Noam Chomsky: A leading principle of international relations theory is that the state’s highest priority is to ensure security. As Cold War strategist George F. Kennan formulated the standard view, government is created “to assure order and justice internally and to provide for the common defense.”
The proposition seems plausible, almost self-evident, until we look more closely and ask: Security for whom? For the general population? For state power itself? For dominant domestic constituencies?
Depending on what we mean, the credibility of the proposition ranges from negligible to very high.
Security for state power is at the high extreme, as illustrated by the efforts that states exert to protect themselves from the scrutiny of their own populations.
In an interview on German TV, Edward J. Snowden said that his “breaking point” was “seeing Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress” by denying the existence of a domestic spying program conducted by the National Security Agency.
Snowden elaborated that “The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public.”
The same could be justly said by Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and other courageous figures who acted on the same democratic principle.
The government stance is quite different: The public doesn’t have the right to know because security thus is undermined—severely so, as officials assert. [Continue reading...]
Who can keep up? The revelations — mainly thanks to the documents Edward Snowden took from the National Security Agency — are never-ending. Just this week, we learned that GCHQ, the British intelligence agency whose activities are interwoven with the NSA’s, used a program called Optic Nerve to intercept and store “the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing” (including Americans). As the Guardian reported, “In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery — including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications — from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.” Yahoo is now outraged; the Internet Association, a trade group for the giants of the industry, has condemned the program; and three U.S. senators announced an investigation of possible NSA involvement.
At about the same time, Glenn Greenwald revealed that GCHQ was engaging in “extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction.” These included “‘false flag operations’ (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting ‘negative information’ on various forums.” Again, this was evidently happening with the knowledge, if not collusion, of the NSA.
Meanwhile, with Washington entering a self-proclaimed era of “reform” when it comes to spying on Americans, we just got a striking you-can’t-win-for-losing Catch-22 message from the front lines of the surveillance wars. Claiming that recent pending lawsuits make it necessary, the Obama administration has requested permission to hang on to phone metadata “on billions of U.S. phone calls indefinitely instead of destroying it after five years.” Hmmm… this may be the only example we have of the U.S. intelligence community fighting tooth and nail to stick to the letter of the law.
And mind you, that’s just dipping a toe in the positively oceanic global surveillance waters. It’s been nine months since the Snowden revelations began and who can keep it all straight? Nonetheless, it’s possible to put everything we know so far into a simple message about our American world-in-the-making: the surveillance part of the national security state has, in its own mind, no boundaries at all. As a result, there is no one, nor any part of communications life on this planet, that is out of bounds to our surveillers.
Given what we now know, it’s easy to ignore what we don’t know about how our government is acting in our name. That’s why the figure of the whistleblower — and the Obama administration’s urge to suppress whistleblowing of any sort — remains so important. How are we ever to know anything about the workings of that secret state of ours if someone doesn’t tell us? As a result, TomDispatch remains dedicated to documenting the Obama administration’s ongoing war against those who have the urge to bring the secret workings of the national security state to our attention — especially in cases like Robert MacLean’s, where otherwise little notice is paid in the mainstream media. So today, we’re publishing a follow-up to our earlier story about MacLean, again by TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren. Himself a State Department whistleblower, Van Buren takes another deep dive into the dark territory he has dubbed post-Constitutional America. Tom Engelhardt
Silencing whistleblowers Obama-style
Supreme Court edition?
By Peter Van Buren
The Obama administration has just opened a new front in its ongoing war on whistleblowers. It’s taking its case against one man, former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Air Marshal Robert MacLean, all the way to the Supreme Court. So hold on, because we’re going back down the rabbit hole with the Most Transparent Administration ever.
Despite all the talk by Washington insiders about how whistleblowers like Edward Snowden should work through the system rather than bring their concerns directly into the public sphere, MacLean is living proof of the hell of trying to do so. Through the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice (DOJ) wants to use MacLean’s case to further limit what kinds of information can qualify for statutory whistleblowing protections. If the DOJ gets its way, only information that the government thinks is appropriate — a contradiction in terms when it comes to whistleblowing — could be revealed. Such a restriction would gut the legal protections of the Whistleblower Protection Act and have a chilling effect on future acts of conscience.
Having lost its case against MacLean in the lower courts, the DOJ is seeking to win in front of the Supreme Court. If heard by the Supremes — and there’s no guarantee of that — this would represent that body’s first federal whistleblower case of the post-9/11 era. And if it were to rule for the government, even more information about an out-of-control executive branch will disappear under the dark umbrella of “national security.”
The Wall Street Journal reports: The departing National Security Agency chief offered senators an unexpected option Thursday for restructuring the agency’s U.S. phone-data collection program: narrow it to obtain only terrorism-related data.
The remarks by NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander were striking because the government’s justification for the data-collection program has been that the NSA needs the full database of Americans’ call records to uncover otherwise unknown terrorist connections.
But Gen. Alexander instead signaled that the information the NSA needs about terrorist connections might be obtainable without first collecting what officials have termed “the whole haystack” of U.S. phone data.
Explaining the option, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that intelligence agencies could “look at what data you actually need and get only that data.”
This is the argument many privacy advocates have made since the details of the phone-data-collection program were disclosed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. They say it is unnecessary to obtain records from millions of ordinary Americans to seek out terrorists.
Gen. Alexander suggested that teasing out the relevant data would involve a mechanism under which the NSA would make classified requests to phone companies asking for data only for phone numbers associated with terrorist suspects. [Continue reading...]
I didn’t hear the actual testimony, but the way it is reported here makes it sound like Alexander is suggesting that mass collection of U.S. phone data might no longer be necessary.
But the only thing that he seems to be saying may be unnecessary is for the NSA to do the collection.
For the NSA to make classified requests to the phone companies, it is those companies that would need to be doing the mass data collection.
And maybe that now looks like an appealing option not only because it would provide the NSA with extra constitutional protection; it might also create opportunities for even more extensive data collection with even less oversight.
Bruce Schneier writes: Increasingly, we are watched not by people but by algorithms. Amazon and Netflix track the books we buy and the movies we stream, and suggest other books and movies based on our habits. Google and Facebook watch what we do and what we say, and show us advertisements based on our behavior. Google even modifies our web search results based on our previous behavior. Smartphone navigation apps watch us as we drive, and update suggested route information based on traffic congestion. And the National Security Agency, of course, monitors our phone calls, emails and locations, then uses that information to try to identify terrorists.
Documents provided by Edwards Snowden and revealed by the Guardian today show that the UK spy agency GHCQ, with help from the NSA, has been collecting millions of webcam images from innocent Yahoo users. And that speaks to a key distinction in the age of algorithmic surveillance: is it really okay for a computer to monitor you online, and for that data collection and analysis only to count as a potential privacy invasion when a person sees it? I say it’s not, and the latest Snowden leaks only make more clear how important this distinction is.
The robots-vs-spies divide is especially important as we decide what to do about NSA and GCHQ surveillance. The spy community and the Justice Department have reported back early on President Obama’s request for changing how the NSA “collects” your data, but the potential reforms – FBI monitoring, holding on to your phone records and more – still largely depend on what the meaning of “collects” is. [Continue reading...]
Those who claim a special privilege to define words in their own way, defying the dictates of everyday usage, are also claiming a right to employ their own definitions of truthfulness and lying. This might have some legal utility, but the price for going this route is that language, thus constrained, becomes worthless.
As Schneier notes, Google has also fallen back on the dumb-machine defense when claiming that it does not read our email.
Back when Gmail was introduced, this was Google’s defense, too, about its context-sensitive advertising. Googles computers examine each individual email and insert an advertisement nearby, related to the contents of your email. But no person at Google reads any Gmail messages; only a computer does. In the words of one Google executive: “Worrying about a computer reading your email is like worrying about your dog seeing you naked”.
The absence of human eyes does not add a layer of privacy. On the contrary it constitutes a glaring lack of oversight by promoting a fiction: that what people don’t see, must be harmless.
Google is not a dumb companion, eager to please and dependably obedient; its only loyalty is to its own commercial interests and it currently sees those interests best served by pursuing an ambition to dominate the field of machine learning.
The data analysis being performed by computers enables surveillance more sweeping than could ever be carried out by people.
Although most Americans seem more afraid of government than commerce, the powers being exercised by the NSA are dwarfed by those that have been acquired by companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Indeed the intelligence community has been doing little more than opportunistically taking a piggyback ride on the shoulders of Silicon Valley.
The Guardian reports: Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ, with aid from the US National Security Agency, intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing, secret documents reveal.
GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.
In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery – including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.
Yahoo reacted furiously to the webcam interception when approached by the Guardian. The company denied any prior knowledge of the program, accusing the agencies of “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”. [Continue reading...]
Kevin Gosztola reports: During a day-long conference at the Georgetown University Law Center, Dr. George Ellard, the inspector general for the National Security Agency, spoke for the first time about the disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In addressing the alleged damage caused by Snowden’s disclosures he compared Snowden to Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent and convicted spy who sold secrets to the Russians.
Ellard has been the NSA’s inspector general since 2007. In this capacity he has not spoken in a public forum before so that made what he said additionally significant. Had Snowden made the decision to report his concerns through approved NSA channels it would have been through Ellard’s office.
Ellard was part of a panel discussion on whether there was a “new paradigm of leaking.” The panel included Alex Abdo, staff attorney of the ACLU National Security Project, Georgetown Law professor David Cole and Kenneth Wainstein, former Homeland Security Advisor and former Assistant Attorney General for National Security.
When Ellard began his prepared statements, he acknowledged that he had approached this event with some level of trepidation. [Continue reading...]
The Wall Street Journal reports that administration lawyers have presented the White House with four options for reforming the NSA’s mass phone-surveillance program the first of which would require phone companies to store such data and deliver specific search requests.
A second option presented to the White House would have a government agency other than the NSA hold the data, according to a U.S. official. Candidates for this option could include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which some current and former intelligence officials have recommended.
Another possibility floated in policy circles was turning the program over to the custody of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the phone-data and other NSA surveillance programs, but judges have balked at an expanded role for the court.
A third option would be for an entity outside the phone companies or the government to hold the data, officials said. This approach has been criticized by privacy groups who say such a third party would just become an extension of the NSA and would provide no additional privacy benefit.
A final alternative would be to scrap the phone-data program and instead bolster investigative efforts under current authorities to obtain the information about possible terrorist connections some other way, an official said. Mr. Obama acknowledged this approach in his January speech, but said “more work needs to be done to determine exactly how this system might work.”
Glenn Greenwald writes: No matter your views on Anonymous, “hacktivists” or garden-variety criminals, it is not difficult to see how dangerous it is to have secret government agencies being able to target any individuals they want – who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crimes – with these sorts of online, deception-based tactics of reputation destruction and disruption. There is a strong argument to make, as Jay Leiderman demonstrated in the Guardian in the context of the Paypal 14 hacktivist persecution, that the “denial of service” tactics used by hacktivists result in (at most) trivial damage (far less than the cyber-warfare tactics favored by the US and UK) and are far more akin to the type of political protest protected by the First Amendment.
The broader point is that, far beyond hacktivists, these surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people’s reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they’ve been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats. As Anonymous expert Gabriella Coleman of McGill University told me, “targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent.” Pointing to this study she published, Professor Coleman vehemently contested the assertion that “there is anything terrorist/violent in their actions.” [Continue reading...]
ZDNet reports: The NSA is so good at collecting intelligence that it has the potential to create a police surveillance state that could never be shut off, counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke said during his keynote address at the Cloud Security Alliance Summit taking place Monday at the RSA Conference.
“We are not there yet, but the technology is,” said Clarke, the former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-Terrorism for the United States and advisor to presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan.
Since such technology is available around the world to many governments, “the task of controlling them is more important than it has ever been,” Clarke said.
He concluded his talk by saying, “I believe we can have both security and civil liberties, but we can only do that if we keep a very close eye on the government and demand transparency and oversight and tell them we are not willing to trade our civil liberties for greater security.” [Continue reading...]
Reuters has a report which is really a repeat, which is to say, it elevates to the status of “news,” an item in the Sunday edition of Germany’s Bild — a newspaper which is not renowned for the quality of its reporting.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has stepped up its surveillance of senior German government officials since being ordered by Barack Obama to halt its spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bild am Sonntag paper reported on Sunday.
Revelations last year about mass U.S. surveillance in Germany, in particular of Merkel’s mobile phone, shocked Germans and sparked the most serious dispute between the transatlantic allies in a decade.
Bild am Sonntag said its information stemmed from a high-ranking NSA employee in Germany and that those being spied on included Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, a close confidant of Merkel.
“We have had the order not to miss out on any information now that we are no longer able to monitor the chancellor’s communication directly,” it quoted the NSA employee as saying.
This is silly.
Firstly, how likely is it that a “high-ranking NSA employee in Germany” is going to talk to Bild? Not likely.
Secondly, how likely is it that surveillance of Angela Merkel’s phone was occurring in isolation and thus, having been curtailed, now needs to be supplemented by broader surveillance?
Assuming that the NSA’s bugging efforts are designed for gathering intelligence as opposed to irritating the people being bugged, it’s hard to imagine that an interest in Merkel’s communications would overshadow an interest in the communications of the officials who brief her. Indeed, it’s reasonable to assume that an intelligence agency conducting surveillance on any head of state will actually be more interested in the communications going on around that individual than those that directly involve the individual her or himself. That being the case, what the NSA is doing in Germany now is probably very close to what it was doing before — except they are now more nervous about getting caught.
Wired reports: AT&T this week released for the first time in the phone company’s 140-year history a rough accounting of how often the U.S. government secretly demands records on telephone customers. But to those who’ve been following the National Security Agency leaks, Ma Bell’s numbers come up short by more than 80 million spied-upon Americans.
AT&T’s transparency report counts 301,816 total requests for information — spread between subpoenas, court orders and search warrants — in 2013. That includes between 2,000 and 4,000 under the category “national security demands,” which collectively gathered information on about 39,000 to 42,000 different accounts.
There was a time when that number would have seemed high. Today, it’s suspiciously low, given the disclosures by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the NSA’s bulk metadata program. We now know that the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is ordering the major telecoms to provide the NSA a firehose of metadata covering every phone call that crosses their networks. [Continue reading...]
Bruce Schneier writes: The NSA has become too big and too powerful. What was supposed to be a single agency with a dual mission — protecting the security of U.S. communications and eavesdropping on the communications of our enemies — has become unbalanced in the post-Cold War, all-terrorism-all-the-time era.
Putting the U.S. Cyber Command, the military’s cyberwar wing, in the same location and under the same commander, expanded the NSA’s power. The result is an agency that prioritizes intelligence gathering over security, and that’s increasingly putting us all at risk. It’s time we thought about breaking up the National Security Agency.
Broadly speaking, three types of NSA surveillance programs were exposed by the documents released by Edward Snowden. And while the media tends to lump them together, understanding their differences is critical to understanding how to divide up the NSA’s missions. [Continue reading...]
By Tom Engelhardt
Here, at least, is a place to start: intelligence officials have weighed in with an estimate of just how many secret files National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden took with him when he headed for Hong Kong last June. Brace yourself: 1.7 million. At least they claim that as the number he or his web crawler accessed before he left town. Let’s assume for a moment that it’s accurate and add a caveat. Whatever he had with him on those thumb drives when he left the agency, Edward Snowden did not take all the NSA’s classified documents. Not by a long shot. He only downloaded a portion of them. We don’t have any idea what percentage, but assumedly millions of NSA secret documents did not get the Snowden treatment.
Such figures should stagger us and what he did take will undoubtedly occupy journalists for months or years more (and historians long after that). Keep this in mind, however: the NSA is only one of 17 intelligence outfits in what is called the U.S. Intelligence Community. Some of the others are as large and well funded, and all of them generate their own troves of secret documents, undoubtedly stretching into the many millions.
And keep something else in mind: that’s just intelligence agencies. If you’re thinking about the full sweep of our national security state (NSS), you also have to include places like the Department of Homeland Security, the Energy Department (responsible for the U.S. nuclear arsenal), and the Pentagon. In other words, we’re talking about the kind of secret documentation that an army of journalists, researchers, and historians wouldn’t have a hope of getting through, not in a century.
We do know that, in 2011, the whole government reportedly classified 92,064,862 documents. If accurate and reasonably typical, that means, in the twenty-first century, the NSS has already generated hundreds of millions of documents that could not be read by an American without a security clearance. Of those, thanks to one man (via various journalists), we have had access to a tiny percentage of perhaps 1.7 million of them. Or put another way, you, the voter, the taxpayer, the citizen — in what we still like to think of as a democracy — are automatically excluded from knowing or learning about most of what the national security state does in your name. That’s unless, of course, its officials decide to selectively cherry-pick information they feel you are capable of safely and securely absorbing, or an Edward Snowden releases documents to the world over the bitter protests, death threats, and teeth gnashing of Washington officialdom and retired versions of the same.