NSA aims to expand power: Eavesdropping agency looks to take over cybersecurity
The spy shop that brought you the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program wants to expand its power under President Barack Obama, the nation's top intelligence chief told Congress Wednesday, in a little-noticed intelligence grab.
While acknowledging that many distrust the agency for its role in eavesdropping, Obama Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair said he believed the agency should expand into a permanent role in handling government cybersecurity efforts.
In essence, his agency's move is an effort to take the responsibilities away from the Homeland Security Department. The head of Obama's cybersecurity transition team, Paul Kurtz, said he supports giving the NSA more power in handling cybersecurity.
Blair told a House committee: "The National Security Agency has the greatest repository of cyber talent."
"There are some wizards out there ... who can do stuff," Blair added. "I think that capability should be harnessed and built on."
Some critics have questioned whether the agency is already involved in surveilling domestic e-mail and other correspondence in searching for foreign intelligence threats.
Blair said that foreign countries increasingly post a threat to the US in the cybersecurity realm. The agency, in general, is tasked with foreign intelligence.
"A number of nations, including Russia and China, can disrupt elements of the U.S. information infrastructure," Blair remarked. "Cyber-defense is not a one-time fix; it requires a continual investment."
But he said that the NSA had "two strikes out" for its role in appearing to subvert civil liberties. Many critics say that Bush's wiretapping program was illegal, because taps did not go through proper court channels.
"The NSA is both intelligence and military, two strikes out in terms of the way some Americans think about a body that ought to be protecting their privacy and civil liberties," Blair said.
"I think there is a great deal of distrust of the National Security Agency and the intelligence community in general playing a role outside of the very narrowly circumscribed role because of some of the history of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] issue in years past," he continued. "So I would like the help of people like you who have studied this closely and served on commissions, the leadership of the committee and finding a way that the American people will have confidence in the supervision."
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