Obama Addresses the NSA Scandal

This past Friday, President Obama finally directly addressed an issue that has been raging since the Edward Snowden leaks back in June; the NSA surveillance scandal (a full transcript of the speech can be found here, courtesy of The New York Times). Countless politicians and public figures have addressed the issue in the media, but this was one of the first times the President discussed it openly and at length with the press. As one could imagine, reactions to the speech ranged from “usefully balanced” to “skeptical.” Although the topic needed to be addressed by President Obama, the public should not expect much to change in the immediate aftermath of this speech. Continue reading

FISC Reopens NSA Phone Surveillance Program

Despite the public’s hopes that the NSA’s telephone surveillance program would be deemed unconstitutional, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) recently gave the Agency the go-ahead to continue collecting and analyzing millions of Americans’ private phone records. However, the extension may only be temporary as the FISC only granted the NSA three more months of surveillance. Continue reading

Could Online Fantasy Games be Used as a Networking Tool for Terrorists?

In today’s New York Times, Mark Mazetti and Justin Elliot discuss American and British spies’ use of the popular online fantasy games World of Warcraft and Second Life as tools to perform surveillance and undermine the networking efforts of terrorists and other criminals. Continue reading

NSA Surveillance Program Overhaul on the Way

Earlier this week, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced plans to make changes to PRISM, the NSA surveillance program outed by Edward Snowden a few months back.  Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) are reportedly drafting the bill to present to Congress as early as next week.  Senator Feinstein did make it clear that they expected a fair amount of amendments to be proposed once it is presented.  Senator Feinstein also stated that the bill’s aim is to increase public confidence in the NSA program that she already believes to be lawful.

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Bradley Manning Acquitted of Aiding the Enemy

Yesterday, Col. Denise Lind, the military judge presiding over the Bradley Manning case at Fort Meade, acquitted Manning of the charge of aiding the enemy.  The charge was the most serious that Manning faced, and almost certainly would have led to life in a military prison.  For those of you unfamiliar with Bradley Manning, he is the Private First Class who was on trial for releasing the data published by Julian Assange on Wikileaks.  Because of that, the case has received a great deal of attention from both the media and human rights groups who are attempting to find a balance between government secrecy, transparency, and civil liberties.

Bradley Manning’s acquittal on this charge is not exactly surprising given that it was unprecedented for the government to bring such a charge in a leak case.  But still, the government’s argument made some sense if you look at the letter of the law.  Luckily, common sense seems to have prevailed.  I don’t believe (and I certainly don’t think the government could prove) that he intended to aid the enemy, and a vast majority of the information he leaked probably did not aid al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups in any way.  On top of that, there seems to be a lot of questions regarding whether or not most of the information should have been classified in the first place.

That’s not to say that Bradley Manning’s actions weren’t worthy of punishment.  Any way you look at it, it’s probably not a good policy to allow military personnel with security clearance to release classified information.  But that’s where the other charges come into play.  Manning is by no means off the hook.  Yes, he beat the most serious and highly publicized charge against him, but he was still convicted of a myriad of other charges.  Manning was still convicted of six violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, as well as most of the other 22 charges lodged against him (10 of which he has already plead guilty to).  He faces a maximum of 136 years in prison, although he probably won’t receive the maximum sentence due to the plea bargain I mentioned.  Regardless, it’ll probably be pretty hefty.

A statement put out by Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), both members of the House Intelligence Committee, was cautiously optimistic but also a little confusing to me.  Here it is:

“Justice has been served today. PFC Manning harmed our national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes. There is still much work to be done to reduce the ability of criminals like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to harm our national security. The House Intelligence Committee continues to work with the Intelligence Community to improve the security of classified information and to put in place better mechanisms to detect individuals who abuse their access to sensitive information.”

My confusion here comes from their claim that they are working hard toward securing classified information and our national security.  It seems to me like their plan is to bring the hammer down on anyone like Bradley Manning who leaks information to deter others from doing the same.  I know that leaking classified information is different than murder in that it’s usually a planned, calculated act.  The leaker usually knows there’s a good chance he might get caught, so I can see the logic behind a deterrence theory argument.  But I highly doubt anyone planning to pull a Bradley Manning-esque stunt doesn’t already know that the crime carries a serious penalty.

Maybe instead of throwing the book at Bradley Manning, who seems to have had serious concerns about the military’s policies, we should take a look at overhauling our classification systems.  And maybe we shouldn’t be handing out security clearances like candy.  Politicians should absolutely go after people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.  Leaking government secrets should be punished.  But the politicians should at least own up to the fact that this is partially their fault.  If we start paying attention to what we classify and who we give security clearance to, we won’t find ourselves in these situations.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

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