Opinion

The Great Debate

NSA revelations: Fallout can serve our nation

The fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations continues to snowball. With each disclosure, allies, businesses and influential authors call for reform. There is ever growing pressure on the Obama administration to respond and quell these concerns before permanent damage is done.

As the crisis grows, many in Congress and the executive branch now focus on explaining why these programs are critical to countering terrorist threats and securing the country. President Barack Obama’s meeting with technology leaders Tuesday marks an early signal of willingness to engage in open dialogue. But until Washington fully addresses the concerns of these various groups through tangible government reform, the fallout will likely worsen.

Trust has been the principal casualty in this unfortunate affair. The American public, our nation’s allies, leading businesses and Internet users around the world are losing faith in the U.S. government’s role as the leading proponent of a free, open and integrated global Internet.

In discussing how the nation’s privacy and civil rights are being safeguarded, the administration and Congress inadvertently dismiss surveillance concerns. Government officials maintain its programs are legal, critical for national security, effective and managed with strict oversight — and thus should continue.

Yet legality does not confer legitimacy. The current approach to surveillance is widely viewed with skepticism and may even be unconstitutional. While no government will be able to persuade all foreigners that its spying efforts are in the service of good, there are steps Washington can and should take to limit the continuing damage from the Snowden fallout.

Broaden the German-U.S. dialogue about snooping

Germans are not naive: They know that states spy, and that attempts to listen in to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conversations were to be expected. But they didn’t expect that the United States would do this, for a decade.

Trust needs to be rebuilt. We must go beyond an exchange of accusations and counter-accusations over this issue. As allies and democracies, the United States and Germany can do this, with some imagination and effort, and the relationship can be improved as a result.

From a U.S. perspective, the specific alleged offense — listening to Merkel’s cell phone conversations — has been remedied. President Barack Obama says the U.S. government is not doing this and will not do this.

The danger in shutting down national security

The nation awoke Tuesday to find much of the federal government closed for business. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had refused to fund essential government functions until the rest of Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to reverse a healthcare law passed three years ago and deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court. By doing so, they put reversing healthcare reform ahead of protecting the nation.

Hundreds of thousands of national security professionals are now on furlough. The latest Office of Management and Budget guidance notes no function has been discontinued that would “imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.” The Defense Department made clear that “military personnel would continue in normal duty status.”

But even furloughing “non-essential personnel” undermines U.S. security. It hits three critical areas: the Defense Department’s civilian employees, the intelligence community and the agencies that respond to health emergencies.

Is the intelligence on Syria different this time?

The long shadow of the faulty, hyped intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq has posed a huge barrier to President Barack Obama’s efforts to win public and congressional support for a limited missile strike against Syria.

Remember the “mushroom cloud?” Both President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, used that terrifying phrase, invoking images of a nuclear holocaust, to push America along the road to war.

The CIA issued a now-infamous National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 that said Iraq “is reconstituting” its nuclear weapons program and that Saddam Hussein had supplies of sarin, VX and other lethal chemical weapons, as well as biological weapons, “including anthrax” and perhaps even “smallpox.”

NSA: Listening to everyone — except oversight

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

For 35 years the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has been the judicial equivalent of a stellar black hole — everything goes in but nothing is allowed to escape.

Last week, however, for the first time since its creation, the Obama administration declassified and made public large portions of an 85-page top-secret ruling by the court that had been the subject of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The surveillance court was created in 1978, designed to act as a safeguard to protect the public from the National Security Agency’s ever-expanding eavesdropping capabilities, and its long history of widespread illegal spying. For three decades leading up to 1975, for example, the agency had been secretly reading, without a warrant, millions of telegrams to and from Americans as they passed over the wires of Western Union and other telegraph companies — the Internet of the day. That was supposed to come to a halt with the creation of the court.

The Navy’s underwater eavesdropper

No, the U.S. Navy is probably not using a multi-billion dollar submarine to listen in on your phone calls and emails on behalf of the National Security Agency.

But it could.

A long line of secretive Navy spy submarines, most recently a nuclear-powered behemoth named USS Jimmy Carter, have for decades infiltrated remote waters to gather intelligence on rival states’ militaries, insurgents and terrorists on behalf of the NSA and other agencies using a range of sophisticated devices, including special equipment for tapping undersea communications cables

Before NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the agency’s phone and Internet monitoring programs targeting U.S. and European citizens, the mainstream press paid little attention to the elusive, subsurface warship. But following Snowden’s disclosures last month, several publications including the Huffington Post and the German Der Spiegel speculated that the Jimmy Carter was aiding the NSA’s surveillance of citizens’ communications in the U.S. and Europe.

Building America’s secret surveillance state

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

“God we trust,” goes an old National Security Agency joke.  “All others we monitor.

Given the revelations last week about the NSA’s domestic spying activities, the saying seems more prophecy than humor.

First, the Guardian reported details on a domestic telephone dragnet in which Verizon was forced to give the NSA details about all domestic, and even local, telephone calls. Then the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed another massive NSA surveillance program, called Prism, that required the country’s major Internet companies to secretly pass along data including email, photos, videos, chat services, file transfers, stored data, log-ins and video conferencing.

The FBI-Russia connection

Suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing April 15 in handout photo released on the FBI website, April 18, 2013. REUTERS/FBI/Handout

When the Russian security service in 2011 asked the FBI to check up on Tamerlan Tsarnaev – one of two brothers now suspected in the Boston Marathon bombing – the request would have come as no surprise to a quiet, former FBI special agent in northern California.

Michael di Pretoro had been sent to Moscow in 1994 as the FBI’s first legal attaché, or “legat,” in Russia. He had a daunting task: to establish formal cooperation between the FBI and the Russian police and security services.

US intelligence spending – value for money?

America’s spy agencies are spending more money on obtaining intelligence than the rest of the world put together. Considerably more. To what extent they are providing value for money is an open question.

“Sometimes we are getting our money’s worth,” says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington think tank. “Sometimes I think it would be better to truck the money we spend to a large parking lot and set fire to it.”

The biggest post-Cold War miss of the sprawling intelligence community was its failure to connect the dots of separate warnings about the impending attack on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. It also laid bare a persistent flaw in a system swamped by a tsunami of data collected through high-tech electronic means: not enough linguists to analyse information.

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