, as an American citizen, I am entitled to know as much about the NSA's budget as the governments of Russia, China or France.

Second, we must get NSA's attention by immediately and significantly slashing their annual budget. Since the agency is so secretive, and we have to act while the political spotlight is focused their outrageous conduct, we can only guess at an appropriate number. Being naturally cautious, I would suggest 33 percent immediately and another 10 percent for each of the next two years. My guess is that cuts of this size would likely reduce the agency's budget to where it was in about 2006. But, I admit to being something of an optimist.

If we can accomplish these two simple steps, I am confident that the leadership of the NSA will be anxious to demonstrate its commitment to the values, rights, and traditions we collectively know as the United States Constitution. I am even more certain that the well-compensated patriots of Booz Allen Hamilton will undergo a similar conversion experience.

The president has repeatedly told us that he wants to reestablish "trust" between the NSA and the American people (Huh? Would an American adult ever trust a secret government bureaucracy -- don't answer that, I want to maintain the fantasy that they would not). But let us take up the president's agenda anyway. Once we have substantially cut NSA's budget and brought the healthy disinfectant of bright sunlight to its operations, I venture to guess that its leadership will move quickly and aggressively to establish that agency as one of America's most trusted organizations. "Yes, We Can!"