NSA debate doesn't take place in a vacuum
January 17th, 2014
03:36 PM ET

NSA debate doesn't take place in a vacuum

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

President Barack Obama gave a much-anticipated speech on Friday outlining reforms in the American government cyber surveillance activities. But before I give you my reaction to the speech, I want to give you some context.

The American government and many U.S. companies are routinely the targets of cyber attacks from all over the world. The National Nuclear Security Administration, for example, which is an arm of the Energy Department and monitors America’s nuclear power plants, has reportedly been the target of 10 million cyber attacks a day. In contrast, the entire United Kingdom suffered 44 million cyber attacks in 2011.

Some of these are efforts to spy on America, enter into telecommunication systems, steal secrets from the government and private companies. Others are efforts to disrupt normal life or kill civilians. Last year, the head of the FBI testified that cyber attacks from foreign sources, often including terrorist groups, had surpassed traditional terrorism as the single most worrisome threat to the United States.

Why am I pointing all this out? I'm trying to remind you that this debate about American policy cannot take place in a vacuum. There are other countries out there, and groups of militants and terrorists, and they are actively using whatever cyber tools they have to tap into phone systems, emails, bank records, power plant operation systems, nuclear facilities, and more.

In that context, President Obama has taken on a worthy task, to see if the American intelligence establishment has gotten out of control as it deals with the threats and challenges out there. His speech suggests that the answer is no, the National Security Agency is not a rogue outfit.

But he acknowledged that two facts need to be kept in mind. First, that the United States has unique capabilities in this area and second, that after 9/11, the American government went too far in its efforts to search for and counter terrorist threats.

So he's proposed a series of reforms that strike me as a good balance between security and liberty. He has preserved the basic structure of American intelligence gathering while putting in more checks and safeguards. One case where he may have gone too far is in limiting America's spying on foreign leaders. This was probably inevitable and a political sop to foreign heads of government like Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It's a good idea for the United States to protect civil liberties, institute checks and balances, and have periodic reviews of the whole system. But let's also keep in mind that I haven't heard much about Chinese President Xi Jinping's intelligence reform proposals, and I don't expect we will be hearing much from him, or Russian President Vladimir Putin or many other leaders.

It's called the world's second oldest profession for a reason.

You can watch this take, and also Fareed’s interview with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.

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Topics: Cyber • United States

soundoff (71 Responses)
  1. chrissy

    @ Cyllarus, WHAT i SAID was IF the purpose of the NSA was to keep us safe from terrorists (and the govt has said foreign and or domestic terrorists) then WHY did they not do anything to PREVENT the boston marathon attack? They're the ones that have said everytime it comes up, thats the reason they are spying on american citizens, not i! So...are they just gonna willy nilly pick and choose which citizens they want to keep save or are they going to do their best to keep ALL citizens safe? And if its all they better get a different game plan than theyve had!

    January 19, 2014 at 2:29 am | Reply
  2. chrissy

    One thing ive noticed in my many adult years is THEY will SAY anything to get you to buy into whatever expensive program they have up their sleeves and at least 9 outta 10 times its not in OUR bert interest.

    January 19, 2014 at 2:37 am | Reply
  3. OnTheRoad

    Obama can say whatever he wants to say, but in the end, I still don't trust him, his administration or any government agency!

    January 19, 2014 at 10:26 am | Reply
  4. juan

    This kind of logic argument is flawless.Comparisions of a democratic society like the Usa with other non democratic realities is absurd.The Usa has a moral obligation to its citizens like no other cultures have,comunist sistems or whatsoever just dont care about.Of course a country must be carefull and construct firewalls to protect its systems and people,but also can not paranoically observe and tap evrything going around and inside its country.Please mr.zakaria,work more other kind of arguments.

    January 19, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  5. Boston

    I think if NSA was monitoring every Americans, it would have stopped Boston Marathon bombing. Becuase it probably wasn't monitoring every Americans like some of the people think, that is probably why Boston Marathon bombing wasn't detected.

    January 19, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  6. chrissy

    @ Boston, im sure they are monitoring every american citizen, but in all likelihood that would be an overwhelming amount of information.

    January 19, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  7. Rick McDaniel

    Obama is lying about putting ANY controls on the NSA, whatsoever, and we all KNOW that to be the truth.

    January 19, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  8. chrissy

    Too much im sure. So yes they DO need to change their "game plan" on how they can keep ALL citizens safe!

    January 19, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  9. chrissy

    And since this dept was created in 1952 you would THINK they wouldve had ample time to perfect it by now, wouldn't you? And if not then STOP pumping our hard earned tax dollars into it. Move on to something that works!!!

    January 19, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  10. Thomas Nichols

    Why doesn't he just sit in the office like a good little boy? He's not supposed to take on ANY task!

    January 19, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  11. chrissy

    WHO is this "he" you are speaking of @ Thomas Nichols? You can't possibly mean the POTUS can you? The POTUS that gets blamed for every wretched thing under the sun including that very same sun being too bright! Or not bright enough! Seriously!

    January 19, 2014 at 5:30 pm | Reply
  12. chrissy

    And its people with that same archaic method of thought that place the blame him for everything! I don't know, maybe you've been in a coma and just recently came out of it, if so my apology. And if so, then maybe you should start reading many of these posts. A vast majority do, in fact, blame Obama for all things bad!

    January 19, 2014 at 5:37 pm | Reply
  13. thecatwhispererblog

    Zacharia: stay true to your sycophantic nature and you'll go far as the propaganda minister.

    January 19, 2014 at 11:33 pm | Reply
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    January 20, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Reply
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    January 20, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  16. chrissy

    Oh good grief @ Jay jay! You really have resorted to an all time low! Who woulda ever thought this!

    January 20, 2014 at 8:24 pm | Reply
  17. Steve

    What a puff piece joke!

    January 23, 2014 at 12:10 am | Reply
  18. Rick McDaniel

    Now that an independent bipartisan panel has found the spying ILLEGAL........are you ready yet......to admit the truth about the spying???? It is being done for POLITCAL purposes to give Obama advantage over his opposition.........and to look for ways to get revenge, on anyone who opposes him.

    Just this week, a show that was based loosely on the Hastings killing, clearly showed us, what this regime is capable of doing. While it was just a show........it was very much on target, about how the government can kill you, and get away with it.

    January 24, 2014 at 11:21 am | Reply
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