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

Congress Battling Over NSA Reform

As the debate over the NSA surveillance scandal rages on, two Congressional committees are now in the midst of a battle that will determine who gets the first crack at reforming the NSA’s intelligence gathering policies.  The battle between the House Intelligence Committee and House Judiciary Committee will largely determine the extent to which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) will be modified in the post-Snowden era.  While much is still unclear, a historical comparison to the Pike and Church Committees from the Cold War era may well demonstrate which stance the government should take on NSA reforms. Continue reading

NSA Collecting E-Mail Address Books

In news that shouldn’t be surprising to anybody, new information has come out that says the NSA has been monitoring and collecting e-mail address books in addition to telephone records and other Internet information from American citizens.  The Washington Post claims that this additional program was able to collect information from “a sizable fraction of the world’s e-mail and instant messaging accounts.”  The goal of this program is similar to that of the NSA’s other data collection programs, in that it is intended to find connections among foreign terrorist suspects.  The program allegedly led to the collection of over 250 million address books over the past year. 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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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

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