Critics Question Closed Embassies

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

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

Terrorists Changing Communication Methods Post-Leaks

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

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