A few days ago I wrote about the Obama administration’s decision to shut down 19 embassies in the Middle East and North Africa for the remainder of the week in response to what officials are calling a serious and credible threat. The State Department has since reaffirmed that some embassies will remain closed until further notice while others will reopen on Monday. We already know that the threat causing the shutdown came from al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, but we’re still in the dark in regard to what the threat actually entails. 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
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
Intelligence agencies are now scrambling to change their surveillance practices due to Edward Snowden’s leaks regarding NSA surveillance programs. Terrorist groups, who have always taken precaution in order to avoid detection, are now changing the way they communicate since they learned that some of the means previously thought undetectable were actually being monitored. Intelligence officials, speaking anonymously and unauthorized, have stated that terrorist organizations – in particular al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes al-Qaida’s Yemeni Branch – have been switching e-mail accounts, cellphone providers and adopting new encryption techniques to mask communications. Given that we have 56 Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo, President Obama’s statement that he would soon lift the ban on Yemeni repatriation seems like a bit of a misstatement. If we can no longer monitor those whom we deem to be terrorists, I highly doubt we would allow for the transfer of detainees back to their home countries, regardless of whether they are seen as valuable or not.
Snowden’s leak on NSA surveillance has brought much debate, particularly regarding how much harm was actually done. On the one hand, it is easy to understand that by giving out information on how we are being monitored could cause issues, namely creating smarter criminals. On the other hand, is it really that unthinkable that a criminal is being monitored and therefore has already thought of means to go undetected? Political issues, etc. (which we do not fully understand the global implications of – and they will continue to rear their ugly heads) aside, has the information Snowden released really taught us any more than we could have learned from every cable series or spy movie of the past decade, not to mention the public debate surrounding the Patriot Act? For instance, take Osama bin Laden. It took us a decade to find him because he went completely off the radar. 1) This is public information – if you’re that smart and that high up the food chain, you’re probably not using a phone and if you were, you’re using it very sparingly. 2) I could have told you that after watching one season of “The Wire.”
I understand the NSA’s problems with the leak. I understand that some people may have been tipped off and might be harder to locate now. But at the same time, come on. The guy at the top of the cell isn’t going to be dumb enough to be making phone calls. And the guy at the bottom of the cell is probably still going to be dumb enough to do something else you probably already have intelligence on.
Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research
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
In 2011, the government contractor USIS performed a background check on Edward Snowden, the whistleblower on the NSA scandal. It was presumably this background check that gave Snowden high-level clearance. According to its website, “USIS is the leader in providing background investigations to the federal government. With our highly experienced team of investigators, we mitigate risk with accurate in-depth investigations in a range of areas.”
Bloomberg news reports that USIS has been under investigation since 2011 for various fraud related issues. But at a senate hearing following the leak, when Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) asked whether there were any concerns about the USIS’s background check on Snowden, Patrick Mcfarland, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general, replied, “yes, we do believe that there may be some problems.”
This kind of breach of duty by both he Office of Personnell and USIS is especially disconcerting with recent reports that the NSA has been authorized to keep copies of intercepted communications from or about US citizens if the material contains significant intelligence or evidence of crimes. So despite the Obama’s reassurance that this intelligence will not be used against US citizens, it seems likely that it can and will be used against US citizens if it hasn’t already been.
To sum it up, we’re left with a government that is storing and collecting mass quantities of information that can potentially be used against US citizens, and is accessible by approximately 500,000 contractors who might not have been given the most thorough background checks. With the amount of classified material that the government currently holds, this should concern even those who support the NSA’s surveillance programs.
Alison Frimmel, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research