spy games

60 Minutes Gift Wrapped a Puff Piece for the NSA

Photo: CBS

Last night’s episode of 60 Minutes on CBS included what basically amounted to an uncritical commercial for the embattled National Security Agency, led by a journalist who used to be a government colleague. While the show — which has faced recent problems of its own, from the Benghazi debacle to the Amazon drone PR stunt — celebrated its own “unprecedented access to NSA headquarters,” it’s clear the meeting was on the NSA’s terms. In fact, NSA Director General Keith Alexander “made the call to invite us in,” a 60 Minutes producer admitted. They pretty much let him say his piece, nodding along excitedly.

Full disclosure, I once worked in the office of the director of National Intelligence where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates,” said the reporter John Miller at the start of the segment. Then Alexander went right into his pitch: “The fact is, we’re not collecting everybody’s e-mail, we’re not collecting everybody’s phone things, we’re not listening to that,” he said. “Our job is foreign intelligence and we’re very good at that.”

While no critics of the NSA programs were given a chance to make the case against the potentially extralegal spying, which has resulted in international outrage, CBS did assist in the discrediting of master leaker Edward Snowden. Take, for example, this galling exchange with the head of the Snowden task force within the NSA, following Miller’s dismissive description of Snowden as a “twentysomething-year-old, high-school-dropout contractor”:

John Miller: Did you sit in his chair?
Rick Ledgett: I did not. I couldn’t bring myself to do that. […]

At home, they discovered Snowden had some strange habits.

Rick Ledgett: He would work on the computer with a hood that covered the computer screen and covered his head and shoulders, so that he could work and his girlfriend couldn’t see what he was doing.
John Miller: That’s pretty strange, sitting at your computer kind of covered by a sheet over your head and the screen?
Rick Ledgett: Agreed.

Media observers, some less personally involved in the Snowden leaks than others, could not believe what they were watching:

CBS’s John Miller, though, knew what he was doing. “General Alexander agreed to talk to us because he believes the NSA has not told its story well,” he explained in a behind-the-scenes segment. “I think we asked the hardest questions we could ask,” he said. “We’ve heard plenty from the critics. We’ve heard a lot from Edward Snowden.”

Still, “You also don’t want this to be a puff piece,” he added. We got one anyway.

The cherry on top is that Miller is currently in the running, reportedly, for a “top counterterrorism or intelligence role” in the NYPD when his old pal Bill Bratton takes over, something that was not disclosed by 60 Minutes

He’s certainly qualified. (Miller held a similar job as chief of counterterrorism under Bratton at the LAPD in addition to his work in national intelligence.) “He wants the badge, the gun and the adrenaline — to be in the center of the action,” a source told the New York Post of Miller, calling it “a 99.44 percent done deal.” And on top of describing Bill Bratton as “one of my best friends,” this was a great audition. 

60 Minutes Hearts the NSA