NSA Cyber-Defense Plan to be Shot Down

It appears that the NSA’s plan to protect the US against cyber-warfare will be shot down in the near future.  According to The New York Times, officials inside the Obama administration say that the plan comes too soon after the NSA’s disclosures about its surveillance programs to be implemented.   Continue reading

Snowden in Possession of “NSA Blueprints”

On top of all the other damning information he has already released about the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden now claims that he also has access to “literally thousands” of documents that essentially amount to a blueprint of how the NSA operates.  Anyone who acquires this information would then presumably be able to drop under the NSA’s radar and avoid surveillance altogether. Snowden has apparently insisted that this batch of  documents not be made public.  Speaking through journalist Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian employee who first reported on the leaks, Snowden claims that he took the documents to prove his credibility after releasing the information that started this tidal wave.  What’s strange is that despite Snowden’s insistence that the new documents not be released, Greenwald (who is supposedly close to Snowden at this point) seems to think that their release wouldn’t harm our national security interests.

Just to backtrack for one minute, there have been reports that al-Qaeda has already changed their communications networks specifically because of information Snowden released at the beginning of this saga.  The government has made claims that the programs do work and helped to foil a pretty significant number of attacks, both foreign and domestic.  And even the staunchest supporters of government transparency would have to admit that there needs to be at least some level of secrecy for the NSA to properly function.  Even Snowden seems to agree with that, and he had no problem with publicizing classified information and jetting off to China to avoid the consequences.  But Glenn Greenwald, who might be the only person besides Snowden outside of the government with access to these documents, thinks that making the inner workings of the NSA available to EVERYONE (including terrorists), won’t have any negative consequences?  You have got to be kidding me.  Luckily, it doesn’t matter what Greenwald thinks at the moment since the documents have been encrypted.

Snowden shared this with Greenwald at a Moscow airport, where he continues to hide out while awaiting decisions on his requests for asylum in South America.  Greenwald told the AP:

“I haven’t sensed an iota of remorse or regret or anxiety over the situation that he’s in. He’s of course tense and focused on his security and his short-term well-being to the best extent that he can, but he’s very resigned to the fact that things might go terribly wrong and he’s at peace with that.”

Of course he’s at peace.  He still has everybody’s attention.  He has reporters from all over the world camping out at a Russian airport with bated breath, hanging on his every word.  On top of that, he has heads of state offering him asylum.  Getting the world to guess what’s in documents that only he has access to sounds like it’s right in his wheelhouse.

If you couldn’t already tell, I’m getting a little tired of Snowden’s whole charade.  He’s still clinging to his original story that he did this for the American people.  This would be a lot more believable if he didn’t have a “dead man’s pact,” meaning any unreleased information he holds will be released if he dies, meaning the government can’t make an attempt on his life without some serious repercussions.  He has acknowledged that such a pact exists, but claims that it’s much more nuanced than that.  Either way, he’s threatening to release information that he has admitted will be harmful to national security if he is killed by the government.  See guys?!  He loves us so much that he’s putting his own safety over the safety of millions of American citizens!

I can understand his instinct for self-preservation, but the jig is up.  As the great Jim Young once said (yes, I’m quoting Boiler Room), “Tell me you don’t like my firm, tell me you don’t like my idea, tell me you don’t like my neck tie.  But don’t tell me you care about my Constitutional rights when you’re willing to throw me under the bus to ensure your own safety.”  Eh, close enough.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

NSA Received Help from FISA for Surveillance Authorization

Just as many predicted from the beginning, it looks like the NSA surveillance scandal has reached beyond the NSA to other branches of government.  On Saturday the New York Times reported that over the past few years, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA, has basically created an entire new category of law pertaining to surveillance for the NSA and CIA.  FISA has reportedly handed down over a dozen classified rulings on everything from espionage to nuclear proliferation to cyber attacks.  It appears that FISA has quietly taken over the Supreme Court’s role in all matters pertaining to surveillance.

Most notably, the court used a particular case to expand a little-known doctrine called the “special needs” doctrine that allows authorities to sidestep the Fourth Amendment by performing search and seizure operations without the need for a warrant.  The government claims that this expansion of the special needs doctrine is only applicable in terrorism-related cases.  The exception is typically used only for things like airport screenings and DUI checkpoints.  Professor William C. Banks of Syracuse University stated that the use of this doctrine is just “another way of tipping the scales toward the government in its access to all this data.”

So how can FISA justify the expansion of this doctrine, essentially abandoning the use of the Fourth Amendment’s protection from arbitrary searches and seizures?  It looks like it came down to the interpretation of one word:  Relevant.  Instead of interpreting the word in the narrow sense used in most criminal cases, the court elected to broaden its scope, allowing the NSA to collect any records that could possibly be relevant to national security concerns.  This interpretation has drawn sharp criticism in the past few days.  A senior partner at Perkins Cole LLP, the Justice Department’s go-to firm on federal surveillance law, claims that FISA has destroyed the meaning of “relevant” altogether, essentially changing it to mean “everything.”  He also mentioned that a typical federal or state court would laugh the prosecution out of the courtroom if it tried to argue for this new interpretation.

But what does this mean for the average American?  Probably not much.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think the NSA has the time or resources to rifle though billions of pages of records that they know are not “relevant” to national security.  I have a hard time believing that our government is reading all our “LOL’s” and “IDK’s” when there is so much at stake.  In fact, it’s come out that even though the NSA has the power to collect the records, they still needed a warrant to actually access them.  Sure, the government still has plenty of egg on its face and has sufficiently embarrassed itself on a global scale.  But now, roughly a month after Edward Snowden first released information on this scandal, we still have yet to hear of any connection between the NSA’s programs and any non-terrorism-related arrests.

With that said, it’s hard not to be concerned when courts hand down secret rulings that essentially throw away our Constitutional protections.  At least for now the traditional law requiring warrants for searches and seizures still applies to normal cases, but that won’t make to many people feel better about the fact that we have a highly secretive court handing down classified decisions that have the potential wipe out our most basic freedoms.  I’m usually willing to give the government a pass when it comes to protecting our national security, but this has to stop somewhere.  I think it’s safe to say that the American government has officially pole-vaulted over that fine line between protecting our freedom and trampling on it.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

New Reports: U.S. Spied on Foreign Embassies

And the plot thickens.  It now looks like Edward Snowden’s release of NSA and CIA information will have ramifications outside the borders of the United States.  If you’ll recall, Snowden not only released secrets on the NSA’s PRISM program that involved collecting the phone and Internet records of millions of Americans, but also released information on American and British surveillance programs that targeted foreign diplomats at international summits.  Now members of the European Union, which includes some of America’s strongest allies, are speaking out against the programs.

The scandal seems to go deeper than we originally thought.  The initial accusations included claims that the British government had set up fake Internet cafes during the G20 summit and monitored diplomatic communications among foreign representatives.  We are now learning that this may have also gone on within U.S. borders.  New documents suggest that American intelligence agencies were monitoring up to 38 foreign embassies, including those belonging to Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, Japan, India, and countless others.  The NSA reportedly hacked into encrypted fax machines and was able to read communications that these diplomats were sending back to their home countries.

This new information has caused the European Union to question the integrity of the American government.  EU Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding voiced her concerns about how trade negotiations could continue with this knowledge.  In addition, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “this is unacceptable, it can’t be tolerated.  We’re no longer in the Cold War.”

I tend to agree with Commissioner Reding Chancellor Merkel.  I don’t think anyone would be surprised or outraged if we were spying on North Korea or Iran.  After all, both of those countries have made serious threats against the United States and/or its allies.  One could make a strong argument that it would be necessary to spy on those countries to protect our interests.  But the countries we are not accused of spying on do not exactly fit into the same category.  Just look at the list.  Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, Japan, and India are all included in the top 15 trade partners of the United States, and there are surely other important trade partners on the list of 38.  They’re all countries that we more or less have friendly relations with.  And they’re all countries that we have invited onto our own soil, supposedly in an effort to improve those relations.  And now the American government has caused its own citizens and foreign governments to question its motives.

The most important question here is simply, why?  Why jeopardize our relationships with our most important allies?  And what are we even looking for?  Back in 2008 General Keith B. Alexander, head of the NSA, asked during a visit to a British intelligence station why we couldn’t collect all the information we can as often as we can?  That suggests to me that we might not even be looking for anything in particular.  It looks to me like we’re spying just for the sake of spying.  And that’s probably the most troubling part of this whole ordeal.  We’re breaking the trust of countries that we depend on for what amounts to nothing.

If you’ve read any of my other blogs on the NSA scandal, you’ll probably see that I’m a little more willing than some to give the government a pass when it comes to surveillance as long as they aren’t using the information to censor us or hamper our freedoms.  But this is a whole different animal.  We are by no means a self-sufficient country.  We depend on foreign trade and if you look at the largest foreign owners of U.S. debt you’ll see quite a few EU and Asian countries on that list.  We’re playing a dangerous game here.  We’re no longer talking about collecting data to stop terrorism.  That at least has some merit.  Now we’re talking about spying on our allies, allies who have to be able to trust us to conduct business or any other sort of diplomatic relations.  Well, kiss that trust goodbye.  We just keep digging ourselves deeper and deeper into what’s beginning to look like a bottomless pit.

The United States government:  Breaking the trust of American citizens and foreign governments since (CLASSIFIED).

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

NSA Details Alleged Thwarted Terrorist Attacks

This week, the NSA took more steps toward controlling the damage caused by Edward Snowden when he released information detailing an extensive surveillance program aimed at U.S. citizens.  The NSA had previously said that it had foiled over 50 terrorist attacks against the United States by collecting phone and Internet records, but the agency’s damaged credibility largely caused those claims to fall on deaf ears.  So on Thursday, NSA Director General Keith B. Alexander provided new information on these supposed attacks.  In all, Alexander claimed that 42 attacks had been stopped, although only 13 of those were being planned on U.S. soil.  The others were to take place in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Alexander attributed these numbers to the success of the PRISM program and other surveillance programs that have come under fire since Snowden first released information to the public about them.  The claims did not come without criticism as multiple senators questioned the role that the surveillance programs played in thwarting the attacks.  Alexander further stated that the public had nothing to worry about in terms of privacy because the data could not actually be accessed unless the NSA had reasonable suspicion that it could use the records to thwart an attack.  Essentially, the NSA is claiming that they were only collecting the data without examining it unless they had been tipped off that the communications contained information about an impending attack.

Once again, we’re faced with the problem of not being able to believe a government entity that has already breached the public’s trust.  Although these claims are a bit more specific than the original claims brought forth by NSA brass, it’s still difficult to trust them without any kind of documentation.  But with al-Qaida already changing their tactics based on Snowden’s leaks, releasing information about how these supposed attacks were stopped could prove even more detrimental to our national security.  The NSA has basically gotten itself into a vicious circle of unsubstantiated claims with no legitimate way of backing them up.

Putting aside the claims of thwarted attacks, I personally find it a little easier to believe that the NSA was not accessing the records without reasonable suspicion.  Think about how many records we know the NSA collected and how many more they could have collected without our knowledge, and ask yourself if the NSA really has the manpower and time to rifle through millions upon millions of files that probably have no value in terms of national security.  Whether you believe the numbers or not, the NSA certainly has a monumental task in protecting us from terrorist attacks and it’s hard to believe that they would waste their time investigating people without probable cause.  On top of that, we haven’t heard any reports of American arrests stemming from the surveillance programs that weren’t terrorist-related.  If there were any such incidents, they probably would have come to light along with all the other dirt that has been dug up in the past month or so.

Like I’ve said from the beginning, it’s completely understandable that Americans are still concerned about these programs.  Regardless of how many terrorist attacks may have been stopped by the NSA, it’s unsettling that the government has this type of power.  But I’ve also said that we need to keep it in perspective.  We face more threats today than ever before and we have put our trust in the government to protect us from these threats.  The government certainly isn’t making it easy, but we need to have some level of trust that they won’t abuse their power.  You could easily make an argument that they already have simply by collecting our records, but we still have to weigh that against the possible destruction that could occur if agencies like the NSA weren’t taking these steps.  There’s no easy answer here, but unfortunately these are the kind of questions we’re left with in the current global climate.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Terrorists Changing Communication Methods Post-Leaks

Intelligence agencies are now scrambling to change their surveillance practices due to Edward Snowden’s leaks regarding NSA surveillance programs. Terrorist groups, who have always taken precaution in order to avoid detection, are now changing the way they communicate since they learned that some of the means previously thought undetectable were actually being monitored. Intelligence officials, speaking anonymously and unauthorized, have stated that terrorist organizations – in particular al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes al-Qaida’s Yemeni Branch – have been switching e-mail accounts, cellphone providers and adopting new encryption techniques to mask communications.  Given that we have 56 Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo, President Obama’s statement that he would soon lift the ban on Yemeni repatriation seems like a bit of a misstatement. If we can no longer monitor those whom we deem to be terrorists, I highly doubt we would allow for the transfer of detainees back to their home countries, regardless of whether they are seen as valuable or not.

Snowden’s leak on NSA surveillance has brought much debate, particularly regarding how much harm was actually done. On the one hand, it is easy to understand that by giving out information on how we are being monitored could cause issues, namely creating smarter criminals. On the other hand, is it really that unthinkable that a criminal is being monitored and therefore has already thought of means to go undetected? Political issues, etc. (which we do not fully understand the global implications of – and they will continue to rear their ugly heads) aside, has the information Snowden released really taught us any more than we could have learned from every cable series or spy movie of the past decade, not to mention the public debate surrounding the Patriot Act?  For instance, take Osama bin Laden. It took us a decade to find him because he went completely off the radar. 1) This is public information – if you’re that smart and that high up the food chain, you’re probably not using a phone and if you were, you’re using it very sparingly. 2) I could have told you that after watching one season of “The Wire.”

I understand the NSA’s problems with the leak.  I understand that some people may have been tipped off and might be harder to locate now.  But at the same time, come on. The guy at the top of the cell isn’t going to be dumb enough to be making phone calls. And the guy at the bottom of the cell is probably still going to be dumb enough to do something else you probably already have intelligence on.

Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Snowden Makes Request for Asylum in Ecuador

Just weeks after leaking the story that the NSA has been collecting phone records and the internet activity of American citizens, it appears that Edward Snowden will not be seeking permanent asylum in China.  Yesterday, multiple news agencies reported that Snowden was on his way to Moscow, where he will apparently wait for Ecuador to grant him asylum.  Earlier reports stated that he might be fleeing to Cuba, but it looks like he never boarded the flight that was supposed to take him there.

That’s right, the man who went on the record saying that he was concerned with the direction our government was headed in regard to freedom of speech and privacy has turned to China and Russia for protection.  I guess he didn’t hear about the Chinese government upping its own surveillance program in Tibet, or that Russian President Vladimir Putin had an entire band thrown in prison for voicing their opinions on Putin’s Russia, or any number of human rights violations both countries have been accused of committing in the recent past.  And he was probably too busy to notice that Ecuador has followed in Venezuela’s footsteps as far as its policy towards America.

Snowden probably fled China because of an extradition treaty we have with them, figuring that sooner or later he would be turned over to the American government and forced to answer for his actions.  It was probably a smart move in this regard since we don’t have an extradition treaty with Russia.  On top of that, our well-documented, strained relations with Putin’s administration make it even less likely that the Russians would ship him back to the U.S.  So why would he go to Ecuador?  Why not stay in Russia?  After all, the United States accounts for roughly 45% of Ecuador’s trade and they could experience a sharp economic decline if the U.S. decided to retaliate against them for harboring Snowden.

It might have something to do with the fact that the American government has already made a serious push toward convincing Russia to turn him over.  The media reported yesterday that the government had filed to revoke Snowden’s passport, which would presumably strand him in Russia for the immediate future.  And like I said before, Ecuador tends to take Venezuela’s stance on foreign relations with the U.S.  Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is known for making strong statements against America, holding frequent rallies against U.S. “imperialism.”  So even if President Obama were to threaten economic sanctions, it doesn’t seem likely that Correa would cave.

It’s also worth noting that Snowden has reportedly received assistance from Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame.  Assange calls Snowden “a hero” and claims that he is healthy and safe in an undisclosed location.  Assange himself has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, another valid reason for Snowden to seek asylum in that country.  For one, he knows he has at least one ally with ties to the Ecuadorian government.  Second, the Ecuadorian government has harbored Assange for nearly a year, protecting him from charges similar to those Snowden would face in the U.S.  The precedent set by the Ecuadorian government has to be reassuring for Snowden.

Knowing this, it seems impossible not to question Snowden’s motives at this point.  That’s not to say that he was wrong for bringing this to light.  This story is definitely concerning and it’s provoked quite a range of responses from the public, and I could argue for both sides all day.  Regardless, it seems hypocritical for a self-proclaimed champion of free speech that claims to want to protect the rights of American citizens to turn to two countries known for censorship and a country that regularly voices anti-American sentiments.  I’m sure he has his reasons; we just don’t know what they are yet.  There’s still speculation that he has deals with foreign governments to sell information about our national security.  This seems plausible since he obviously has access to massive amounts of damning reports and other documents.  It could also be as simple as Snowden not wanting to spend the rest of his life behind bars, or worse.  He reportedly pleaded with the Ecuadorian government that he wouldn’t get a fair trial in the U.S.  Either way, it looks like the government’s chances at having a crack at him in a court of law are shrinking at a rapid pace.  Luckily, Snowden hasn’t shied away from the spotlight since he made international headlines.  We might have more answers soon, but for now we’re still playing the waiting game.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Snowden circumvented legitimate whistleblower route

Over the last couple of weeks, the a lot has been said on both sides of the argument about Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, and the balance of national security and privacy. His disclosures have raised a moderate amount of outrage on the part of libertarians of both parties, as well as a great deal of discussion on the proper balance of national security needs and privacy rights.

Interestingly, most representatives in Congress does not seem that perturbed by the idea of these programs, although they are livid that they were disclosed in this manner. And of course the Executive has been outraged that one of its trusted contractors has turned on them. And now, Snowden has been charged with espionage, however poorly that statute may fit the offense.

Something that is lost in all of this debate on whether the surveillance programs in question are legal, ethical, wise, etc. is the question of who should be asking these questions and how. We have a Whistleblower Protection Act for a reason, after all. It reiterates and reinforces the idea that national security policy questions are to be dealt with by our cadre of national security professionals and by Congress.

Snowden claims that he leaked the information in order to allow the American public to decide for itself if these programs were appropriate. But his own actions and methods belie this intent. By releasing the information into the public domain, instead of following the prescribed chain of notification and complaint, Snowden decided himself that the programs were a violation of the public’s privacy rights. So instead of having the decision on the careful balance between national security nd privacy made by our elected representatives, Snowden ensured that it was made by an unaccountable high school dropout.

I do not bring up this last point out of spite, or to merely disparage Snowden; I, too, never completed high school.  However, there is a reason for the overwhelming preference for college graduates with a broad liberal arts background. Such an education promotes better contextual understanding of the fine balances between the different competing factors confronted in any given situation. This is precisely the skill that the central question in this affair requires: whether the value to national security of these programs is worth the loss of a given amount of privacy. Interestingly enough, this is also exactly the type of decision made on a daily basis by our elected representatives in Congress, who (not incidentally) should have been the Snowden’s last stop before going public.

I know understand how powerful the personal belief that a certain national security program or event is unethical and must be exposed can be. I have been personally involved in a whistleblower case, and seen with my own eyes the emotional strain that can be caused by holding back the information that you vehemently believe should be made public. But that does not excuse those like Snowden or Bradley Manning, who have simply bypassed all of the proper channels and taken the decision entirely into their own hands.

If Snowden was a true patriot, he would not broadcast his information from safe havens abroad, on the run from the law (although he claims he is “not here to hide”—again, his actions belie his claimed intent). He would instead do what respectable whistleblowers do: First go through the correct channels, and when that fails and resort to the open media is required, stand up and face the music. Such whistleblowers often go unprosecuted, and when they are, they can at least rely on a jury of their fellow citizens to come to the rescue.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research