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

Bradley Manning’s Top Charge to Remain

Earlier today, a military court judge dismissed a motion by Bradley Manning’s defense team to drop “aiding the enemy” from the list of charges against him.  Manning, who is now definitely facing life in military prison without the possibility of parole, is the U.S. Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking the information that eventually ended up on Wikileaks.  He was arrested in 2010 in Iraq and charged with 22 separate counts related to the release of over 700,000 documents to Wikileaks.  Though he plead guilty to 10 of the 22 counts back in February, Manning’s trial did not start until early last month.

The decision was left up to Colonel Denise Lind, the judge presiding over the case at Fort Meade in Maryland.  She rejected the motion based on the “accused’s training and experience and preparation,” as well as Manning’s knowledge that terrorist organizations would have access to the leaked documents on the Internet.  The defense’s motion claimed that the government had failed to show that Manning possessed “actual knowledge” that he was providing information to the enemy, and could only show that he unintentionally or accidentally gave terrorist organizations access to the documents.

I think it’s worth noting that there’s a pretty sharp difference between “knowingly” and “intentionally” aiding the enemy, a difference that the defense seems to have overlooked.  I agree that Manning’s intent probably wasn’t to provide al-Qaeda with sensitive government documents. The way he went about releasing the information wouldn’t make any sense if that scenario were true.  But at the end of the day, his intent isn’t what matters if you read Article 104, the charge which Manning’s defense appealed:

Any person who—
(1) aids, or attempts to aid, the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other things; or
(2) without proper authority, knowingly harbors or protects or gives intelligence to, or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly;
shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct. This section does not apply to a military commission established under chapter 47A of this title.

What matters in regard to this charge is that Manning knowingly released classified government documents that he knew could indirectly reach terrorist organizations.  You can argue all day about whether or not Manning actually deserves to be charged under Section 104.  But if we’re going by the book, Judge Lind made the right call.

Putting aside the technical aspects of the case, journalists are all in a tizzy about what this means for investigative journalism.  Many are claiming that the Obama administration is trying to make an example of Manning by bringing the hammer down on a highly visible whistleblower.  They are concerned that the threat of life in prison without the possibility of parole will prevent others like Manning to come forward when they believe the government is doing something unethical or shady.  These are valid concerns.  There is a reason why freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy.  If we aren’t aware of what our representatives are doing, how can we vote them out of office if we disagree with their policies?

Still, I think the government has a legitimate concern as well.  Sure, we over-classify and give security clearances to far too many people, but that doesn’t mean it should be a free-for-all.  There is plenty of classified information that I’m sure I wouldn’t want to go public, and the government has a right to protect that information in the name of national security..  But the solution isn’t to throw Manning into prison for the rest of his life; it’s to fix the system.  Because of the aforementioned over-classification, the government has created a climate in which someone almost HAS to leak classified information to get to the bottom of any real stories.  Since we seemingly classify everything nowadays, what should be public and what should be classified gets lumped together and we see exactly what happened in Manning’s case.  And when we have an estimated 4 million people with top-secret security clearance, let’s not act too surprised when that happens.

Did Bradley Manning do something stupid?  I think he did.  Did terrorist organizations gain access to classified government documents because of his actions?  Undoubtedly.  But the government needs to realize that the guilt doesn’t lie solely with Manning.  If we’re really worried about protecting classified information, we need to start being selective in regard to what we classify and who we give clearance to.

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

CIA whistleblower/leaker John Kiriakou foils government plot to retaliate against him

John Kiriakou, the former CIA clandestine officer who was recently sent to Loretto Federal Corrections Institute on charges of leaking the identity of a fellow CIA officer, has written a letter to the public about his experiences in prison. Kiriakou maintains that his prosecution for the leak was in retaliation for his whistleblowing on the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (or EITs) which most now consider to be torture.

While the letter is a very interesting view into life in a federal prison, the event that takes pride of place is an incident in which the prison’s internal security personnel attempted to trick Kiriakou into getting into a fight with another inmate. However, it would seem that tricking a former operative of the US Clandestine Service is not as easy as they thought.

According to Kiriakou, the Special Investigative Service (or SIS), which investigates crimes or other breaches at the prison, pulled Kiriakou into their office to tell him that another inmate was the uncle of the Times Square Bomber, and had received orders from Pakistan to kill Kiriakou. Instead of being intimidated, Kiriakou, who had by this time made friends with just about everyone in the prison, simply walked up to the guy and talked to him. As it turns out, the SIS had told the other inmate (who had nothing to do with the Times Square Bomber) that Washington had ordered Kiriakou to kill him. Kiriakou postulates that the purpose of this plot was to get them to fight and thus produce an excuse to send them both to solitary.

Needless to say, if this story is true, it is should be a scandal. Even if the SIS were operating entirely independently and hatched this half-baked plot on their own, the use of a federal office to not only incite violence, but also to endanger a former CIA officer would be an unforgivable breach of the public trust. So far, little has been reported on this, or anything else related to Kiriakou’s  time in prison.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research