WASHINGTON (WUSA9) --- "A lot of the people who are really focused on privacy and civil liberties and so on, resist the notion of NSA providing cybersecurity for the United States. The truth is they are our principle weapon in this conflict."
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he worked on an NSA plan to safeguard civil liberties, but red tape got in the way.
"Getting anything done in this town, even in the middle of two wars, was as I say in the book, 'so damnably difficult,' even when it was the obvious right thing to do."
Gates explained his frustrations, a reoccurring theme of his book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. In front of a packed crowd he engaged in a Q&A session with POLITICO Chief White House Correspondent Mike Allen inside the Mayflower Hotel on Thursday evening.
When asked about a possible 'Cyber 9-11' attack on the United States, Gates said there is "very real danger" from terrorist groups or a body of organized crime.
"We have the capability to protect our critical infrastructure, but bureaucratic and political issues have us so wrapped around the axle that we can't figure out whom to give the authority to defend us."
He dismissed the idea of creating a "civilian clone" of the NSA.
"My argument all along has been, 'it's never gonna happen.' There isn't enough money, there isn't enough time and there isn't enough human capital to be able to do that."
Gates said he worked with Janet Napolitano, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, to create a NSA deal that "we thought could actually work."
He would appoint a person within DHS to be deputy director of the NSA. This deputy director would have the support of a full general counsel.
Firewalls would be put in place to prevent the NSA from getting into "the privacy and civil liberties areas that worry a lot of people. But would allow on an instantaneous basis, to task NSA with protecting the electrical grid or the transportation grid or the air transport grid."
He said the plan was created and approved by the President in a month.
"So in about five weeks, we came up with a solution that for the time being, parted the bureaucratic red sea, in terms of creating the ability of NSA to be tasked by DHS to protect critical infrastructure."
But the successful creation of the plan did not follow with implementation.
"I would say within weeks of the President authorizing us to sign that Memorandum of Understanding, the bureaucratic waters closed again, and we're pretty much back where we started."
Despite his frustrations on the job, Gates said he was never disloyal or showed public disagreement with President Obama. He agreed with all of the President's policies up until the "Arab Spring, Egypt and Libya." He defended his book as a way to let the troops "know the score" of the "war in Washington" during his tenure.
"It was trying to wage or manage two wars in the midst of all of the polarization and paralysis here in Washington that was so frustrating."
He said he hasn't written anything new in his book. But he mentioned others who did leak information.
"The senior White House staff, on a routine basis, was leaking to the press the President's reservations, how the [war] strategy was wrong. How most of the people in the White House were opposed to the strategy. And the tensions between the President and the senior military. This was not a secret."