The slippery slope of secrecy

A New York Times editorial says: “If you want to keep a secret,” George Orwell advised in “1984,” “you must also hide it from yourself.” So the latest stricture seems to demand from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the federal uber-agency of all things secret. The office, which oversees 16 government intelligence agencies, issued a new policy in April that will seriously constrain the existing practice by which officials comment informally to the press and public when obvious issues are stirred by leaked information and unauthorized disclosures.

We consider this process an unavoidable but decidedly healthy way of life in Washington. But the updated policy sternly requires that an informed official who’s been regulating his own give-and-take in this important area now submit for advance approval an outline of the topics expected to arise in “unstructured or free-form discussions.” Otherwise, the policy memo states with a certain alarm, an official’s utterances could be construed as a validation of leaked information and “cause further harm to national security.”

The new prepublication review policy provides that the office’s current and former employees and contractors may not cite news reports based on leaks in their speeches, opinion articles, books, term papers or other unofficial writing, according to a report by Charlie Savage of The Times. Semaphore seems to have been overlooked as a medium, but we get the point.

The reassuring fact is that all manner of officials, from the president on down, occasionally speak authoritatively about an issue that might be informed by some bit of leaked information. It’s the mother’s milk of capital conversation. But don’t tell that to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., whose passion for keeping secrets at any cost — even his own reputation for honesty — has become legendary. It was Mr. Clapper who was asked at a Senate hearing last year whether the National Security Agency collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”

“No, sir,” responded Mr. Clapper, adding, “Not wittingly.” Soon came the disclosures — leaks by the torrent — about the N.S.A.’s vast data-mining program.

The new crackdown policy caused enough confusion and derision that the national security office subsequently denied there was anything new about it; just a reminder of past policy. But anyone could see this wasn’t so — once the new policy memo was leaked, of course.

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The U.S. Intelligence Community doesn’t understand the world in which we live

Josh Kerbel writes: In 2012, the once-mighty Eastman-Kodak company declared bankruptcy. It was an event that should have reverberated strongly with the United States Intelligence Community (IC) — and not just due to the obvious connection between imaging and spying. Rather, it should have resonated because in Kodak the IC could have glimpsed a reflection of itself: an organization so captivated by its past that it was too slow in changing along with its environment.

To understand the IC’s similar captivation and lethargy — to remain focused on classified collection in an era of increasingly ubiquitous, useful and unclassified data — one must first understand the type of problem around which the modern IC business model remains designed: the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was fundamentally a collection problem. That is to say, it was a closed system (i.e., a discrete entity) with clear edges and a hierarchical governance structure. Given that nature, knowing what was happening in the Soviet Union required the use of classified means of collection — most of which the IC alone possessed.

Today, however, the IC no longer has the luxury of watching a single discrete entity that demands classified collection in order to obtain relevant data. There is a much more expansive range of interconnected and complex challenges. These challenges — economic contagion, viral political and social instability, resource competition, migration, climate change, transnational organized crime, pandemics, proliferation, cyber security, terrorism, etc. — are interdependent phenomena, not discrete ”things.” As such, they are less collection issues than cognitive ones. To put it differently: relevant data about all these issues is widely available—the real challenge is to make sense of it.

This, of course, is a very different world for the IC, one in which it has little experience. Consequently, the IC — unfortunately, but not surprisingly — does what it knows; it grafts its own legacy experience and expertise — classified collection — onto the new challenges that loom. Accordingly, terrorism (a broad phenomenon that needs to be thought about contextually) becomes — mistakenly — about terrorists (distinct things that need to be targeted for collection). Indeed, the whole slew of complex issues mentioned above get artificially and erroneously reduced to discrete chunks. Not only is this dangerously simplistic, it effectively puts the IC on a divergent path from the increasingly complex world it is tasked to understand. [Continue reading...]

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ODNI issues misleading statement on policy changes

Steve Aftergood writes: “Recent media reports have misconstrued ODNI’s policy for pre-publication of information to be publicly released,” according to a May 9 statement that was issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The ODNI policy had been described in articles published in Secrecy News (ODNI Requires Pre-Publication Review of All Public Information, May 8) and in the New York Times (Intelligence Policy Bans Citation of Leaked Material by Charlie Savage, May 8).

ODNI said that the new pre-publication review policy was basically a consolidation of two previous policies (ODNI Instruction 80.14/2007-6, July 25, 2007, and ODNI Instruction 80.04, August 5, 2009) and that it represented nothing very new.

“The revised policy is not significantly different from the two previous policies,” the new ODNI statement asserted.

But that assertion is hard to understand, since the text of the revised policy appears significantly different from its predecessors in several respects.

First and foremost, the previous policies focused on protection of classified information, while the revised policy casts a much broader net. [Continue reading...]

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The increasing isolation of the American national security state

Jack Shafer writes: The nation’s top spy has prohibited all of his spies from talking with reporters about “intelligence-related information” unless officially authorized to speak. Intelligence Community Directive 119, signed by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper last month and made public Monday in a report by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, threatens to reduce the flow of information from the national security establishment to the press — and hence the public.

As Aftergood notes, Directive 119 does not merely bar intelligence community employees from sharing classified intelligence information with reporters. It also bars the discussion with the media of unclassified intelligence information “related” to intelligence. Under Directive 119, any and all conversations between spooks and reporters not explicitly authorized by top officials will be criminalized at the worst or potentially put intelligence employees out of a job at the least. The same discussion of unclassified matters between an intelligence community employee and a non-reporter would be allowed, Aftergood further notes.

Directive 119 increases the insularity of the national security state, making the public less safe, not more. Until this directive was issued, intelligence community employees could provide subtext and context for the stories produced by the national security press without breaking the law. Starting now, every news story about the national security establishment that rates disfavor with the national security establishment — no matter how innocuous — will rate a full-bore investigation of sources by authorities. [Continue reading...]

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I was against Pollard’s release before I was for it

Foreign Policy: In January 1999, a bipartisan group of senators sent a strongly worded letter to President Bill Clinton urging him not to commute the prison sentence of Jonathan Pollard, who was then in the 12th year of a life sentence for spying for Israel. Freeing Pollard, the lawmakers said, would “imply a condonation of spying against the United States by an ally,” would overlook the “enormity” of Pollard’s offenses and the damage he had caused to national security, and would undermine the United States’ ability to share secrets with foreign governments. Among the 60 signatories of the letter was John Kerry, then a senator from Massachusetts. Fifteen years later, Kerry is singing a very different tune.

Now, as the secretary of state, Kerry has supported using Pollard’s potential release as a bargaining chip in the Obama administration’s attempts to salvage the flailing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The outcome of those talks was in doubt Tuesday as President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority opted to press for statehood through the United Nations, a move that Israel has long said would as a deal-breaker. A planned meeting between Kerry and Abbas was canceled as a result. Abbas said he’d made the move because Israel hadn’t released a fourth round of Palestinian prisoners. The Obama administration had envisioned potentially releasing Pollard — who is seen as a national hero by many Israelis — to help persuade Jerusalem to let those Palestinian prisoners go.

Kerry wasn’t alone in opposing Pollard’s release in 1999, when the issue was similarly under consideration as a possible sweetener for Israel during its on-again, off-again talks with the Palestinians. Kerry’s allies at the time included then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, now the secretary of defense, as well as Dianne Feinstein, the current chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Mitch McConnell, the current Senate minority leader; John McCain, a former Republican nominee for president; and Patrick Leahy, now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kerry and Hagel in particular now find themselves in the awkward position of serving in an administration that is considering letting Pollard go, exactly the outcome they once railed against. A spokesperson for Hagel said, “The secretary will keep private his counsel for the president.” A spokesperson for Kerry wouldn’t discuss details of any negotiations. Neither Hagel’s nor Kerry’s spokesperson addressed the positions they’d taken in 1999. White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Tuesday that Obama, who has the sole authority to commute Pollard’s sentence or grant him a pardon, “has not made a decision” on the question.

The signatories largely had strong pro-Israel voting records, but their contempt for Pollard crossed party lines and was striking in its ferocity. “Any grant of clemency would now be viewed as an acquiescence to external political pressures and a vindication of Pollard’s specious claims of unfairness and victimization…. This would send the wrong signal to employees within the Intelligence Community. It is an inviolable principle that those entrusted with America’s secrets must protect them, without exception, irrespective of their own personal views or sympathies.” [Continue reading...]

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Intelligence Community rethinking its approach to transparency and secrecy

a13-iconSteven Aftergood writes: By leaking classified intelligence documents, Edward Snowden transformed public awareness of the scale and scope of U.S. intelligence surveillance programs. But his actions are proving to be no less consequential for national security secrecy policy.

“These leaks have forced the Intelligence Community to rethink our approach to transparency and secrecy,” said Robert S. Litt, General Counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He spoke at a March 18 Freedom of Information Day program sponsored by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University Washington College of Law.

Mr. Litt made it clear that he did not approve of the Snowden leaks, which he said were unlawful and had “seriously damaged our national security.” Yet he stressed that the leaks have also prompted a reconsideration of previously accepted patterns of secrecy.

“We have had to reassess how we strike the balance between the need to keep secret the sensitive sources, methods and targets of our intelligence activities, and the goal of transparency with the American people about the rules and policies governing those activities.” [Continue reading...]

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U.S. network to place federal workers under continuous surveillance

n13-iconThe Associated Press reports: U.S. intelligence officials are planning a sweeping system of electronic monitoring that would tap into government, financial and other databases to scan the behavior of many of the 5 million federal employees with secret clearances, current and former officials told The Associated Press.

The system is intended to identify rogue agents, corrupt officials and leakers, and draws on a Defense Department model under development for more than a decade, according to officials and documents reviewed by the AP.

Intelligence officials have long wanted a computerized system that could continuously monitor employees, in part to prevent cases similar to former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden. His disclosures bared secretive U.S. surveillance operations.

An administration review of the government’s security clearance process due this month is expected to support continuous monitoring as part of a package of comprehensive changes. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. intelligence not sharp enough to spot Russian invasion of Ukraine

a13-iconThe Daily Beast reports: On Thursday night, the best assessment from the U.S. intelligence community — and for that matter most experts observing events in Ukraine — was that Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine. Less than 24 hours later, however, there are reports from the ground of Russian troops pushing into the Ukrainian province of Crimea; the newly-installed Crimean prime minister has appealed to Putin to help him secure the country; Putin, in turn, is officially asking for parliament’s permission to send Russian forces into Ukraine. It’s not a full-blown invasion—at least, not yet. But it’s not the picture U.S. analysts were painting just a day before, either.

There was good reason to think Putin wouldn’t do it. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov told Secretary of State John Kerry that Russia respected the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. U.S. intelligence assessments concluded that the 150,000-man Russian military exercises announced by Putin on Wednesday were not preparations for an invasion of Ukraine because no medical units accompanied the troops. And Russian and U.S. diplomats were still working on Iran and Syrian diplomacy. All of this followed a successful Winter Olympic games for Putin’s Russia.

Yet private security contractors, working for the Russian military, seized control of two airports in Crimea on Friday. And Ukrainian border officials said that Russian cargo planes had landed inside the province, and that 10 military helicopters flew into Ukrainian airspace.

U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence on the fast moving situation in Ukraine tell The Daily Beast that analytic products from the intelligence community this week did not discount the prospect of Russian provocations and even light incursions in the Russian majority province of Crimea, the home of Russia’s fleet in the Black Sea.

Nonetheless, until Friday, no one anticipated a Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory. [Continue reading...]

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James Clapper: Director of National Fear

o13-iconMichael Cohen writes: James Clapper is very worried. It’s not the first time.

Last week the man who serves as America’s Director of National Intelligence trudged up to Capitol Hill to tell the assembled members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee (pdf) that the annual worldwide threat assessment, put together by the intelligence community, has filled him with dread. He told the room:

Looking back over my more than half a century in intelligence, I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.

That is some scary stuff.

However, if you think you’ve heard this before from Clapper … well you have.

Last year he appeared before Congress for a similar purpose and, lo and behold, he was very, very concerned then too (pdf):

I will say that my almost 50 years in intelligence, I do not recall a period in which we confront a more diverse array of threats, crises and challenges around the world. This year’s threat assessment illustrates how dramatically the world and our threat environment are changing.

And here he was in 2012 testifying (pdf) on that year’s threat assessment report, “Never has there been, in my almost 49-year career in intelligence, a more complex and interdependent array of challenges than that we face today.”

Of course, one must consider the possibility that over the past five decades the world has never been as dangerous, complex and challenging as it’s been over the past three years (putting aside for a moment that whole “threat of nuclear holocaust” that defined much of the 60s, 70s and 80s.) If, however, you’re skeptical about this, well you have good reason because Clapper’s alarmist tone is hardly matched by the threats he cites. [Continue reading...]

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White House viewed surveillance report as ‘liberal’

Politico: A member of President Barack Obama’s hand-picked surveillance review group said Friday the White House was swayed by U.S. intelligence officials sympathetic to the National Security Agency and ultimately viewed the group’s findings “as a liberal report.”

University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone said that, after receiving the surveillance group’s report, Obama spent a month meeting “with many of the same people we had met with at great length, members of the intelligence community, members of the intelligence committees from Congress largely on one side of the picture.”

“And instead of our report being truly understood as a middle ground, based upon taking into account all of those perspectives on both sides of the spectrum, I think the White House got moved by thinking of our report as a liberal report,” Stone said.

Stone, speaking during a panel discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, said intelligence officials were “pushing [Obama] and the White House generally more to what we can call the right.”

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Don’t trust Jonathan Pollard

M.E. Bowman writes: Jonathan Jay Pollard liked to imagine his life was greater than it was. He told fanciful tales to peers while at Stanford in the 1970s, including that he was a Mossad officer and that he had once been captured and tortured by Arabs.

After graduation, he lied to superiors and friends about his exploits and his qualifications. By the mid-1980s, he had used his position as a civilian naval intelligence analyst to become an enthusiastic and willing spy for profit by passing state secrets to Israel.

The Department of Justice was prepared to file a variety of charges against him, but in a plea agreement all except the most serious were dropped. Mr. Pollard pleaded guilty to espionage in 1987.

At the time of his arrest and trial, I was the liaison officer for the Department of Defense to the Department of Justice, and the coordinator of an investigation into the damage Mr. Pollard’s treachery had done to the American intelligence community.

Every few years, there is an orchestrated attempt to forge popular support for Mr. Pollard’s release. It is now happening again. In addition to calls for clemency coming from across the Israeli political spectrum, Lawrence J. Korb, the assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon at the time of Mr. Polland’s arrest, has said that his punishment was disproportionate to his offense. R. James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence echoed that sentiment at a security conference in November. Last month, when Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Israel, there was a rash of hopeful reports in the Israeli press that he was considering releasing Mr. Pollard in exchange for Israeli concessions.

Mr. Pollard’s apologists portray him as a sort of dual patriot: loyal to the United States, but also motivated to help Israel. In fact, he was primarily a venal and selfish person who sought to get rich. [Continue reading...]

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A spy world reshaped by Edward Snowden

The Los Angeles Times reports: After news reports that the National Security Agency had secretly monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone calls, America’s top intelligence official was asked why congressional oversight committees were kept in the dark.

Shouldn’t Congress have been briefed, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) asked James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, about a spying operation that would embarrass the U.S. government if exposed?

“Well, sir, there are many things we do in intelligence that, if revealed, would have the potential for all kinds of blowback,” Clapper replied at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in October. “The conduct of intelligence is premised on the notion that we can do it secretly, and we don’t count on it being revealed in the newspaper.”

Not these days. [Continue reading...]

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Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community?

Ryan Lizza writes: On March 12, 2013, James R. Clapper appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to discuss the threats facing America. Clapper, who is seventy-two, is a retired Air Force general and Barack Obama’s director of National Intelligence, in charge of overseeing the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and fourteen other U.S. spy agencies. Clapper is bald, with a gray goatee and rimless spectacles, and his affect is intimidatingly bureaucratic. The fifteen-member Intelligence Committee was created in the nineteen-seventies, after a series of investigations revealed that the N.S.A. and the C.I.A. had, for years, been illegally spying on Americans. The panel’s mission is to conduct “vigilant legislative oversight” of the intelligence community, but more often it treats senior intelligence officials like matinée idols. As the senators took turns at the microphone, greeting Clapper with anodyne statements and inquiries, he obligingly led them on a tour of the dangers posed by homegrown extremists, far-flung terrorist groups, and emerging nuclear powers.

“This hearing is really a unique opportunity to inform the American public to the extent we can about the threats we face as a nation, and worldwide,” Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and the committee’s chairman, said at one point. She asked committee members to “refrain from asking questions here that have classified answers.” Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, asked about the lessons of the terrorist attack in Benghazi. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, asked about the dangers of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Toward the end of the hearing, Feinstein turned to Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, also a Democrat, who had a final question. The two senators have been friends. Feinstein held a baby shower for Wyden and his wife, Nancy Bass, before the birth of twins, in 2007. But, since then, their increasingly divergent views on intelligence policy have strained the relationship. “This is an issue where we just have a difference of opinion,” Wyden told me. Feinstein often uses the committee to bolster the tools that spy agencies say they need to protect the country, and Wyden has been increasingly concerned about privacy rights. For almost a decade, he has been trying to force intelligence officials like Clapper to be more forthcoming about spy programs that gather information about Americans who have no connection to terrorism.

Wyden had an uneasy kind of vindication in June, three months after Clapper’s appearance, when Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the N.S.A., leaked pages and pages of classified N.S.A. documents. They showed that, for the past twelve years, the agency has been running programs that secretly collect detailed information about the phone and Internet usage of Americans. The programs have been plagued by compliance issues, and the legal arguments justifying the surveillance regime have been kept from view. Wyden has long been aware of the programs and of the agency’s appalling compliance record, and has tried everything short of disclosing classified information to warn the public. At the March panel, he looked down at Clapper as if he were about to eat a long-delayed meal. [Continue reading...]

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Intelligence contractors donate millions to intelligence watchdogs in Congress

The Center for Public Integrity: Most intelligence-related spending by the U.S. government is subject to independent scrutiny and monitoring by a small number of people — primarily, the 40 lawmakers assigned to the House and Senate intelligence committees, plus the roughly 100-member staffs of those two committees.

The lawmakers are meant to provide a key check on waste, fraud, abuse, and potential illegalities, since intelligence-related spending and activities are ordinarily well outside the public’s view.

According to a new report, however, every single one of those lawmakers has received campaign funds from twenty of the largest contractors providing intelligence services to the Defense Department, which accounted for a signficant portion of the nation’s overall $75.4 billion intelligence budget in 2012.

The total, election-related benefits for current intelligence committee members, including ex-officio members, provided by companies in the industry they directly oversee amount to at least $3.7 million from the companies’ PACs and employees since 2005, according to the report released Dec. 9 by Maplight.org, a nonpartisan group that investigates campaign finance issues.

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The specter of global domination

spectreWhen Ian Flemming created the fictional SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), a terrorist organisation aimed at world domination, he chose a familiar icon — the octopus — long favored by those who want to evoke images of evil. Its tentacles represent strength, stealth, ugliness, vast reach, and ruthlessness.

nrolFor the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which chose a world-grasping octopus and the slogan “Nothing is Beyond Our Reach” to adorn its latest spy satellite that launched from California on Thursday, the octopus represents “a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature.”

That’s an accurate description of an octopus as a creature but not of an octopus as a symbol.

While the mission of NROL-39 is classified, it is believed to be a remnant of the Future Imagery Architecture, a program which was described in the New York Times in 2007 as “perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects.”

nrol-39

In a recent interview with the BBC, Glenn Greenwald said:

The goal of the United States government and the UK government, its closest surveillance ally, is to eliminate all privacy globally, by which I mean, to make every form of electronic communication by and between all human beings, collected, stored, analyzed, and monitored by the U.S. and its four English-speaking Five Eyes partners in the surveillance world.

One can view NROL-39 and its choice of symbols as yet another example of this relentless drive towards global domination in surveillance that Greenwald describes, or, one can apply a bit of analysis in a more fruitful, realistic but perhaps less hyperbolic direction.

As news reports appeared showing the NRO’s poor choice of imagery, I expect that inside the Pentagon and across the intelligence community, there was no shortage of individuals who smacked their own foreheads as they wondered: who could be so clueless? U.S. intelligence already has a massive image problem. It just got worse.

As a defense establishment agency, I’m sure the NRO does not have an artist-in-residence who is given a free hand to design and deploy a spy satellite logo of their choice. On the contrary, like any other government bureaucracy, the NRO no doubt has a careful review process through which draft designs are viewed and approved or rejected. So it’s very unlikely that when NROL-39 blasted into orbit, the global dominating octopus on its side lacked any of the sign-offs in the stages of authorization required by the agency. In other words, government officials across multiple ranks of seniority saw the logo and said: “Looks good to me.”

What the octopus logo reveals says much less about the ability of the intelligence agencies to control the world than it says about the competence and judgement of the people in charge.

The NRO is run by Betty J. Sapp and she isn’t a rocket scientist — business management is supposedly her expertise.

When those aspects of an intelligence agency’s work that are on public display evince this level of cluelessness, there’s no reason to imagine that under a cloak of secrecy it operations are more efficient.

We probably have less reason to be worried about our freedoms being curtailed than we have reason to be angry about the vast waste of resources all incurred in the name of national security.

octopus-domination

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A fraying of the public/private surveillance partnership

Bruce Schneier writes: The public/private surveillance partnership between the NSA and corporate data collectors is starting to fray. The reason is sunlight. The publicity resulting from the Snowden documents has made companies think twice before allowing the NSA access to their users’ and customers’ data.

Pre-Snowden, there was no downside to cooperating with the NSA. If the NSA asked you for copies of all your Internet traffic, or to put backdoors into your security software, you could assume that your cooperation would forever remain secret. To be fair, not every corporation cooperated willingly. Some fought in court. But it seems that a lot of them, telcos and backbone providers especially, were happy to give the NSA unfettered access to everything. Post-Snowden, this is changing. Now that many companies’ cooperation has become public, they’re facing a PR backlash from customers and users who are upset that their data is flowing to the NSA. And this is costing those companies business.

How much is unclear. In July, right after the PRISM revelations, the Cloud Security Alliance reported that US cloud companies could lose $35 billion over the next three years, mostly due to losses of foreign sales. Surely that number has increased as outrage over NSA spying continues to build in Europe and elsewhere. There is no similar report for software sales, although I have attended private meetings where several large US software companies complained about the loss of foreign sales. On the hardware side, IBM is losing business in China. The US telecom companies are also suffering: AT&T is losing business worldwide.

This is the new reality. The rules of secrecy are different, and companies have to assume that their responses to NSA data demands will become public. This means there is now a significant cost to cooperating, and a corresponding benefit to fighting. [Continue reading...]

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