Opinion

The Great Debate

U.S. spying on Germany: Making enemies out of allies, and for what?

German Chancellor Merkel attends a session of Bundestag in Berlin

What were they thinking?

In the wake of last fall’s revelation that the National Security Agency had wiretapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, the report of U.S. intelligence’s involvement in two other likely cases of spying on Germany is mind-boggling.

Now the story has taken a dramatic new turn, with Germany expelling the CIA chief of station in Berlin — an almost unprecedented step by an ally. This unusual action reflects how seriously the Merkel government takes these spying allegations.

What could the CIA hope to gain by infiltrating the BND, the German Federal Intelligence Service, knowing there was a chance that the operation might be exposed? What was worth this risk?

U.S. President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel address joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden in WashingtonCIA and White House officials have said little to answer the question. But the fact that German industry has strong ties to both Russia and Iran may offer a clue. So economic and political intelligence about Germany’s contacts with those countries could be high on the list of potential U.S. intelligence targets. The CIA might for example, be interested in whether the Merkel government – heavily dependent on oil imports from Russia – is thinking about softening its opposition to President Vladimir Putin’s support for Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Identifying possible terrorists under surveillance by German intelligence agencies could be another reason. Both the CIA and the FBI are keenly aware that the 9/11 al Qaeda plot that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center was hatched in Hamburg. Germany has long served as a transit hub between East and West, and it also has a sizable Arab immigrant community.

from Stories I’d like to see:

More questions for Snowden and the GOP establishment takes on the 2016 primaries

Accused government whistleblower Snowden is seen on a screen as he speaks via videoconference with members of the Committee on legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg

1. Snowden questions NBC missed:

In his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams last week, Edward Snowden tried to bolster his credentials this way: “I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word -- in that I lived and worked undercover, overseas, pretending to work in a job … and even being assigned a name that was not mine …. Now, the government might deny these things. They might frame it in certain ways, and say, ‘Oh, well, you know, he's a low-level analyst.’”

In that segment -- and as best I can tell from watching what I think were all the segments of Brian Williams’ interview -- three words never came up: Booz Allen Hamilton.

Booz Allen Hamilton is the government contractor that Snowden supposedly worked for. As Talking Points Memo reported a year ago in this article, in the video in which Snowden introduced himself to the world following publication of his initial leaks, he said: "My name is Ed Snowden, I'm 29 years old, I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for [the] NSA, in Hawaii.”

Senate must rein in the NSA

An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone in Berlin

The House of Representatives seemed poised last month to rein in the government’s ability to spy on its citizens by prohibiting the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records. On the eve of the vote, however, the Obama administration and House leadership intervened. In secret negotiations, they took a carving knife to the bill, removing key privacy protections.

It is now up to the Senate to breathe life back into this National Security Agency reform effort. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, this month. Panel members must hold firm on ending the bulk collection program and restoring limits on the NSA’s ever-expanding surveillance activities.

The laws that Congress passed after 9/11 sought to aid intelligence gathering against foreign terrorist threats. They have now morphed, however, into tools for the mass collection of information about U.S. citizens as well as foreigners.

Why the NSA undermines national security

Questions about the legitimacy and efficacy of the mass-surveillance techniques used by the National Security Agency continue to swirl around the globe. The debate in the United States has mostly focused on a misleading trade-off between security and privacy.

“If you don’t have anything to hide,” goes the refrain, “you shouldn’t mind if the government collects information to prevent another terrorist attack.” In this trade-off, security will always trump privacy, especially when political leaders rightly see preventing terrorist acts as their top national security responsibility.

But this zero-sum framework ignores the significant damage that the NSA’s practices have done to U.S. national security. In a global digital world, national security depends on many factors beyond surveillance capacities, and over-reliance on global data collection can create unintended security vulnerabilities.

Reagan’s true legacy: The Tea Party

 

Challenging the status quo is the correct condition of American conservatism.

At the end of the American Revolution, Benjamin Rush, who had signed the Declaration of Independence, vowed that though the war with Great Britain was over, the Revolution would go on.

The stirrings of original American conservatism were found in such sentiments. For the proper state of American conservatism — from Thomas Paine to Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln — is to be in a perpetual struggle for intellectual revolution.

Ronald Reagan, whose 103rd birthday would have been Thursday, exemplified this. No surprise the Gipper regularly quoted all three men.

Drones: From bad habit to terrible policy

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently lambasted legislation that may prevent the White House from transferring the lethal drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department. The provision is in a classified part of the bill, so the public may never know what it says.

This culture of secrecy underscores the reality that real drone reform is on the verge of conclusively failing to launch. Despite months of political fury and negative press, the drone program and its worst impulse — to kill without accountability for who is killed and why — are poised to become a permanent part of the way the United States conducts counterterrorism.

If there is to be any real reform on drone strikes, it must come this year — while the revelations over National Security Agency surveillance are keeping heat on the White House. Secrecy is the common denominator of the criticism the White House faces on both issues. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on transparency and reform will always trigger cynicism so long as his administration’s practices of official secrecy continue.

On NSA, Obama still says ‘trust me’

President Barack Obama’s speech on Friday on intelligence reform marked a bullish shift in his approach to the National Security Agency.

The president dropped the pretense that there was “nothing to see here” — which his administration has offered since former government contractor Edward Snowden first revealed the NSA.’s expanding surveillance. Obama now acknowledges that there are problems to be solved. Yet his reforms boiled down to “trust me.”

While Obama did announce several new ways to increase accountability at the NSA, most were limited to executive actions. So the president basically changed his mind about the limits that he wants to place on his own powers. That means he can just as easily change his mind again and reverse course. So can the next president.

Will Snowden’s disclosures finally rein in the NSA?

The National Security Agency, most secretive of the government’s 16 intelligence arms, is unaccustomed to the glare of publicity. But fierce public attention has been focused on the eavesdropping agency since the startling revelations from Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor now granted temporary asylum in Moscow.

These disclosures are not the first time the NSA, often known as “No Such Agency,” has been caught surreptitiously reading Americans’ private communications. The agency, however, has largely been able to  evade serious consequences or restrictions after the earlier revelations. In fact, the NSA’s surveillance of Americans has increased exponentially.

During the mid-1970s, a special Senate committee headed by Senator Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, focused a spotlight on NSA abuses. But those disclosures were overshadowed by the panel’s investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency, which revealed decades of assassination attempts, illegal activities and misadventures.

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.

from David Rohde:

For Obama, a contradiction too many

President Barack Obama will have to deliver one of the finest speeches of his presidency next Tuesday if he hopes to win Congressional support for a strike against Syria. Out of nowhere, the Syria vote has emerged as one of the defining moments of Obama’s second term.

With three years remaining in office, the vote will either revive his presidency or leave Obama severely weakened at home and abroad.

There are legitimate criticisms of Obama's initial response to the Syrian government’s barbaric August 21st gas attack outside Damascus. The president should have demanded that Congress be called back from recess immediately. He should also have immediately made a far more personal and passionate case for strikes.

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