Watchdog Report Says NSA Program is Illegal and Should End

In an article released just this morning, The New York Times reports that a government watchdog group has released a review of the NSA surveillance program, stating:

“An independent federal privacy watchdog has concluded that the National Security Agency’s program to collect bulk phone call records has provided only “minimal” benefits in counterterrorism efforts, is illegal and should be shut down. 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

Posner Argues Foreigners Have No Right to Privacy From U.S. Surveillance

Prominent legal scholar Eric Posner argued on Slate this past week that foreigners should have no right to privacy from NSA surveillance. In an article entitled “Keep Spying on Foreigners, NSA”, Posner writes “They have no right to privacy from US surveillance- and they shouldn’t.” He argues that there will never be an international digital right to privacy (as Germany has proposed), because it “makes no sense.”  Continue reading

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

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

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

Update: New Information on NSA Surveillance Scandal

Last week I wrote about the breaking story that the NSA has been monitoring phone records after obtaining a court order that allowed them to collect data from Verizon Wireless.  As I noted, feelings on the issue are split.  An editorial from the New York Times claimed that the Obama administration had “lost all credibility on the issue,” and that the government was clearly abusing its power.  The Washington Post took a similar stance, but called for more information on the matter before the public jumped to conclusions.  Over the weekend, more information came to light that might help us paint a better picture of what exactly the NSA’s telephone surveillance program entailed.

Most of the new information about the NSA’s PRISM program came from the whistleblower himself, Edward Snowden, and ex-CIA employee.  Snowden is currently living in Hong Kong to avoid prosecution by the federal government for leaking the story.  He provided The Guardian, the British news agency that first broke the story, with a 12-minute video interview that you can watch here.  In the interview, Snowden claimed to have had the authority to spy on any American citizen, including the President.  He claimed to have leaked the information because of some of the same concerns I voiced last week.  In particular, he said that he did not want to live in a society that secretly monitors its citizens, especially those who have done nothing wrong.

So basically what we have learned is that between the CIA and NSA, the federal government had virtually unlimited power to monitor U.S. citizens, even those in the most powerful positions.  It would appear that the government needed no probable cause of any kind to place surveillance on these people.  I think it’s safe to say that most people’s initial reaction to any instance of government surveillance is outrage.  As I said before, we are a freedom- and privacy-loving people.  But it’s also important to look at all perspectives before jumping to conclusions.

First things first, the government is not in an enviable position.  Charged with protecting over 300 million citizens, agencies like the NSA and CIA have a monumental task in detecting and thwarting terrorist attacks against the United States.  Incidents like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon attacks showed just how susceptible we can be to terrorism without implementing a proactive approach.  Because of this, there seems to be a general consensus that the government must have some type of surveillance and intelligence gathering programs.  The trouble is in deciding just how extensive and intrusive these programs should be.  If the government backs off on its surveillance programs and an attack occurs, the public will be outraged and ask why more wasn’t done to protect them.  On the other hand, in situations like this where the government is perceived as having gone too far, the public is also outraged.  The happy medium, if it exists at all, would be extremely difficult to find.  So if the public is going to be outraged regardless of which stance the government takes, it makes sense to some extent that the government would take a proactive stance that might actually prevent attacks and prevent American deaths.

Second, we have to look at what the government was searching for in the records acquired from Verizon.  So far, it appears that the NSA was not listening to individual phone calls or audio recordings.  From what we know thus far the NSA was simply analyzing data for patterns that might uncover terrorist activity within the U.S., which most would consider a legitimate government concern.  Nothing so far points to the government using the collected data for censorship purposes, or anything unrelated to preventing terrorism for that matter.

Having said that, I am not trying to convince anybody that the government did the right thing.  Determining what the right thing even is in this situation is an extremely difficult task, and there probably isn’t a concrete answer.  There is certainly a chance that the government may abuse its power any time it monitors its citizens, but we still don’t have all the facts to make a determination on whether or not they were.  And, especially at a time when confidence in our government is so low, public outcry against the NSA is understandable and maybe warranted.  Even so, when we look at this situation we have to keep it in perspective.  One of the government’s many jobs, and more specifically the NSA’s job, it to protect the public from terrorist attacks, and so far it looks like that is what the PRISM program is intended to do.  More facts are sure to come to light in the following days and weeks, and we might want to reserve judgment until then.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

NSA Phone Surveillance Scandal Sparks Different Reactions

On Wednesday, The Guardian released a story detailing how the National Security Agency obtained a secret court order compelling telephone giant Verizon Wireless to hand over phone records detailing all domestic calls made by its customers.  Specifically, the order, signed by a federal judge on April 25th, gave the NSA unlimited authority to collect phone numbers, location data, time and duration of calls, and other unique identifying data until July 19th.  As the article points out, the court order was unusual in that it targeted such a wide range of people.  Normally, this type of court order would be limited to an individual or a small group of people.

Now, I would venture to say that when most Americans first heard about this story, they envisioned a government agent sitting in a van with headphones on, listening to their individual phone calls.  However, as a follow-up article by The Washington Post explains, this is probably not the case.  Information obtained regarding the court order made no actual mention of audio recordings.  Although it is not out of the question that the NSA may have other programs aimed at obtaining audio files, they would not be able to acquire them under this order.  It appears that the NSA is only seeking paper and electronic records at this point.

But why would the NSA want these phone records?  Although the reasoning behind the court order is largely unknown at this point, the White House responded quickly by claiming that this was an anti-terrorism move.  Particularly, the NSA is probably seeking out patterns in the records that could reveal possible terrorist plots against the United States.  Even if this is the case, the methods the NSA uses to find these patterns have not been proven and have actually been questioned by experts in recent years.

The story has already sparked a great deal of outrage among the American public.  We have a high expectation of privacy and tend to think that we are immune to this type of surveillance, especially when it has not been proven to be effective.  But since specific details are still being withheld, we can’t be sure whether the NSA’s program is actually constitutional.  Putting that aside, there are a few different ways to look at the situation.  Like I said before, we tend to place a high value on privacy in the U.S.  The idea that the government can monitor our phone calls without notice of permission is unsettling to most, and understandably so.  Even if the government is not actively listening to our phone calls, it’s hard to say what else they ARE monitoring.  Prior to the enactment of the Patriot Act, this kind of surveillance would have been unthinkable.

On the other hand, some Americans are ok with the idea of the government monitoring private phone calls.  The program even received some support in Congress.  Senator Lindsey Graham defended the NSA’s program on Fox News, stating that it was a necessary step toward thwarting “homegrown terrorism.”  There are undoubtedly some Americans who agree and are ok with trading some amount of privacy for increased national security.  In the post-9/11 era, this is also understandable.  After all, what does the average American have to worry about if they have nothing to hide?  It’s not like the government has released the actual records to the public.  This might be true, and that argument might hold water, but the fact is that we don’t know where it stops.  Just to reiterate, specifics regarding the program are still unknown, and the NSA may have place self-imposed limitations on their surveillance, but we just won’t know until more details are released.  That’s the part that makes so many Americans uneasy.

Until then, we again have to ask ourselves a question that been asked over and over for the past decade:  What amount of privacy and liberty are we willing to give up in the name of national security?

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research