Profiling John Miller, the Snowden dilemma, and options for national security whistleblowers

December 17, 2013

1. Profiling John Miller:

This story  in the Huffington Post last week speculated that CBS News senior correspondent John Miller might be appointed to run the New York City Police Department’s counterterrorism unit, now that Bill Bratton has been named police commissioner by Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

The story makes sense. Miller and Bratton are close friends and Bratton had Miller running counterterrorism in Los Angeles when he was police chief there. Miller — who began his career in the 1970s as a reporter for local New York City TV outlets before being promoted to the networks — had served as the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public affairs during Bratton’s first tour running the NYPD in 1994. And just before coming to CBS in 2011 he had held senior positions at the FBI and in the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

But here’s why CBS should do everything possible to make sure Miller doesn’t leave — and why a newspaper or magazine editor would be smart to assign a profile of him: If major league television news organizations named a Most Valuable Player the way baseball does, Miller would get the honor this year, hands down.

Whether on CBS’s resurgent morning and evening news shows, or on its “60 Minutes” juggernaut, Miller seems to have been everywhere since he joined the network, with scoops or with reports that dive deeper than the competition into stories that everyone else is covering. From the Boston Marathon bombing, to Sandy Hook, to drone strike strategy, to the Snowden leaks, to the shooting of TSA officers in Los Angeles, to the Justice Department’s leak investigations that targeted reporters, Miller consistently seems to have the smartest, sharpest take.

There are all kinds of intriguing angles a story about Miller could explore. For starters, is his success simply a matter of getting old law enforcement colleagues to leak to him more than to his competitors? Or, as I assume, is there more to it than that, including the possibility that his actual experience on the inside makes him more able not only to ask the right questions but to ask the right people?

Miller’s police work in recent years has gone well beyond the traditional press relations jobs that reporters usually do when they go into government. In Los Angeles, he oversaw not only counterterrorism but also the criminal intelligence unit, as well as the major case and bomb squads. In the office of the Director of National Intelligence in Washington, his title was deputy director of the analysis division.

So, I’d like to hear him talk about the trade-off between being a reporter covering what others are doing versus being one of the doers. With Bratton coming back to New York, that is again likely to be something Miller is thinking about.

2. The Snowden dilemma:

Speaking of Miller, he scored another coup Sunday night on “60 Minutes” by getting inside the NSA, where various officials, senior and junior, explained and even demonstrated the kind of code-breaking and data-gathering they do. (He also got this wonderful scooplet: One of the first places NSA leaker Edward Snowden hacked into, according to a top NSA official talking to Miller on camera, was a file containing the questions and answers for a test Snowden had to take to keep his job.)

Miller then got two senior NSA officials to open up on a painful dilemma they may be facing. It has been widely reported that Snowden has only revealed a fraction of the damaging files he made off with and that, in fact, he has material that if made public would be far more damaging than the bombshells that have been leaked so far. With that in mind, Miller asked two NSA bosses if they would favor giving Snowden amnesty if he agreed to return everything he had stolen and provided verifiable assurances that no one else, including his Chinese or Russian hosts, had retained copies of it.

One NSA leader – the man in charge of the investigation into what Snowden stole – said he would, in fact, be willing to consider such a deal. But his boss, NSA director Keith Alexander, said he wouldn’t. Apart from the issue that getting an assurance that no one else had copies of the material would seem next to impossible, Alexander told Miller that agreeing to such a deal would be the equivalent of allowing a bank robber who takes 50 hostages and kills ten to go free for promising not to kill the other 40.

Alexander also made the point that if Snowden were allowed to go free, future Snowdens would be encouraged to try the same thing.

That’s all true. But what about all the damage the disclosure of the rest of Snowden’s stolen secrets might cause? Both officials conceded to Miller that Snowden’s loot would give Russia, China and other potential enemies a mother lode of information about what we know and how we know it, as well as what we don’t know, all of which would make the U.S. much more vulnerable in any cyber- or armed confrontation.

So whether to attempt an amnesty deal with Snowden is a fascinating dilemma that I’d like to hear many more people weigh in on.

With editors like Tina Brown now going into the live events business (because, as Brown was recently quoted  as declaring, “I think you can have more satisfaction with live conversations”) someone ought to put this one up for public debate among intelligence experts and political leaders.

3. What can national security whistleblowers do?

The main argument Snowden has used to defend his leaks of information he promised to keep secret was that he had no choice — that he was forced to reveal what he believes to be NSA misconduct and overreaching the way he did because there are no avenues open to whistleblowers involved in national security work to use internal channels to expose and stop wrongdoing.

Angry officials at the intelligence agencies and even some members of Congress on the intelligence committees (such as California Senator Dianne Feinstein) have pushed back. They have argued that, of course, Snowden could have come forward without endangering his career, and that his revelations would have been considered seriously had he gone through the proper channels.

Yet I still haven’t seen a definitive story on what those proper channels are. What steps can someone like Snowden take to reveal what he thinks is dirty laundry if it’s all top secret? We now know that some members of Congress themselves, such as Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, have complained that they could not speak out about, let alone do anything about, overreaching by the security community after they were briefed in secret by those arguably doing the overreaching.

So, if members of Congress charged with oversight of the intelligence community were paralyzed, what could Snowden have done? Who could he have gone to if he thought it made no sense to tap German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, or that the NSA’s routine sweep of our emails and phone calls was wrong?

PHOTO: A picture of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), is seen on a computer screen displaying a page of a Chinese news website, in Beijing in this June 13, 2013 photo illustration. REUTERS/Jason Lee 

One comment

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Let’s hear Steven Brill actually right an op-ed or another book. Editors are paid to ask the questions.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive