Abu Ghraib Closed by Iraqi Government

Earlier today, the Iraqi government announced that it has shut down the Abu Ghraib prison. According to Iraqi officials, the closure is due to growing concerns that Sunni insurgents in the area may have the capabilities to launch an attack against the prison, possibly freeing some of the roughly 2,400 prisoners. Those prisoners have now been moved to more secure locations in central and northern Iraq. It is unclear at this point whether Abu Ghraib will reopen if the Iraqi government is able to secure the area. Continue reading

DOD to Examine Nuclear Forces

Several weeks ago, Secretary Chuck Hagel called for reviews of the U.S.’s nuclear forces and in doing so, emphasized the need for a closer examination of the structure and conduct of its personnel. These reviews have been ordered in response to a number of recent scandals associated with nuclear armed forces in recent months, including a cheating scandal on the Air Force’s monthly nuclear proficiency exam, as well as Major Gen. Michael Carey’s dismissal from his supervisory role over intercontinental ballistics missiles after gross misconduct and binge drinking while on an official trip to Moscow. Continue reading

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

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

Lietzau Condemns Guantanamo & Detainee Status

A few days ago, a story came out in which William Lietzau, the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Detainee Affairs and point-man on Guantanamo Bay, admitted that he would argue against building Guantanamo.  This came following Lietzau’s announcement that he would be leaving his post to continue his career in the private sector.  He also gave President Obama a pointer on how to close Guantanamo; announce that the so-called war against al-Qaeda has come to an end.  Lietzau, who was key in getting Guantanamo built in the first place, was quoted as saying, “[a]rguably, if the war aim of diminishing Al Qaeda’s ability to mount a certain level of attack has been achieved, we could declare an end to hostilities and return to dealing with the threat as a law enforcement matter.” Continue reading

Bradley Manning Sentencing Begins

Early yesterday, the sentencing phase of the trial of Bradley Manning, the source of the Wikileaks scandal, began at Fort Meade.  As I said yesterday, Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge against him.  Still, Bradley Manning was convicted on 20 of 22 counts, including charges of violating the Espionage Act of 1917.  The prosecution and defense both agreed with Col. Denise Lind that Manning faces a total of 136 years in a military prison for his crimes.

On top of the potential 136-year prison sentence, the parties also agreed that Bradley Manning will be demoted to the rank of enlisted private, dishonorably discharged from the Army, and stripped of all pay and benefits that he would have otherwise received.

The star witness of yesterday’s sentencing hearing was Brig. Gen. Robert A. Carr (ret.), who is now an executive at defense contractor Northrop Grumman.  General Carr’s expertise on the matter comes from a long career overseeing the Army’s intelligence gathering operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia.  His last assignment as a member of the Army was to gather information and assess the extent to which information released by Wikileaks harmed soldiers in the field and jeopardized American national security.

Now that the bulk of Bradley Manning’s sentence has already been settled, all that remains is to determine how much of the potential 136-year sentence he will actually serve and what monetary fines the court will impose on him.  I find it hard to believe at this point that Manning, who is just 25 years old, will ever be a free man.  I guess that’s just what 20 separate convictions for espionage will get you.  But now that he has been stripped of all benefits and pay and will probably spend most or all of his life behind bars, arguing about monetary fines is basically just a formality.  It’s probably not very realistic to expect him to pay up.

Anyways, General Carr’s testimony centered around whether or not Bradley Manning’s crimes actually led to any deaths in the field.  General Carr claimed that exactly one death, an Afghani national with ties to the U.S. government, occurred as a result of the Wikileaks scandal.  The Taliban reportedly killed him after obtaining the information.  However, when pressed by the defense, General Carr admitted that the man was never named in war logs released by Julian Assange and any mention of the death was stricken from the official record.  General Carr still insisted that Bradley Manning’s crimes had put U.S. soldiers and Afghani allies at risk by detailing the relationship between certain Afghani forces and the U.S. military.

It’s interesting that not even General Carr, the prosecution’s authority on the supposed damage caused by Bradley Manning, could not point to a single instance where the leaks led to even one casualty.  The only such accusation was quickly stricken from the record.  To me, this shows just how desperate the government was to make an example out of Manning with the aiding the enemy charge.  There’s really no other explanation for moving forward with that charge with only one precarious piece of evidence.

The trial still has a long way go.  The defense is still days, maybe weeks away from presenting evidence of mitigating circumstances that could soften the blow of Bradley Manning’s 20 convictions.  Like I said before, Manning isn’t going to be a free man any time soon.  But if today was any indication, he might not be looking at a 136-year sentence after all.

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