- - Monday, January 20, 2014

King Solomon was immortalized for saving a baby’s life by threatening to split it between the real mother and a pretender. President Obama may become infamous for actually splitting the baby with his decision Friday to praise, and then undermine, critical intelligence-collection operations conducted by the National Security Agency.

In fact, much of the speech could have been given by any national security-minded American leader. It was full of the sort of statements that are not heard often enough these days, particularly from this commander in chief: “Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms … . Emerging threats from terrorist groups and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction place new and, in some ways, more complicated demands on our intelligence agencies.”

Mr. Obama added: “They were now asked to identify and target plotters in some of the most remote parts of the world and to anticipate the actions of networks that, by their very nature, could not be easily penetrated by spies or informants. And it is a testimony to the hard work and dedication of the men and women of our intelligence community that over the past decade we’ve made enormous strides in fulfilling this mission.”

The money quote in this part of the speech would seem to have been: “I did not stop these [intelligence-collection] programs wholesale, not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review and nothing that I have learned since indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.”


Then, there was the other part of the speech. It unveiled a series of decisions that would if not stop, certainly compromise those programs — seemingly without regard for the consequences the president warned against in the rest of his address. That was the part with the operational — rather than rhetorical — passages.

If there were any lingering doubt that there is national security fraud being perpetrated by Team Obama, the newly announced policy on intelligence collection should put it to rest.

For example, there was Mr. Obama’s change to the so-called Section 215 programs, whereby the NSA collects and analyzes what is known as phone-record “metadata” — numbers called by whom, when and for how long. The president declared that they would immediately begin transitioning to a new arrangement for holding and accessing such information. The problem is that the president not only dispensed with the current practice — whereby the government obtains such data from phone companies and Internet providers, and is able to examine it, but not the contents of conversations, without the time-consuming court orders that might be the difference between life and death in countering terrorist plots. He also rejected the two obvious alternatives: the companies that generate the records holding them or some new, private third-party entity doing so.

The president also declared that NSA would stop eavesdropping on “friendly and allied” foreign leaders. The obvious question is: Does that rule out monitoring communications between adversaries such as China’s Xi Jinping and “friends” such as Germany’s Angela Merkel about collaboration that may conflict with our vital interests? It is a serious mistake to rule out any opportunity to have what the military calls “situational awareness” about such adversaries, especially if they are making inroads in undermining our alliances.

Less obvious is what happens when a foreign leader is a putative ally, but does not behave like one. Mr. Obama says that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of his closest friends among his counterparts overseas. Yet, Mr. Erdogan has been fundamentally transforming his country’s secular Muslim democracy into an Islamist autocracy with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and even al Qaeda. Again, he should be monitored closely, not given a pass by U.S. intelligence.

Some intelligence professionals are consoling themselves with the notion that the president could have done even more damage; for instance, by going after national security letters the FBI uses to inform investigations and barring NSA’s efforts to break foreign encryption programs. Unfortunately, things will almost certainly get worse as Mr. Obama entrusted implementation to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. — including defining an alternative approach for the Section 215 programs by March 28.

The good news is that, on the eve of the president’s address and under the sponsorship of the Center for Security Policy, a distinguished group of national security and intelligence professionals offered in an open letter to Mr. Obama principles and recommendations that would provide a far more sound basis for guiding our necessary collection programs and policies. The center also produced last week a white paper critiquing the “reform” proposals of a like-minded group the president commissioned, proposals he partly adopted. It is to be urgently hoped that Congress will draw on such guidance as it must now perform damage control on the harm Team Obama is inflicting.

Mr. Obama has split the NSA baby. Split babies die. Unforgivably and needlessly, so may innocent Americans.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. was an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. He is president of the Center for Security Policy (SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program Secure Freedom Radio.

.