The Obama administration may be facing another setback in the quest to close Guantanamo Bay. On Tuesday, several news outlets reported that Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee, has again been placed in custody for terrorism-related offenses linked to the crisis in Syria. Begg, a citizen of the UK, was initially arrested in Islamabad in 2002 and transferred to Guantanamo Bay before being released in 2005. He has maintained that he was involved in charity work and was not a member of any terrorist organization. Continue reading
Last week, I wrote about Edward Snowden’s claim that he possesses the “blueprints” to the NSA, which if publicized would detail how to avoid the agency’s surveillance programs. At the time, Snowden claimed that the documents were so potentially dangerous to U.S. national security that he would not release them unless the American government tried to retaliate against him. Up until now, it seems like the NSA would have agreed that the information Snowden possesses would be extremely harmful to its goals. But earlier today, CNN ran a story stating that the NSA is now downplaying the leaks, claiming that the information Snowden has wouldn’t bring the NSA to its knees after all.
An unnamed official within the NSA told CNN that Snowden did not have access to “extremely compartmentalized information” that could cause any real damage to our national security interests. In terms that most of us would actually understand, he stated that, “just because you have the blueprints doesn’t mean you have the manual.”
This is getting completely out of hand (not that it hasn’t been for a while). Both sides of this incident are completely out of touch with reality. First we have Edward Snowden claiming to have done this out of patriotism and then fleeing to two countries that are notorious for openly stomping on basic human rights, and then applying for asylum in a country that is openly anti-American. If that’s not enough, he then claimed to have documents that would essentially destroy our safeguards against terrorist attacks that he wouldn’t publish unless the government killed him, which would in turn supposedly open millions upon millions of Americans to attack. He’s American as apple pie.
Now let’s turn to the NSA. For those of you keeping score at home, the NSA is now known to have collected millions, possibly billions, of its citizens phone records, built a data collection center so it could do the same thing with internet records, teamed up with the UK to spy on other countries (including our closest allies) at international summits, and wire tapped foreign embassies on American soil. Oh, and let’s not forget about that one time when they let a single government contractor walk right out the front door with highly sensitive material which he then made public.
If you’ve read any of my other posts about this, you probably know that I’m pretty critical about Snowden and his motives. But make no mistake, I think the NSA is also to blame. So I think it’s pretty hilarious that the NSA would scream bloody murder from the instant this story broke only to start back peddling at warp speed as soon as Snowden claims to have the actual blueprints to the NSA. I feel like I keep going back to rehash parts of this story, but this is just too ridiculous not to. The NSA claims that the programs that Snowden apparently torpedoes stopped over 50 attacks, both here and abroad. It’s even been reported that al-Qaeda has completely changed the way they communicate based on the leaks. The story is serious enough that we’ve all but condemned any country willing to protect Snowden. And now all of a sudden the NSA has decided that Snowden’s documents aren’t that bad. They really don’t pose that big of a threat to our national security. We can all go home now. It doesn’t matter that a man who has shown no regard for Americans has documents that might outline the inner workings of the NSA.
I almost don’t know what to say at this point. The amount of delusion and hypocrisy surrounding this story is becoming too much to handle. Either the Snowden leaks are serious or they aren’t. Absolutely everything the NSA has said before today leads me to believe that the leaks are very serious. Don’t all of a sudden try to tell me that we have nothing to worry about. There’s a reason the NSA has been running damage control since day one. After everything that’s happened, changing the story now is NOT a good look.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research
Since The Guardian broke the NSA surveillance story twelve days ago, much information has come to light about both the PRISM program and Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and whistleblower. In those twelve days we have learned that the NSA has secretly been collecting metadata from telephone companies in an effort to detect patterns that could undermine terrorist plots against the United States. On top of that, we learned that the government is in the middle of constructing data collection centers that will store telephone and Internet records with the same aim of preventing terrorism. The ACLU has already announced plans to sue the Obama administration over the constitutionality of the NSA’s activities. It seems like something new has come out each day, and that the scandal goes deeper than anyone would have imagined. We don’t know what else might come to light at this point.
In fact, we learned even more this weekend, and this new information might be the most damning part of the story. Snowden uncovered documents that claim that since 2009, the U.S. and British government have been eavesdropping on phone calls and computer-based communication between foreign diplomats at G20 summits, most notably the 2009 summit in London. The accusation included claims that fake Internet cafes were set up by the British government in London specifically for the purpose or monitoring diplomatic communications. It appears that the NSA and its British counterparts GCHQ and MI6 shared information on these communications.
Accusations of spying and surveillance at international conferences are not new, but this is one of the first instances where it has been backed by government documents of this nature. The documents showed that the HCHQ had the ability to hack into Blackberries and other smartphones, and that information gathered from foreign diplomats was passed along to government ministers. We don’t know what information was gathered from these surveillance programs, but it would probably be safe to say that this story will not help build trust amongst G20 nations. Great Britain is in a particularly precarious position as another G8 summit began earlier today in neighboring Ireland. It’s safe to say that this will add tension to a conference that was already set to discuss government transparency issues.
In regard to the NSA’s surveillance scandal, government officials are still running damage control and defending the use of metadata collection as a form of counterterrorism. On Saturday, top intelligence officials claimed that the programs had thwarted terrorist attacks in 20 countries in recent years. They also stated that any data collected is destroyed after five years, and that the programs are not nearly as sweeping as critics say. The claims probably won’t do much to calm these critics, as the government’s credibility is rather questionable at the moment. On top of that, the efficiency of tactics used by the NSA is still being questioned. If they really led to 20 foiled terrorist attacks, why can’t experts agree that they are worthwhile? This may be the biggest problem with government secrecy. We can’t believe the government without proof, but the government is still protecting whatever proof may or may not exist. The chances of anyone taking the NSA’s word for it as this point are slim to none.
With that out of the way, I’d like to talk about Edward Snowden. Here’s the interview he did with The Guardian last week. He’s a 29 year-old former CIA technical assistant and employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a government defense contractor, and he has proven to be just as polarizing as the story he uncovered. Some are calling him a hero for uncovering a scandal that reached the presidency. These people claim that he has taken a stand for our constitutional rights and deserves a great deal of credit for blowing the whistle on shady government action. Others claim that he has seriously jeopardized our national security and deserves to be punished for treason. His credibility has been questioned, but the NSA has admitted to the PRISM program and he has provided documents that support his accusations of spying at the G20 summits. Regardless of which stance you take, it’s clear that he has violated a number of federal laws and regulations. So why is he still a free man?
Snowden is currently in Hong Kong, presumably to escape federal prosecutions for releasing this information to the media. Yes, that’s right, the whistleblower is currently hiding out in the shining beacon of freedom and free speech that is China. Some members of the media have speculated that he is in cahoots with the Chinese government and may be selling them government secrets on top of releasing information to the media. After all, he certainly has access to sensitive information that China would love to have, especially given the strained relationship between the U.S. and China. But that relationship may also play another role in his decision to flee to Hong Kong. When it’s all said and done, how likely is China hand Snowden over to the U.S. for prosecution? Probably not very likely. He has information that they want, and he has caused a great deal of turmoil for a government that the Chinese have been competing with for a long time. He also stated in his interview with The Guardian that he does not expect to see home again. At least for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t look like Snowden will have to answer to the U.S. for his actions, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it.
Either way, Edward Snowden has uncovered a story that does not seem to be going away. New information comes to light daily, and the scandal is becoming more and more serious. On top of attacking the Obama administration and the NSA, he has now brought the British government into the mix. Whether you regard him as a hero or a moneygrubber, he has seemingly found a safe haven in China and we probably haven’t heard the last of his accusations.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research
The United Nations has appointed a special rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, to investigate drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel region of Africa.
The investigation was formally launched on Thursday in response to requests from Russia, China and Pakistan, and will look into drone strikes by the US, UK, and Israel.
Emmerson will select a “representative sample” of about 20 or 30 strikes to assess the extent of any civilian casualties, the identity of militants targeted and the legality of strikes. It beggars the imagination, however, that 20-30 strikes by at least 4 government agencies in at least 6 countries could be representative of much of anything, except possibly sample bias.
Emmerson has previously suggested that some drone attacks could possibly constitute war crimes. While this is certainly true, it could be said of any sort of attack. The fact that it is conducted by drone should make little if any difference to the calculus.
Emmerson also told the Guardian: “One of the fundamental questions is whether aerial targeting using drones is an appropriate method of conflict … where the individuals are embedded in a local community.” But again, the particular platform chosen to conduct the attack has little bearing on its legality or morality. It is how the platform is used that matters. The appropriate question is therefore not whether drones should be used, but whether any aerial strikes should be.
It is clearly important that the use of armed force by any state be carefully studied and it’s justifications questioned. This may be especially true when it is the world’s most powerful state that is conducting the operations. However, like many of the activities of the United Nations, it will remain to be seen whether the resulting report is an honest assessment of a difficult question, or is a purely political swipe by rivals.
Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research