- - Sunday, November 17, 2013

The current uproar over National Security Agency (NSA) activities both in this country and internationally as a result of Edward Snowden’s treasonous conduct has caused undue focus on U.S. intelligence capabilities to the net detriment of our national security. Sensitive intelligence leaks by Mr. Snowden have received wide coverage by European media under the byline of the hard-left activist Glenn Greenwald. Their objective seems to be to curtail U.S. superior intelligence-collection capabilities, which has kept us safe since Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Snowden’s leaks have left a false impression that the NSA is violating international norms, which clearly is not the case. Every major country is conducting similar electronic monitoring. For example, Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright recently stated that she knew the French were intercepting her private conversations when she was our U.N. ambassador. She went on to state that this should not be a surprise to anyone — countries routinely spy on each other. Therefore, the French outrage as expressed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius “that this is an assault on privacy and totally unacceptable” is particularly galling. Former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said, “Everyone is listening to everyone else.”

It should come as no surprise that both Russia and China maintain extensive intelligence-collection capabilities. In a shocking revelation, the now-deceased Russian President Boris Yeltsin related in the second volume of his memoirs that in 1996, he received a classified cable from Russian intelligence reporting that President Clinton was having a potentially dangerous sexual relationship with “intern” Monica Lewinsky. Yeltsin wrote that he pondered whether and how to exploit this intelligence. We know that this explosive intelligence got back to the Oval Office. The tipoff came from Miss Lewinsky, who in sworn testimony stated that in late March 1997, Mr. Clinton called her to the White House and stated he had reason to think that his phone conversations were being intercepted by a foreign embassy. He proposed that he and Monica come up with “cover stories” for their phone sex. The Kremlin knew, and Mr. Clinton knew the Kremlin knew. This raises the question of what impact did this have on Mr. Clinton’s policies toward Russia. Was the transfer of $4.6 billion in hard cash by the International Monetary Fund in 1998, with Mr. Clinton’s support reportedly over the objections of then-Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers to the Russian Central Bank (which was promptly stolen), related in any way to this intercept?

Since we know Russia had intercepts of the president’s phone sex, we have to assume China, with its aggressive cybercapability, could have also known. If so, did it affect Mr. Clinton’s policies toward China? Did Loral Space and Communications Ltd., under investigation by both Congress and the Justice Department in 1999 for turning over sensitive information to China, help correct the repeated failures of its Long March satellites?

The revelation that the United States has monitored the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as other international leaders has caused obvious frustrations, but it is a commonly acknowledged practice. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper stated in his testimony to members of the House Select Committee in Intelligence on Nov. 5 that targeting foreign leaders, including our allies, is a “fundamental” aspect of intelligence collection. The fact is that European governments seek NSA assistance in assessing terrorism risks from data the agency collects in war zones and elsewhere. It should be noted that when the Chinese hacked into Mrs. Merkel’s computer in 2007, there was no uproar — it was business as usual.

In all the hyperventilating over NSA’s “spying” capabilities, it is easy to overlook how critical NSA’s intelligence-collection capabilities are to supporting our military forces. The information and monitoring of our enemies’ communications is critical to success on the battlefield. NSA intelligence is a key element of planning any military operation. It provides the necessary information to our commanders so they can retain the initiative and achieve ultimate success in any conflict.

It was the NSA’s intercept information that allowed Judge Royce Lambert to find Iran guilty in Washington’s U.S. District Court in September 2007 of the bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut. NSA information contributed to Judge George Daniels’ decision in New York District Court in December 2011 that found Iran guilty of providing material and training support to the Sept. 11 hijackers. It was NSA intercepts that linked Iran and Hezbollah to the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish Cultural Center.

Most disturbing is President Obama’s knee-jerk response to the current uproar over NSA’s activities, which his administration had approved. Precluding NSA from carrying out its mission will not discourage our friends and allies, nor our potential enemies, including Russia, China and Iran, from continuing their spy activities to the net detriment of our national security. Mr. Obama must resist efforts to emasculate the NSA as he has already done to our military forces with his social engineering, which is destroying not only our military capabilities and traditions, but also the will to win.

Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.

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