TBR News February 23, 2014

Feb 23 2014


The Voice of the White House


Washington, D.C. February 23, 2014: “Not only is the NSA, with Presidential approval, spying on top German politicians, they are also mining business data on many leading German companies. This has nothing to do with intelligence matters per se but this information is being taken, clandestinely, to help cooperative American businesses that are deemed Administration-friendly. Herewith a list of twenty of the German companies being spied on. There are quite a few more and we have not included high level German government offices and officials.


Allianz Worldwide


Deutsche Bank Group

Deutsche Telekom


Siemens Group

Munich Re

RWE Group

Deutsche Post

BMW Group

Volkswagen Group

BASF Group


Bayer Group

Metro AG

HVB Group

ThyssenKrupp Group





Striking Back: Germany Considers Counterespionage Against US


February 18, 2014

by SPIEGEL Staff


 Unsatisfied with the lack of answers provided by Washington in the NSA spying scandal, officials in Berlin are considering a new approach. Germany might begin counterespionage measures aimed at allies.


The question seemed out of place, especially when asked three times. A female journalist from a satire magazine wanted to know if Thomas de Maizière liked cheese snacks. “Questions like that are more appropriate for breakfast television than here,” the minister snipped back. It was de Maizière’s first visit as interior minister to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. And he was in no mood for jokes.


Instead, the minister preferred to focus on the basics during the appearance two weeks ago, with counterespionage at the top of his list. The issue, he warned, shouldn’t be underestimated, adding that the question as to who was doing the spying was but of secondary importance.


In other words: Germany intends to defend itself against all spying efforts in the future, even if they are perpetrated by supposed friends.


While the minister’s words may have sounded innocuous, they marked nothing less than the start of a political about-face. Away from the public eye, the German government is moving toward implementing plans to turn its own spies against partner countries like the United States, putting allies on the same level as the Chinese, Russians and North Koreans.


Humiliating Revelations


The stubbornness of the Americans, who have answered few relevant questions from Germany during the National Security Agency spying scandal, has angered the new government, comprised of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Now, pressure is growing for Germany to find its own answers to the questions Washington has been ignoring. “They’re like cowboys who only understand the language of the Wild West,” sources in Merkel’s party say, referring to the Americans’ intractability. Two government agencies are at the center of the strategy to restore respect that has been lost over months of humiliating revelations that the US has been spying on Germany: the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office.


De Maizière’s new assertiveness first became clear at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month. During a panel discussion, he raised the issue with Mike Rogers, chairman of the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and called the NSA’s relentless collection of data “boundless”. He said he couldn’t even say how bad the political damage was because he was still lacking vital information.


Indeed, on many key issues, the German government is still flying just as blindly as it was last June when whistleblower Edward Snowden first went public with his revelations about the NSA’s efforts to spy on Europe and other parts of the world. In response to the allegations surrounding the documents he leaked, both the Interior Ministry and the Justice Ministry sent extensive lists of questions to the US. At the end of October, they sent a pleasant reminder as well. But even still, after months of waiting, no satisfactory answers have been provided.


Diplomats Leave Washington Empty-Handed


A number of high-level German delegations have traveled to Washington on fact-finding missions, but they have also returned empty-handed for the most part. The Americans did provide around 1,000 pages of documents that were declassified this autumn, but they are essentially endless paragraphs about procedures and regulations. The rest is either blacked out or irrelevant.


A so-called Germany package that was to contain all the data copied by Snowden relating to Germany was promised but not delivered. And no progress whatsoever has been made on a “no-spy agreement,” despite months of back and forth on the issue. A version of the paper, which is intended to lay out rules for cooperation between German and US intelligence agencies, has been shelved by Washington. It is likely to remain there as well.


Last week, US President Barack Obama himself rejected any form of a “no-spy agreement”. “There’s no country where we have a no-spy agreement,” Obama said in a press conference during a visit by French President François Hollande. The French leader, who had expressed similar wishes to those of the Germany, was forced to travel back to Paris empty-handed.


US Wants to ‘Turn Page’


Between the White House and the Capitol Building, people seem to be rolling their eyes at the Germans. They say they’ve had enough of the moaning. Sources close to Secretary of State John Kerry, especially, are pushing to move forward from the spying scandal. “Let’s turn the page,” Kerry reportedly said during private meetings with Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.


A new chapter is coming, but it won’t be quite as Kerry envisioned it. The Social Democrats are increasingly irritated by the Americans’ apparent ignorance over just how sensitive Germany is regarding the NSA affair. “The Iraq war was tiddlywinks compared to the blow to our relations suffered through the NSA affair,” says Dietmar Nietan, a member of the German parliament who has been active on the issue of German-American relations for years now.


Members of Merkel’s conservatives share similar opinions. They also fear the chancellor will suffer a massive blow to her image if she simply accepts the fact that her cell phone was spied on.


Against that backdrop, it would actually suit both the conservatives and the SPD if Federal Public Prosecutor Harald Range were to move ahead and open an official investigation into espionage activities in Germany. Germany’s attorney general hasn’t made a decision on taking the case yet, but pressure is mounting in Berlin. In informal talks, the government’s SPD ministers — Heiko Maas at the Justice Ministry, Steinmeier at the Foreign Ministry and Sigmar Gabriel in the Economics Ministry– have reached an agreement with their CDU colleagues Peter Altmeier in the Chancellery and de Maizière to not stand in the way of an investigation. On the contrary. Range, who has long felt there were good reasons for an investigation, is now being explicitly encouraged to take action.


Letting Spies Off the Hook


Recently, officials at Maas’ Justice Ministry signaled to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office that it would be incomprehensible to forego investigations just because few expect it to produce any results. “It cannot be that we go hunting for common handbag thieves but do not even attempt to investigate when the chancellor’s cell phone has been tapped,” Maas is reported to have said during an internal discussion.


Still, as much as the new government wants to show its toughness, it is unlikely that an investigation would bear much fruit. Thus, Berlin is also seriously considering breaking a taboo by spying on its own friends. Its vehicle of choice would be Section 4 at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which is responsible for Germany’s counterespionage efforts.


The BfV, based in Cologne, has long divided the spying world into good and bad. The Russians, Chinese, Iranians and North Koreans have always been assigned to the bad side, and the office has specifically dealt with these threats. But the Americans, the British and the French have essentially considered to be off limits.


‘One Can’t Ignore Allied Countries’


Domestic policy experts from all parties would like to change that. “We have to end the unequal approach and put them all on the same level,” says CDU politician Clemens Binninger, the new head of the Parliamentary Control Panel, which is responsible for oversight of intelligence agencies in the Bundestag.


“We have to protect ourselves, no matter where the threats come from,” agrees SPD domestic affairs expert Michael Hartmann. And even the Christian Social Union, which is traditionally very friendly towards the US, is concerned. “One can’t ignore allied countries,” says Stephan Mayer, the domestic affairs spokesman for the CSU, which shares power in government and is the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU.


The plans for monitoring allies are already well developed. Section 4 in the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, where just 100 specialists had been employed, is to be significantly expanded. In addition, a form of “observation-light” is planned: Western partners won’t be the targets of the full spectrum of intelligence tools available, such as telephone monitoring, source acquisition or direct observation. But German authorities will do all they can to keep an eye on the goings on at embassies and consulates, learn more about who works there and determine the extent of their technical capabilities. In short, they want to know, for example, if German government offices are being monitored by the US Embassy in Berlin.


Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has already gotten started. He has requested that the US Embassy supply names and data pertaining to intelligence personnel who are in Germany with diplomatic accreditation. He has also asked for information regarding private companies the US cooperates with in Germany on intelligence issues. According to sources in the Office of the Protection of the Constitution, the agency already has a better overview of what is going on than it did just a few months ago.


Even the smallest of Germany’s three intelligence agencies, the Military Counterespionage Service (MAD), which is situated within Germany’s military and performs some domestic intelligence operations, finds itself contemplating a new approach. Ulrich Birkenheier, who heads MAD, is currently examining whether his organization should be paying closer attention to allied intelligence agencies.


Teaching the US a Lesson


The changes mean that, nine months after the NSA affair, the German government is steering towards a serious confrontation with the US. It would mark a break with the decades-long practice of allowing Western partners to essentially do as they please in Germany. There are, to be sure, several voices — most of them in the Chancellery and Interior Ministry — that have warned that increased monitoring of allies could trigger unforeseen consequences and potentially cause damage to existing intelligence partnerships. Other high-ranking government officials, however, say that without such a change in focus, the US wouldn’t completely understand the full ramifications of the NSA affair.


A definitive decision has not yet been made. The Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Chancellery are still in the process of arriving at a common position. That too is one reason for the delay in Merkel’s visit to Washington. Originally, March was considered, but now it is only said that the chancellor will make the trip “in the spring.”


It could be later. Government sources say that Merkel will only make the trip once Berlin has reached a common position on intelligence. And when it is clear before she gets on the plane that she will be able to return with a clear success. Merkel needs a scalp. It remains unclear exactly what it will look like.




 Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey


Chess in a Minefield: The Global Implications of the Ukraine Conflict



February 20, 2014

by Uwe Klussmann



The bloody conflict in Ukraine could trigger yet another confrontation between the West and Russia. Dominance in Europe is at stake on the geopolitical chess board. While Ukraine itself could descend into civil war.


The quote printed in SPIEGEL 33 years ago was a noteworthy one, and still sounds remarkably topical: “We have to ensure that this Soviet empire, when it breaks apart due to its internal contradictions, does so with a whimper rather than a bang.” The sentence was spoken by US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger during an interview conducted in September of 1981.


            This week in Ukraine, one of the core regions of that former empire, it is looking very much like a “bang.” Thursday in Kiev has seen bloody violence that has cost the lives of dozens amid gunfire and brutal clashes on Independence Square. Hundreds have been wounded, many seriously. The violence comes on the heels of similar battles on Tuesday — and mark the beginning of what could become an extended and dramatic conflict over the country’s future


Some of those who have traveled to Kiev to view the situation first hand in recent weeks are fully aware of what a “bang” looks like — US Senator John McCain, 77, for example, a veteran of Vietnam who was shot down in 1967 and spent over two years as a prisoner of war. In December, he stood on the Independence Square stage in Kiev and called out: “People of Ukraine, this is your moment! The free world is with you! America is with you!”


In other words, the Cold War has returned and Moscow is once again the adversary. The only difference is that the weapons have changed.


It is no longer just the association agreement with the European Union that is at stake. Nor is the future of President Viktor Yanukovych, a man surrounded by rumors of corruption, the focus anymore. Rather, geopolitics has taken center stage and the question as to which power centers in Europe and the Eurasia region will be dominant in the future has become paramount. Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski once compared the region to a chess board. The players, as always, include the US, Russia, the EU and NATO.


Moscow in Checkmate


It’s a chess game in a minefield. Just how explosive the country called Ukraine really is became clear from a background interview given by former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar — a liberal reformer and friendly to the West — in 2008, one year before his death. Those wishing to make Ukraine a member of NATO, as was the intention of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, overlook the fact that it would put Russia in an untenable defensive position, he said. The effort, he added, should be abandoned.


Brzezinski would love to have put Moscow in checkmate. In his book “The Grand Chessboard,” he writes that without Ukraine, Russia “would become predominantly an Asian imperial state” at risk of being drawn into conflicts in Central Asia. But if Moscow were able to gain control of Ukraine and its resources, Brzezinski wrote, the Russian Federation would be a “powerful imperial state.” He saw danger in a potential “German-Russian collusion” and in the possibility of an agreement between Europe and Russia with the goal of pushing America out of the region.


Essentially, Brzezinski’s point of view is one that guides American strategy to this day: The US wants to keep Russia as far away as possible. If the Europeans get involved in Ukraine and harm their relations with Moscow, that is fine with Washington.


Indeed, US Deputy Foreign Minister Victoria Nuland’s infamous “Fuck the EU” gaffe, can hardly be seen as a mistake. Rather it is a logical, if somewhat vulgar, expression of America’s geopolitical stance.


Weakness in the US Strategy


There’s a weakness to this strategy though: In contrast to the former Baltic Soviet republics with their small populations, it would be difficult to integrate Ukraine with its 45 million residents in the same way.


The country is also deeply divided. The economically weak regions in the west are bastions of nationalists. And Ukraine’s major companies, like its steel mills, ship and turbine building operations are located in the east and are focused on the Russian market.


Russian is the predominant language in daily use in the capital city of Kiev, millions of Russians live in the eastern part of the country and on the Crimea as well. The Black Sea peninsula was first transferred to Ukraine in 1954, and against the will of the people living there.


Indeed, Crimea could soon become the next hot spot in the conflict. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is stationed in Sevastopol, a source of irritation for Ukrainian nationalists and friends of the United States.


At an event in Kiev in October, US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt described a “myriad of opportunities” if Ukraine aligned itself with the United States and said “you have no better friend in this endeavor than the United States. … We stand ready to support you, the Ukrainian people, as you find your place in Europe.”


Dangerously Sweet Promises


Sweet promises like that, which seem tantamount to blank checks, have the potential to drive one of Europe’s poorest countries into civil war. It’s not just a government apparatus suspected of corruption that is on the verge of faltering in Ukraine — the foundations of a country whose current borders are hardly sustainable at this point are also being shaken. The tactics adopted so far by Yanukovych’s regime of alternating between brutal strikes and the temporary retreat will only further radicalize the protest movement.


When field commanders capable of anything lay down the law, the dynamic of secession begins, as we previously saw in the Caucuses. The presidium of the Crimean Supreme Council has already threatened that it may urge residents to “defend civil peace” on the peninsula.


            Thus far, the Kremlin hasn’t sought to encourage separatist sentiment in eastern and southern Ukraine. And it doesn’t appear that Vladimir Putin and his system of power is interested in the prospect of a civil war in his backyard.


But it still has the potential to break out even if Moscow doesn’t want it. Those familiar with Ukraine’s history know that the militant nationalists in the west of the country have gone time and time again into battles they can’t win. After World War II, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army waged a senseless partisan war for five years against the Soviet state, leaving thousands dead on both sides.


German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called Ukraine a “powder keg” that one cannot allow to be lit. Whatever the case, romanticizing revolution can only end in a “big bang” — the fallout from which would extend far beyond Ukraine.



U.S. now bugging German ministers in place of Merkel: report

February 23, 2014



The National Security Agency (NSA) has stepped up its surveillance of senior German government officials since being ordered by Barack Obama to halt its spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bild am Sonntag paper reported on Sunday.


Revelations last year about mass U.S. surveillance in Germany, in particular of Merkel’s mobile phone, shocked Germans and sparked the most serious dispute between the transatlantic allies in a decade.


Bild am Sonntag said its information stemmed from a high-ranking NSA employee in Germany and that those being spied on included Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, a close confidant of Merkel.


“We have had the order not to miss out on any information now that we are no longer able to monitor the chancellor’s communication directly,” it quoted the NSA employee as saying.


A spokesman for the German Interior Ministry said it would not comment on the “allegations of unnamed individuals”.


To calm the uproar over U.S. surveillance abroad, President Obama in January banned U.S. eavesdropping on the leaders of close friends and allies of Washington.


Germans are especially sensitive about snooping due to their experiences in the Nazi era and in Communist East Germany, when the Stasi secret police built up a massive surveillance network.


Berlin has been pushing, so far in vain, for a “no-spy” deal with Washington. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is due to visit the United States on Thursday but he has said he doubts such a deal would have much effect.


Bild am Sonntag quoted a security adviser to Obama, Caitlin Hayden, as saying: “The United States has made clear it gathers intelligence in exactly the same way as any other states.”


The mass-circulation paper said the NSA was monitoring 320 people in Germany – mostly politicians but also business leaders. Hayden said Washington did not spy on corporations in order to help U.S. firms gain competitive advantage.


(Reporting by Sabine Siebold; Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Mark Heinrich)


Feds Settle Suit Over Parody of Security Agencies


February 18, 2014

by Mike Scarcella,

Legal Times



The National Security Agency has dropped its claim that a designer’s parody T-shirts, mugs and other merchandise violated the federal law that restricts the use of the agency’s name and seal.


The designer, Dan McCall, who filed suit last year against the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security, has settled his case. The attorneys involved in the dispute filed the settlement agreement Tuesday in U.S. District Court for Maryland.


Under the agreement, the NSA will inform Zazzle.com, the online store where McCall sold his merchandise, that the agency will withdraw its March 2011 cease-and-desist letter. The letter pointed to the federal law that restricts the use of the agency seal.



The NSA said it would acknowledge, in a follow-up letter to Zazzle, that “McCall’s designs were intended as parody and should not have been viewed as conveying the impression that the designs were approved, endorsed, or authorized by NSA.”


McCall’s products poked fun at security agencies. One design, which featured an altered NSA logo, said: “The NSA: The only part of the government that actually listens.”


Represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group, McCall said in his lawsuit that the agency’s interpretation of federal law was too broad.


“Citizens shouldn’t have to worry whether criticizing government agencies will get them in trouble or not,” a lawyer for McCall, Paul Levy of Public Citizen, said in a written statement. “This settlement proves the First Amendment is there to protect citizens’ rights to free speech.”


The Department of Homeland Security also sent Zazzle a cease-and-desist letter in 2011 to complain about McCall’s designs. The DHS letter pointed to 18 U.S.C. 506, which makes it a crime to mutilate or alter the seal of any U.S. department or agency.


DHS said in the settlement with McCall that “in retrospect, the letter was overbroad because neither section 506, nor any of the other statutes we cited, applies to the use of the name, initials or seal of agency for purposes of commentary about the agency.”


Levy said in an interview it remains an open question whether and in what situations the government can forbid the use of a federal logo in a design. In Washington, Levy noted, souvenir shirts and other items often depict the names and identifying characteristics of federal agencies—including the FBI.


Contact Mike Scarcella at mscarcella@alm.com.



How Iowa Flattened Literature

With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.


February 10, 2014

by Eric Bennett

The Chronicle


Did the CIA fund creative writing in America? The idea seems like the invention of a creative writer. Yet once upon a time (1967, to be exact), Paul Engle received money from the Farfield Foundation to support international writing at the University of Iowa. The Farfield Foundation was not really a foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations, mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom.


Seven years earlier, Engle, then director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had approached the Rockefeller Foundation with big fears and grand plans. “I trust you have seen the recent announcement that the Soviet Union is founding a University at Moscow for students coming from outside the country,” he wrote. This could mean only that “thousands of young people of intelligence, many of whom could never get University training in their own countries, will receive education … along with the expected ideological indoctrination.” Engle denounced rounding up students in “one easily supervised place” as a “typical Soviet tactic.” He believed that the United States must “compete with that, hard and by long time planning”—by, well, rounding up foreign students in an easily supervised place called Iowa City. Through the University of Iowa, Engle received $10,000 to travel in Asia and Europe to recruit young writers—left-leaning intellectuals—to send to the United States on fellowship.


The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since. So the conventional wisdom that Iowa kicked off the boom in M.F.A. programs is true enough.


But it’s also an accepted part of the story that creative-writing programs arose spontaneously: Creative writing was an idea whose time had come. Writers wanted jobs, and students wanted fun classes. In the 1960s, with Soviet satellites orbiting, American baby boomers matriculating, and federal dollars flooding into higher education, colleges and universities marveled at Iowa’s success and followed its lead. To judge by the bellwether, creative-writing programs worked. Iowa looked great: Famous writers taught there, graduated from there, gave readings there, and drank, philandered, and enriched themselves and others there.


Yet what drew writers to Iowa was not the innate splendor of a spontaneously good idea. What drew writers to Iowa is what draws writers anywhere: money and hype, which tend to be less spontaneous than ideas.


So where did the money and the hype come from?


 Much of the answer lies in the remarkable career of Paul Engle, the workshop’s second director, a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior whose accomplishments remain mostly covered in archival dust. For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism. The workshop thrived on checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956—good money at the time. As the years went by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.


As for the hype, it followed the money and attracted more of it. The publishing moguls Henry Luce and Gardner Cowles Jr. conceived of themselves as fighting a battle of ideas, as they contrasted the American way of life with the gray Soviet nightmare on the pages of their newspapers and glossy magazines. Luce published Time and Life, Cowles published Look and several Midwestern newspapers, and both loved to feature Iowa: its embodiment of literary individualism, its celebration of self-expression, its cornfields.


Knowing he could count on such publicity, Engle staged spectacles in Iowa City for audiences far beyond Iowa City. He read memorial sonnets for the Iowa war dead at a dedication ceremony for the new student union. He convened a celebration of Baudelaire with an eye toward the non-Communist left in Paris. He organized a festival of the sciences and arts. Life and Time and Look transformed these events into impressive press clippings, and the clippings, via Engle’s tireless hands, arrived in the mailboxes of possible donors.


In 1954, Engle became the editor of the O. Henry Prize collection, and so it became his task to select the year’s best short stories and introduce them to a mass readership. Lo and behold, writers affiliated with Iowa began to be featured with great prominence in the collection. Engle marveled at this, the impartial fruits of his judging, in fund-raising pitches.


The Iowa Workshop, then, attained national eminence by capitalizing on the fears and hopes of the Cold War. But the creative-writing programs founded in Iowa’s image did not, in this respect, resemble it. No other program would be so celebrated on the glossy pages of Look and Life. No other program would receive an initial burst of underwriting from Maytag and U.S. Steel and Quaker Oats and Reader’s Digest. No other program would attract such interest from the Asia Foundation, the State Department, and the CIA. And the anticlimax of the creative-writing enterprise must derive at least in part from this difference.


There, in the paragraphs above, is blood squeezed from the stone of a dissertation. If, in 2006, as a no-longer-quite-plausibly aspiring novelist beached on the shores of academe, you’re struggling against the bleakness of the dissertation as a genre, you’ll do your best to work the CIA into yours. You’ll want to write a heroic dissertation—or at least a novelistic one. You’ll read books about soft diplomacy during the Cold War, learn about the Farfield Foundation, and search for its name, on an abject hunch, in the 40 boxes of the Papers of Paul Engle at the Special Collections Library at the University of Iowa. You’ll exhaust those archives and also the ones at Palo Alto (where Wallace Stegner founded the Stanford program) and Tarrytown (home of the Rockefeller archives), tracing the relationship between creative writing and the Cold War. But even as you do, you’ll wonder about your motives.


Because you yourself attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before deciding to enter a Ph.D. program. At Iowa, you were disappointed by the reduced form of intellectual engagement you found there and the narrow definition of what counted as “literary.” The workshop was like a muffin tin you poured the batter of your dreams into. You entered with something undefined and tantalizingly protean and left with muffins. You really believe this. But you can also see yourself clearly enough: unpublished, ambitious, obscure, ponderous. In short, the kind of person who writes a dissertation.


Were you right to be frustrated by the ethos of Iowa City, or are you merely a frustrated novelist? Were there objective grounds for your sense of creative stultification, or did the workshop simply not love you enough? Was the whole idea of your dissertation a guerrilla raid on the kind of recognition you couldn’t attain by legitimate means? And did the CIA really have much to do with it?


At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop between 1998 and 2000, I had the option of writing fiction in one of four ways.


First, I could carve, polish, compress, and simplify; banish myself from my writing as T.S. Eliot advised and strive to enter the gray, crystalline tradition of modernist fiction as it runs from Flaubert through early Joyce and Hemingway to Raymond Carver (alumnus) and Alice Munro. Marilynne Robinson (teacher) did this in her 1980 novel Housekeeping. Denis Johnson (alumnus) played devil to Robinson’s angel in Jesus’ Son. Frank Conroy (director, 1987-2005) had this style down cold—and it is cold. Conroy must have sought it in applications, longing with some kind of spiritual masochism to shiver again and again at the iciness of early Joyce. Such lapidary simplicity becomes psychedelic if you polish it enough. Justin Tussing (class ahead of me) mastered it in his prismatic novel, The Best People in the World. I myself, feeling the influence, revised sentences into pea gravel.


Second, and also much approved, I could work in a warmer vein—the genuinely and winningly loquacious. Ethan Canin (my favorite teacher) set the example here, writing charismatically chatty prose that, like the man himself, exhibited the gross health of the fortunate and tenderhearted. Your influences, if you tended this way, were F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, or anybody else whose sentences unwind with glowing ease. Cheever loomed as an undisputed great. Curtis Sittenfeld, in the class below mine, displayed this style and charm and unassuming grace in Prep and American Wife. Marilynne Robinson’s recent novels, Gilead and Home, turn toward this manner from the adamantine beauty of Housekeeping.


Third, you could write what’s often called “magical realism.” Joy Williams (alumna, teacher) and Stuart Dybek (alumnus, teacher) helped to shape a strain of fable-making passed down to my classmates from Kafka and Bruno Schulz and Calvino or their Latin American heirs. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum was writing Madeleine Is Sleeping; Sarah Braunstein was developing the sensibility she’d weave into The Sweet Relief of Missing Children; Paul Harding was laying the groundwork for the enchanting weirdness of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers.


These first three categories were the acceptable ones. But Category 4 involved writing things that in the eyes of the workshop appeared weird and unsuccessful—that fell outside the community of norms, that tried too hard. The prevailing term for ambitious pieces that didn’t fit was “postmodernism.” The term was a kind of smackdown. Submitting a “postmodern” story was like belching in class.


But what is a postmodern story? In those years, Robinson was already in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction, as were Jayne Anne Phillips (alumna) and Bobbie Ann Mason, model citizens of the M.F.A. nation. Joy Williams and Stuart Dybek were certainly not Victorians nor modernists nor best sellers. What was it that you weren’t supposed to do?


At the time I considered Freud and Rabelais my favorite novelists. Later I understood that I was being annoying. But I thought then, and still think now, that the three-headed Iowa canon frustrated as much as satisfied a hunger for literature that got you thinking. Iowa fiction, published and unpublished, got you feeling—it got you seeing and tasting and touching and smelling and hearing. It was like going to an arboretum with a child. You want exactly that from life, and also more.


People at Iowa love to love Prairie Lights, the local independent bookstore. In Prairie Lights I found myself overwhelmed by the literature of the senses and the literature of the quirky sensing voice. I wanted heavy books from a bunch of different disciplines: on hermeneutics, on monetary policy, on string theory, on psychoanalysis, on the Gospels, on the strange war between analytic and Continental philosophers, on sexual pathology. I was 23. I knew I wanted to write a novel of ideas, a novel of systems, but one also with characters, and also heart—a novel comprising everything, not just how icicles broken from church eaves on winter afternoons taste of asphalt (but that, too). James Wood did not yet loom over everything, but I wanted to make James Wood barf. At Prairie Lights, I would have felt much better buying the work of Nathan Englander (alum) if it had been next to that of Friedrich Engels. I felt there how I feel in bars that serve only wine and beer.


This aversion to novels and stories of full-throttle experience, erudition, and cognition—the unspoken proscription against attempting to write them—was the narrowness I sensed and hated. The question I wanted to answer, as I faced down my dissertation, was whether this aversion was an accidental feature of Iowa during my time, or if it reflected something more.


In July 2007 I returned to Iowa City for the first time since graduating. It’s one of my favorite places in the United States, and I’d always envied both those classmates who published quickly, earning a right to linger around the workshop after their time, and those who felt no shame about lingering despite failing to publish.


I sublet an apartment above a pizza restaurant I used to love and spent quiet nights at bars I had rowdy memories of. But the main business was research. Each day from 9 to 5, I visited the papers of Paul Engle in the university library, and in four weeks watched Engle’s life pass three times: once in the letters he sent, once in the letters he received, and once in newspaper and magazine clippings. Three separate times, as the decades slipped by, I watched a broad, supple mind in tune with its era harden into a tedious one, trying to attach old phrases and concepts to a world that no longer existed.


I was haunted and smitten. As only an ambitious and frustrated person can fall in love with an ambitious and frustrated person, I fell in love with Engle. His career was a long slow slide from full-throated poetic aspiration into monochromatic administrative greatness—a modern story if there ever was one.


At the beginning of the month I didn’t know what I was looking for, exactly. At the end I had a list of unlikely names, a file of ideological quotations, and the smoking gun of the CIA connection. Later, after gathering secondary sources and digesting the primary ones, I would have my thesis: The Cold War not only underwrote the discipline but also gave it its intellectual shape. This was the linchpin of the story, and it would take a long time to develop. That summer I was mostly just mesmerized by a biography.


Engle’s life, at least for a while, exuded pure romance and adventure: a boyhood in a Midwestern city still redolent of the frontier; a father who trained horses; an adolescence during the heady years of American modernism; a coming-of-age at the beginning of the Depression; the receipt of laurels for his poetry by his early 20s; travels in Europe as a Rhodes scholar; the witnessing of Nazi rallies in Munich; celebrity back home for American Song, a collection of brawny, patriotic blank verse published in 1934 and touted on the front page of The New York Times Book Review by a conservative reviewer; his undignified, typically American, and only half-successful attempts to befriend Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and W.H. Auden at Oxford in the 1930s, when those poets were striking poses as exciting young Communists; his conversion to Communism; his adoption of the role of the strapping American vernacular savant in the face of English reticence and snobbery; passionate letters to his future wife back home; a honeymoon in Russia; a homecoming so much less exciting than the voyage out; an American lecture tour; a job teaching at his alma mater, the University of Iowa; the strangely anticlimactic war years, including an unsuccessful bid to serve in the Office of War Information; the panicked recantation of his Communist sympathies in the dawning days of the House Un-American Activities Committee; a marriage not long in its happiness; two daughters; the gradual assumption of the helm of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; the inexorable diminishment of his prospects as a poet; and the birth, in the iciest years of the Cold War, of an institutional vision that would transform American literature.


Engle longed, above all, for poets to move nations. His poems say it, and his papers do. I doubt he had a happier moment in his life than when he addressed Americans from NBC in London in 1934. “We stand on the thin and moving edge of our history,” he crackled distantly to his countrymen, “where it bends down on one side to the irretrievable past and, on the other, swings outward to the flat plain of the future.”


What was he talking about? He probably didn’t know exactly. Soon Engle would make the Communist conversion; soon after, he would convert back. His youthful exuberance could fit itself to the ideology nearest at hand. Sway, image, ethos, and glory attracted him: the raw power of words. In American Song, in 1934, when he was still a darling of the conservatives, he envisioned the American poet launching poetry into the sky like a weapon:


America, great glowing open hearth,

In you we will heat the cold steel of our speech,

Rolling it molten out into a mold,

Polish it to a shining length, and straddling

The continent, with hands that have been fashioned,

One from the prairie, one from the ocean, winds,

Draw back a brawny arm with a shout and hurl

The fiery spear-shaft of American song

Against the dark destruction of our doom

To burn the long, black wind of the years with flame.


What did this even mean? It meant that the poetic and the public, the personal and the national, could still fuse in the right words. It was a dream that, after 1939, would vanish almost as quickly as Communism in America.


The workshop was like a muffin tin you poured the batter of your dreams into. You entered with something undefined and tantalizingly protean and left with muffins.


When Engle got back from England, the figure of T.S. Eliot—his hard poems, his oblique criticism, his antagonism to dialectical materialism—had long since embarked on its path to ascendancy on American campuses. The United States, the last power standing, would need some high culture of its own, and Eliot set the tone. The New Critics, his handmaidens, were waiting to infiltrate the old English faculties.


Within 10 years, modernism would win an unadulterated victory, and difficult free verse would sit alongside epics and sonnets on the syllabi. The day would belong to Robert Lowell, writing as a latter-day metaphysical. Engle—in his commitment to soaring iambic lines, to the legacy of Stephen Vincent Benét, to the open idiom that had so recently remained viable—would look like a has-been.


But it was not in Engle’s character to stand still or look back. His gut told him something that most educated citizens would have to learn from sociologists: that the postwar era belonged to institutions. The unit of power was no longer the great man but the vast bureaucracy. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” had satirized the bold lyrical speaker; that voice now sounded hushed, tiny, tragically diminished, none of which appealed to a mind as brawny and sunny as Engle’s. The unit of power was no longer the poem.


But it could be the poet as a concept, a figure, a living symbol—and therefore, implicitly, the institution that handled and housed the poet. Engle began working long hours at Iowa. His new poems, when he wrote them, merely burnished his credentials as an administrator, patriot, and family man. Many were sonnets, earnestly passé, and his audience included political patrons, present or prospective. (The politician W. Averell Harriman received flattering sonnets; after Kennedy was assassinated, and despite the advice of candid, unimpressed first readers, Jackie Kennedy received memorial verses.) Between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s, Engle transformed the Writers’ Workshop from a regional curiosity into a national landmark. The fiery spear-shaft of American song would take the form of an academic discipline. The fund-raising began.


Engle constantly invoked the need to bring foreign writers to Iowa so they could learn to love America. That was the key to raising money. If intellectuals from Seoul and Manila and Bangladesh could write and be read and live well-housed with full stomachs amid beautiful cornfields and unrivaled civil liberties, they would return home fighting for our side. This was what Engle told Midwestern businessmen, and Midwestern businessmen wrote big checks.


Engle borrowed tactics from the CIA long before their check arrived in 1967. At the time, the agency sponsored literature and fine arts abroad through the Congress for Cultural Freedom to convince the non-Communist left in Britain and Europe that America was about more than Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola. The CCF underwrote Encounter magazine and subsidized subscriptions to American literary journals for intellectuals in the Eastern bloc. Some of the CIA guys were old Iowa graduates from the early 1950s—including the novelists John Hunt and Robie Macauley—and Engle probably first connected with the CIA through Hunt.


By the mid-1960s, Engle had grown remote from the domestic workshop, and so lost control of it. He let it go its own way and founded the International Writing Program with the help of the Chinese novelist Hualing Nieh, who would become his second wife. In retrospective accounts, Engle presented this founding as a sudden idea, a spontaneously good one. But it marked the culmination of the logic of 20 years of dreaming.


When I was at Iowa, Frank Conroy, Engle’s longest-running successor, did not name the acceptable categories. Instead, he shot down projects by shooting down their influences. He loathed Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barthelme. He had a thing against J.D. Salinger that was hard to explain. To go anywhere near Melville or Nabokov was to ingest the fatal microbes of the obnoxious. Of David Foster Wallace he growled, with a wave of his hand, “He has his thing that he does.”


Conroy hated what he called “cute stuff,” unless it worked, but it tended never to work. Trying to get cute stuff to work before a sneering audience is like trying to get an erection to work before a sneering audience. Conroy’s arsenal of pejoratives was his one indulgence in lavish style. “Cockamamie,” he’d snarl. “Poppycock.” Or “bunk,” “bunkum,” “balderdash.” He could deliver these quaint execrations in tones that made H.L. Mencken sound like Regis Philbin.


Conroy would launch his arsenal from his seat at the head of the table. His eyebrows were hedges out from which his eyes glowered like a badger’s. He would have hated that metaphor. His eyelashes remained handsomely dark in contrast to his white hair and sallow complexion. He loved one particular metaphor that likened the crying of a baby to the squeaking of a rusty hinge.


His force of personality exceeded his sweep of talent—and not because he wasn’t talented. By the time I met him, he had entered the King Lear stage of his career. He was swatting at realities and phantoms in a medley of awesome magnificence and embarrassing feebleness. His rage and tenderness were moving. I adored him. He was a thunderstorm on the heath of his classroom, and you stepped into his classroom to have your emotions buffeted for two hours. Nothing much was at stake, but it sure seemed like it. He was notoriously bad at remembering the names of students. If he called you by your name, it was like seeing your accomplishments praised in the newspaper. “Should we sit where we sat last week,” I asked during the second week of class, “so you can remember our names?” “Sit down, Eric,” he said.


What did Conroy assault us in service of? He wanted literary craft to be a pyramid. He drew a pyramid on the blackboard and divided it with horizontal lines. The long stratum at the base was grammar and syntax, which he called “Meaning, Sense, Clarity.” The next layer, shorter and higher, comprised the senses that prose evoked: what you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and saw. Then came character, then metaphor. This is from memory: I can’t remember the pyramid exactly, and maybe Conroy changed it each time. What I remember for sure is that everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as “the fancy stuff.” At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarefied and abstract.


Although you could build a pyramid without an apex, it was anathema to leave an apex hovering and foundationless. I’ll switch metaphors, slightly, since Conroy did too. The last thing you wanted was a castle in the air. A castle in the air was a bad story. There was a ground, the realm of the body, and up from it rose the fiction that worked. Conroy presented these ideas as timeless wisdom.


His delivery was one of a kind, but his ideas were not. They were and are the prevailing wisdom. Within today’s M.F.A. culture, the worst thing an aspiring writer can do is bring to the table a certain ambitiousness of preconception. All the handbooks say so. “If your central motive as a writer is to put across ideas,” the writer Steve Almond says, “write an essay.” The novelist and critic Stephen Koch warns that writers should not be too intellectual. “The intellect can understand a story—but only the imagination can tell it. Always prefer the concrete to the abstract. At this stage it is better to see the story, to hear and to feel it, than to think it.”


Since the 1980s, the textbook most widely assigned in American creative-writing classes has been Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction. Early editions (there are now eight) dared students to go ahead and try to write a story based on intellectual content—a political, religious, scientific, or moral idea—rather than the senses and contingent experience. Such a project “is likely to produce a bad story. If it produces a bad story, it will be invaluably instructive to you, and you will be relieved of the onus of ever doing it again. If it produces a good story, then you have done something else, something more, and something more original than the assignment asks for.” The logic is impeccably circular: If you proceed from an idea, you’ll write a bad story; if the story’s good, you weren’t proceeding from an idea, even if you thought you were.


Creative-writing pedagogues in the aftermath of World War II, without exception, read Partisan Review, The Kenyon Review, The Hudson Review, and The Sewanee Review. They breathed the intellectual air of New Critics, on the one hand, and New York intellectuals on the other. These camps, formerly enemy camps—Southern reactionaries and Northern socialists at each other’s throats in the 1930s—had by the 50s merged into a liberal consensus that published highly intellectual, but at the time only newly “academic,” essays in those four journals, all of which, like Iowa, were subsidized by the Rockefeller Foundation. John Crowe Ransom, who believed in growing cotton and declined to apologize for slavery, found common ground with Lionel Trilling, who believed in Trotsky—but how?


The consensus centered on a critique of instrumental reason as it came down to us from the Enlightenment—a reaction against the scientific rationality that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bureaucratic efficiency that made the death camps in Poland possible, and the materialism behind the increasingly sinister Soviet regime.


Ransom and his fellow Southerners had developed their ideas in the 1920s as agrarian men of letters resentful of the specter of Northern industrialism. Meanwhile, Trilling and his fellow socialists were reeling from all that had discredited the Popular Front: the purge of the old Bolsheviks in the late 1930s, the Soviet conduct of the Spanish Civil War, the nonaggression pact that the Soviets signed with the Nazis in 1939, and so on. These were chastened radicals who believed in the avant-garde and saw in totalitarianism the consequences of pure ideas unchecked by the irrational prerogatives of culture.


So the prewar left merged with the prewar right. Both circles thought that the way to avoid the likes of Nazism or Stalinism in the United States was to venerate and fortify the particular, the individual, the situated, the embedded, the irreducible. The argument took its purest form in Hannah Arendt’s essays about the concentration camps in Partisan Review.


You probably can see where this is going: One can easily trace the genealogy from the critical writings of Trilling and Ransom at the beginning of the Cold War to creative-writing handbooks and methods then and since. The discipline of creative writing was effectively born in the 1950s. Imperial prosperity gave rise to it, postwar anxieties shaped it. “Science,” Ransom argued in The World’s Body, “gratifies a rational or practical impulse and exhibits the minimum of perception. Art gratifies a perceptual impulse and exhibits the minimum of reason.” In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling celebrated Hemingway and Faulkner for being “intensely at work upon the recalcitrant stuff of life.” Life was recalcitrant because it resisted our best efforts to reduce it to intellectual abstractions, to ideas, to ideologies.


Engle versified Ransom’s notions in the 1950s, and no doubt taught them. It was daily facts that would make the literature that fortified the free world: nuts and bolts, bread and butter, washing machines sold by Maytag executives who wrote checks to Iowa.


To Wallace Stegner, who directed the influential Stanford creative-writing program throughout the 1950s, a true writer was “an incorrigible lover of concrete things,” weaving stories from “such materials as the hard knotting of anger in the solar plexus, the hollowness of a night street, the sound of poplar leaves.” A novelist was “a vendor of the sensuous particulars of life, a perceiver and handler of things,” an artist “not ordinarily or ideally a generalizer, not a dealer in concepts.”


From Trilling, Ransom, and Arendt to Engle and Stegner, and from them to Conroy, Almond, Koch, and Burroway, the path is not long. And yet that path was erased quickly. Raymond Carver, trained by writers steeped in anti-Communist formulations, probably didn’t realize that his short stories were doing ideological combat with a dead Soviet dictator.


Why has the approach endured and thrived? Of course, it’s more than brute inertia; when institutions outlive their animating ideologies, they get converted to new purposes. Over the past 40 years, creative writing’s small-is-beautiful approach has served it well, as measured by the discipline’s explosive growth while most of its humanities counterparts shrink and cower. The reasons for this could fill many essays.


For one thing, creative writing has successfully embedded itself in the university by imitating other disciplines without treading on their ground. A pyramid resembles a pedagogy—it’s fungible, and easy to draw on the board. Introductory math and physics professors like to draw diagrams too, a welcome analogy for a discipline wishing both to establish itself as teachable and to lengthen its reach into the undergraduate curriculum, where a claim of pure writerly exceptionalism won’t cut it.


Specialization is also crucial, both for credibility’s sake and to avoid invading neighboring fiefdoms, and today’s creative-writing department specializes in sensory and biographical memory. The safest material is that which the philosophers and economists and sociologists have no claim on, such as how icicles broken from church eaves on winter afternoons taste of asphalt.


And it’s easier to teach “Meaning, Sense, Clarity” than old literature and intellectual history. Pyramid building fosters the hope that we can arrive at the powerful symbol of a white whale, not by thinking it up ahead of time, but by mastering the sensory details of whaling. “Don’t allegorize Calvinism,” Conroy could have barked at me, “describe a harpoon and a dinghy!”


The thing to lament is not only that we have a bunch of novels about harpoons and dinghies (or suburbs or bad marriages or road trips or offices in New York). The thing to lament is also the dead end of isolation that comes from describing the dead end of isolation—and from using vibrant literary communities to foster this phenomenon. In our workshops, we simply accept it as true that larger structures of common interest have been destroyed by the atomizing forces of economy and ideology, and what’s left to do is be faithful to the needs of the sentence.


To have read enough to feel the oceanic movement of events and ideas in history; to have experienced enough to escape the confines of a personal provincialism; to have distanced yourself enough from your hang-ups and pettiness to create words reflecting the emotional complexity of minds beyond your own; to have worked with language long enough to be able to wield it beautifully; and to have genius enough to find dramatic situations that embody all that you have lived and read, is rare. It’s not something that every student of creative writing—in the hundreds of programs up and running these days—is going to pull off. Maybe one person a decade will pull it off. Maybe one person every half century will really pull it off.


Of course, we live in an age that cringes at words like “greatness”—and also at the notion that we’re not all great. But ages that didn’t cringe at greatness produced great writing without creative-writing programs. And people who attend creative-writing programs for the most part wish to write great things. It’s sick to ask them to aspire but not to aspire too much. An air of self-doubt permeates the discipline, showing up again and again as the question, “Can writing be taught?”


Faced with this question, teachers of creative writing might consider adopting (as a few, of course, already do) a defiant rather than resigned attitude, doing more than supervising the building of the bases of pyramids. They might try to get beyond the senses. Texts worth reading—worth reading now, and worth reading 200 years from now—coordinate the personal with the national or international; they embed the instant in the instant’s full context and long history. It’s what the Odyssey does and what Middlemarch does and what Invisible Man does and what Jonathan Franzen’s and Marilynne Robinson’s recent novels try to do. But to write like this, you’re going to have to spend some time thinking.


Eric Bennett is an assistant professor of English at Providence College. His book on creative writing and the Cold War, Workshops of Empire, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press. This essay is adapted from MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach and published this month by Faber 
and Faber and n+1.




Correction (2/14/2014, 5:05 p.m.): This article mistakenly identified Paul Engle as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1967, but he had left that position by that year. The article also incorrectly identified the name of the government agency Engle sought to work for. It was the Office of War Information, not the Office of War Intelligence.

Snowden Documents Reveal Covert Surveillance and Pressure Tactics Aimed at WikiLeaks and Its Supporters


February 18, 2014

by Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher 

The Intercept



Top-secret documents from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart reveal for the first time how the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom targeted WikiLeaks and other activist groups with tactics ranging from covert surveillance to prosecution.


The efforts – detailed in documents provided previously by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – included a broad campaign of international pressure aimed not only at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but at what the U.S. government calls “the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” The documents also contain internal discussions about targeting the file-sharing site Pirate Bay and hacktivist collectives such as Anonymous.


One classified document from Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s top spy agency, shows that GCHQ used its surveillance system to secretly monitor visitors to a WikiLeaks site. By exploiting its ability to tap into the fiber-optic cables that make up the backbone of the Internet, the agency confided to allies in 2012, it was able to collect the IP addresses of visitors in real time, as well as the search terms that visitors used to reach the site from search engines like Google.


Another classified document from the U.S. intelligence community, dated August 2010, recounts how the Obama administration urged foreign allies to file criminal charges against Assange over the group’s publication of the Afghanistan war logs.


A third document, from July 2011, contains a summary of an internal discussion in which officials from two NSA offices – including the agency’s general counsel and an arm of its Threat Operations Center – considered designating WikiLeaks as “a ‘malicious foreign actor’ for the purpose of targeting.” Such a designation would have allowed the group to be targeted with extensive electronic surveillance – without the need to exclude U.S. persons from the surveillance searches.


In 2008, not long after WikiLeaks was formed, the U.S. Army prepared a report that identified the organization as an enemy, and plotted how it could be destroyed. The new documents provide a window into how the U.S. and British governments appear to have shared the view that WikiLeaks represented a serious threat, and reveal the controversial measures they were willing to take to combat it.


In a statement to The Intercept, Assange condemned what he called “the reckless and unlawful behavior of the National Security Agency” and GCHQ’s “extensive hostile monitoring of a popular publisher’s website and its readers.”


“News that the NSA planned these operations at the level of its Office of the General Counsel is especially troubling,” Assange said. “Today, we call on the White House to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the extent of the NSA’s criminal activity against the media, including WikiLeaks, its staff, its associates and its supporters.”


Illustrating how far afield the NSA deviates from its self-proclaimed focus on terrorism and national security, the documents reveal that the agency considered using its sweeping surveillance system against Pirate Bay, which has been accused of facilitating copyright violations. The agency also approved surveillance of the foreign “branches” of hacktivist groups, mentioning Anonymous by name.


The documents call into question the Obama administration’s repeated insistence that U.S. citizens are not being caught up in the sweeping surveillance dragnet being cast by the NSA. Under the broad rationale considered by the agency, for example, any communication with a group designated as a “malicious foreign actor,” such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, would be considered fair game for surveillance.


Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in surveillance issues, says the revelations shed a disturbing light on the NSA’s willingness to sweep up American citizens in its surveillance net.


“All the reassurances Americans heard that the broad authorities of the FISA Amendments Act could only be used to ‘target’ foreigners seem a bit more hollow,” Sanchez says, “when you realize that the ‘foreign target’ can be an entire Web site or online forum used by thousands if not millions of Americans.”


 GCHQ Spies on WikiLeaks Visitors


The system used by GCHQ to monitor the WikiLeaks website – codenamed ANTICRISIS GIRL – is described in a classified PowerPoint presentation prepared by the British agency and distributed at the 2012 “SIGDEV Conference.” At the annual gathering, each member of the “Five Eyes” alliance – the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – describes the prior year’s surveillance successes and challenges.


In a top-secret presentation at the conference, two GCHQ spies outlined how ANTICRISIS GIRL was used to enable “targeted website monitoring” of WikiLeaks (See slides 33 and 34). The agency logged data showing hundreds of users from around the world, including the United States, as they were visiting a WikiLeaks site –contradicting claims by American officials that a deal between the U.K. and the U.S. prevents each country from spying on the other’s citizens.


The IP addresses collected by GCHQ are used to identify individual computers that connect to the Internet, and can be traced back to specific people if the IP address has not been masked using an anonymity service. If WikiLeaks or other news organizations were receiving submissions from sources through a public dropbox on their website, a system like ANTICRISIS GIRL could potentially be used to help track them down. (WikiLeaks has not operated a public dropbox since 2010, when it shut down its system in part due to security concerns over surveillance.)


In its PowerPoint presentation, GCHQ identifies its target only as “wikileaks.” One slide, displaying analytics derived from the surveillance, suggests that the site monitored was the official wikileaks.org domain. It shows that users reached the targeted site by searching for “wikileaks.org” and for “maysan uxo,” a term associated with a series of leaked Iraq war logs that are hosted on wikileaks.org.


The ANTICRISIS GIRL initiative was operated by a GCHQ unit called Global Telecoms Exploitation (GTE), which was previously reported by The Guardian to be linked to the large-scale, clandestine Internet surveillance operation run by GCHQ, codenamed TEMPORA.


Operating in the United Kingdom and from secret British eavesdropping bases in Cyprus and other countries, GCHQ conducts what it refers to as “passive” surveillance – indiscriminately intercepting massive amounts of data from Internet cables, phone networks and satellites. The GTE unit focuses on developing “pioneering collection capabilities” to exploit the stream of data gathered from the Internet.


As part of the ANTICRISIS GIRL system, the documents show, GCHQ used publicly available analytics software called Piwik to extract information from its surveillance stream, not only monitoring visits to targeted websites like WikiLeaks, but tracking the country of origin of each visitor.


It is unclear from the PowerPoint presentation whether GCHQ monitored the WikiLeaks site as part of a pilot program designed to demonstrate its capability, using only a small set of covertly collected data, or whether the agency continues to actively deploy its surveillance system to monitor visitors to WikiLeaks. It was previously reported in The Guardian that X-KEYSCORE, a comprehensive surveillance weapon used by both NSA and GCHQ, allows “an analyst to learn the IP addresses of every person who visits any website the analyst specifies.”


GCHQ refused to comment on whether ANTICRISIS GIRL is still operational. In an email citing the agency’s boilerplate response to inquiries, a spokeswoman insisted that “all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorized, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight.”


But privacy advocates question such assurances. “How could targeting an entire website’s user base be necessary or proportionate?” says Gus Hosein, executive director of the London-based human rights group Privacy International. “These are innocent people who are turned into suspects based on their reading habits. Surely becoming a target of a state’s intelligence and security apparatus should require more than a mere click on a link.”


The agency’s covert targeting of WikiLeaks, Hosein adds, call into question the entire legal rationale underpinning the state’s system of surveillance. “We may be tempted to see GCHQ as a rogue agency, ungoverned in its use of unprecedented powers generated by new technologies,” he says. “But GCHQ’s actions are authorized by [government] ministers. The fact that ministers are ordering the monitoring of political interests of Internet users shows a systemic failure in the rule of law.”


 Going After Assange and His Supporters


The U.S. attempt to pressure other nations to prosecute Assange is recounted in a file that the intelligence community calls its “Manhunting Timeline.” The document details, on a country-by-country basis, efforts by the U.S. government and its allies to locate, prosecute, capture or kill alleged terrorists, drug traffickers, Palestinian leaders and others. There is a timeline for each year from 2008 to 2012.


An entry from August 2010 – headlined “United States, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Iceland” – states: “The United States on August 10 urged other nations with forces in Afghanistan, including Australia, United Kingdom, and Germany, to consider filing criminal charges against Julian Assange.” It describes Assange as the “founder of the rogue Wikileaks Internet website and responsible for the unauthorized publication of over 70,000 classified documents covering the war in Afghanistan.”


In response to questions from The Intercept, the NSA suggested that the entry is “a summary derived from a 2010 article” in the Daily Beast. That article, which cited an anonymous U.S. official, reported that “the Obama administration is pressing Britain, Germany, Australia, and other allied Western governments to consider opening criminal investigations of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and to severely limit his nomadic travels across international borders.”


The government entry in the “Manhunting Timeline” adds Iceland to the list of Western nations that were pressured, and suggests that the push to prosecute Assange is part of a broader campaign. The effort, it explains, “exemplifies the start of an international effort to focus the legal element of national power upon non-state actor Assange, and the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” The entry does not specify how broadly the government defines that “human network,” which could potentially include thousands of volunteers, donors and journalists, as well as people who simply spoke out in defense of WikiLeaks.


In a statement, the NSA declined to comment on the documents or its targeting of activist groups, noting only that the agency “provides numerous opportunities and forums for their analysts to explore hypothetical or actual circumstances to gain appropriate advice on the exercise of their authorities within the Constitution and the law, and to share that advice appropriately.”


But the entry aimed at WikiLeaks comes from credentialed officials within the intelligence community. In an interview in Hong Kong last June, Edward Snowden made clear that the only NSA officials empowered to write such entries are those “with top-secret clearance and public key infrastructure certificates” – a kind of digital ID card enabling unique access to certain parts of the agency’s system. What’s more, Snowden added, the entries are “peer reviewed” – and every edit made is recorded by the system.


The U.S. launched its pressure campaign against WikiLeaks less than a week after the group began publishing the Afghanistan war logs on July 25, 2010. At the time, top U.S. national security officials accused WikiLeaks of having “blood” on its hands. But several months later, McClatchy reported that “U.S. officials concede that they have no evidence to date that the documents led to anyone’s death.”


The government targeting of WikiLeaks nonetheless continued. In April 2011, Salon reported that a grand jury in Virginia was actively investigating both the group and Assange on possible criminal charges under espionage statutes relating to the publication of classified documents. And in August of 2012, the Sydney Morning Herald, citing secret Australian diplomatic cables, reported that “Australian diplomats have no doubt the United States is still gunning for Julian Assange” and that “Australia’s diplomatic service takes seriously the likelihood that Assange will eventually be extradited to the US on charges arising from WikiLeaks obtaining leaked US military and diplomatic documents.”


Bringing criminal charges against WikiLeaks or Assange for publishing classified documents would be highly controversial – especially since the group partnered with newspapers like The Guardian and The New York Times to make the war logs public. “The biggest challenge to the press today is the threatened prosecution of WikiLeaks, and it’s absolutely frightening,” James Goodale, who served as chief counsel of the Times during its battle to publish The Pentagon Papers, told the Columbia Journalism Review last March. “If you go after the WikiLeaks criminally, you go after the Times. That’s the criminalization of the whole process.”


In November 2013, The Washington Post, citing anonymous officials, reported that the Justice Department strongly considered prosecuting Assange, but concluded it “could not do so without also prosecuting U.S. news organizations and journalists” who had partnered with WikiLeaks to publish the documents. According to the Post, officials “realized that they have what they described as a ‘New York Times problem’” – namely, that any theory used to bring charges against Assange would also result in criminal liability for the Times, The Guardian, and other papers which also published secret documents provided to WikiLeaks.


 NSA proposals to target WikiLeaks


As the new NSA documents make clear, however, the U.S. government did more than attempt to engineer the prosecution of Assange. NSA analysts also considered designating WikiLeaks as a “malicious foreign actor” for surveillance purposes – a move that would have significantly expanded the agency’s ability to subject the group’s officials and supporters to extensive surveillance.


Such a designation would allow WikiLeaks to be targeted with surveillance without the use of “defeats” – an agency term for technical mechanisms to shield the communications of U.S. persons from getting caught in the dragnet.


That top-secret document – which summarizes a discussion between the NSA’s Office of the General Counsel and the Oversight and Compliance Office of the agency’s Threat Operations Center – spells out a rationale for including American citizens in the surveillance:


“If the foreign IP is consistently associated with malicious cyber activity against the U.S., so, tied to a foreign individual or organization known to direct malicious activity our way, then there is no need to defeat any to, from, or about U.S. Persons. This is based on the description that one end of the communication would always be this suspect foreign IP, and so therefore any U.S. Person communicant would be incidental to the foreign intelligence task.”


In short, labeling WikiLeaks a “malicious foreign target” would mean that anyone communicating with the organization for any reason – including American citizens – could have their communications subjected to government surveillance.


When NSA officials are asked in the document if WikiLeaks or Pirate Bay could be designated as “malicious foreign actors,” the reply is inconclusive: “Let us get back to you.” There is no indication of whether either group was ever designated or targeted in such a way.


The NSA’s lawyers did, however, give the green light to subject other activists to heightened surveillance. Asked if it would be permissible to “target the foreign actors of a loosely coupled group of hackers … such as with Anonymous,” the response is unequivocal: “As long as they are foreign individuals outside of the US and do not hold dual citizenship … then you are okay.”


NSA Lawyers: “It’s Nothing to Worry About”


Sanchez, the surveillance expert with the Cato Institute, says the document serves as “a reminder that NSA essentially has carte blanche to spy on non-Americans. In public statements, intelligence officials always talk about spying on ‘terrorists,’ as if those are the only targets — but Section 702 [of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act] doesn’t say anything about ‘terrorists.’ They can authorize collection on any ‘persons reasonably believed to be [located] outside the United States,’ with ‘persons’ including pretty much any kind of group not ‘substantially’ composed of Americans.”


Sanchez notes that while it makes sense to subject some full-scale cyber-attacks to government surveillance, “it would make no sense to lump together foreign cyberattackers with sites voluntarily visited by enormous numbers of Americans, like Pirate Bay or WikiLeaks.”


Indeed, one entry in the NSA document expressly authorizes the targeting of a “malicious” foreign server – offering Pirate Bay as a specific example –“even if there is a possibility that U.S. persons could be using it as well.” NSA officials agree that there is no need to exclude Americans from the surveillance, suggesting only that the agency’s spies “try to minimize” how many U.S. citizens are caught in the dragnet.


Another entry even raises the possibility of using X-KEYSCORE, one of the agency’s most comprehensive surveillance programs, to target communications between two U.S.-based Internet addresses if they are operating through a “proxy” being used for “malicious foreign activity.” In response, the NSA’s Threat Operations Center approves the targeting, but the agency’s general counsel requests “further clarification before signing off.”


If WikiLeaks were improperly targeted, or if a U.S. citizen were swept up in the NSA’s surveillance net without authorization, the agency’s attitude seems to be one of indifference. According to the document – which quotes a response by the NSA’s Office of General Counsel and the oversight and compliance office of its Threat Operations Center – discovering that an American has been selected for surveillance must be mentioned in a quarterly report, “but it’s nothing to worry about.”


The attempt to target WikiLeaks and its broad network of supporters drew sharp criticism from the group and its allies. “These documents demonstrate that the political persecution of WikiLeaks is very much alive,” says Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish former judge who now represents the group. “The paradox is that Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks organization are being treated as a threat instead of what they are: a journalist and a media organization that are exercising their fundamental right to receive and impart information in its original form, free from omission and censorship, free from partisan interests, free from economic or political pressure.”


For his part, Assange remains defiant. “The NSA and its U.K. accomplices show no respect for the rule of law,” he told The Intercept. “But there is a cost to conducting illicit actions against a media organization.” Referring to a criminal complaint that the group filed last year against “interference with our journalistic work in Europe,” Assange warned that “no entity, including the NSA, should be permitted to act against a journalist with impunity.”


Assange indicated that in light of the new documents, the group may take further legal action.


“We have instructed our general counsel, Judge Baltasar Garzón, to prepare the appropriate response,” he said. “The investigations into attempts to interfere with WikiLeaks’ work will go wherever they need to go. Make no mistake: those responsible will be held to account and brought to justice.”



Loan Complaints by Homeowners Rise Once More


February 18, 2014,

by Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Michael Corkery 

New York Times


A growing number of homeowners trying to avert foreclosure are confronting problems on a new front as the mortgage industry undergoes a seismic shift.


Shoddy paperwork, erroneous fees and wrongful evictions — the same abuses that dogged the nation’s largest banks and led to a $26 billion settlement with federal authorities in 2012 — are now cropping up among the specialty firms that collect mortgage payments, according to dozens of foreclosure lawsuits and interviews with borrowers, federal and state regulators and housing lawyers.


These companies are known as servicers, but they do far more than transfer payments from borrowers to lenders. They have great power in deciding whether homeowners can win a mortgage modification or must hand over their home in a foreclosure.


And they have been buying up servicing rights at a voracious rate. As a result, some homeowners are mired in delays and confronting the same heartaches, like the peculiar frustration of being asked for the same documents over and over again as the rights to their mortgage changes hands.


Wanda Darden of Riverdale, Md., has been bounced among three separate servicers since January 2012. Each time, the mix-ups multiply. “I either get conflicting answers or no answer at all,” said Ms. Darden, who is 62.


Servicing companies like Nationstar and Ocwen Financial now have 17 percent of the mortgage servicing market, up from 3 percent in 2010, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry publication.


 At first, some federal housing regulators quietly cheered the shift to the specialized companies, thinking that they could more nimbly help troubled homeowners without the same missteps. But as the buying bonanza steps up, some federal and state regulators are worried that the rapid growth could create new setbacks like stalled modifications for millions of Americans just as many were getting back on track from the housing crisis.


This month, New York State’s top banking regulator, Benjamin M. Lawsky, indefinitely halted the transfer of about $39 billion in servicing rights from Wells Fargo to Ocwen.


Katherine Porter, who was appointed by the California attorney general to oversee the national mortgage settlement, says complaints about mortgage transfers have surged, adding that the servicing companies have “overpromised and underdelivered.” Her office alone has received more than 300 complaints about servicing companies in the last year.

Top officials with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which oversees the specialty servicers, are scrutinizing the sales to ensure that homeowners don’t get lost in the shuffle.


“The process should be seamless for consumers,” said Steve Antonakes, a deputy director at the agency.


The servicing companies defend their track records, saying they have had success in keeping borrowers in their homes. Ocwen pointed to its investment in customer service, while Nationstar emphasized that it assisted 108,000 homeowners with some form of modification or other repayment plan in 2013.


Several factors have been benefiting the servicing companies. For one, the banks are eager to hand off some of their more challenging loans, and the regulatory headaches that come with them.


What is more, regulations passed after the financial crisis, including requirements that banks hold more of a cash cushion against the servicing rights, hamper profits, further diminishing the banks’ appetite for the business.


Unfettered by those requirements, the servicing companies have experienced breakneck growth. Since 2010, they have increased the number of mortgages they service by as much as six times, yielding strong returns for the companies’ investors, like the Fortress Investment Group, a private equity firm and the largest shareholder in Nationstar. It has seen its stock price double since going public in March 2012.


Despite the boom, some regulators and housing advocates say that the servicing companies are not doing enough to help homeowners keep their homes.


A Montana couple, Guy and Michelle Herman, thought they had finally won an agreement with their lender to reduce their mortgage bill and save their home after more than three years of fighting foreclosure.


A few months later, however, their mortgage modification appeared to have vanished. Their lender, Bank of America, had sold the right to collect their monthly mortgage payments to Nationstar in July.


“I feel like we got so close to the dream of keeping our house and suddenly it’s gone,” Ms. Herman said.


Some of the problems, analysts and regulators say, come down to the speed. The specialty servicers have not upgraded their technology or infrastructure to accommodate the glut of new mortgages.


Even more troubling, some regulators say, the servicers benefit when they work through the troubled loans as quickly as possible. That has raised questions about whether the companies are pushing homeowners into foreclosure or offering mortgage modifications that will keep homeowners treading water, but ultimately cause them to fall even further behind.


The servicing companies say they have bolstered customer service, including employing more Spanish-speaking representatives and offering flexible call hours.


“If these companies can do a better job rehabilitating the borrower, that is a good development,” said Wilbur Ross Jr., a board member of Ocwen, which says it offers more subprime mortgage modifications than many peers.

But some borrowers say that dealing with the specialty servicers is even more vexing than working with the banks, especially when long-promised loan modifications don’t materialize.


The Hermans of Columbia Falls, Mont., said that despite almost daily calls to Nationstar, they still could not get an explanation of how their permanent loan modification from Bank of America, which reduced the balance on their mortgage by nearly $80,000, could disappear.


“I don’t even know how to get a human on the line,” Mr. Herman said.


Nationstar said that the couple never had a permanent loan modification and added that it had since offered the Hermans a new modification.


But behind Mr. Herman’s exasperation is what separates the specialty servicers from the largest banks, according to regulators. The specialty servicers, the regulators say, do not offer the same attention to customer service that banks did.


Flaws in computer systems can further compound delays. At Ocwen, there is a dizzying number of computer codes, approximately 8,400 different varieties, to categorize issues within borrowers’ files like a job loss, according to a person briefed on the matter. Many of these codes, the person said, are duplicates.


Mr. Lawsky’s office, which installed an independent monitor at the company, is examining whether computer issues are wrongfully pushing homeowners into foreclosure. Ocwen says that they are not aware of any improper foreclosures.


The servicers also have relationships with companies that can benefit from foreclosures.


William Erbey, Ocwen’s chairman is also the chairman of Altisource Residential, which buys up delinquent mortgages and owns foreclosed homes turned into rentals. Altisource’s loans are serviced by Ocwen. According to securities filings, Mr. Erbey recuses himself from issues that relate to both companies and Ocwen adds it has a “strictly arms-length business relationship” with Altisource.


Specialty services may also be profiting at the expense of the investors who own the mortgages. Typically servicers get a fixed fee from investors for handling the mortgage payments, no matter if the borrower is up to date or has fallen behind.


But the dynamic of that business has changed, in part, because the specialty servicers are buying the rights to collect payments at discounts, along with the loan advances — the money that the servicers pay to investors to cover any delinquent payment. The sooner the servicer can make the loan current again, the sooner investors pay back the servicers’ advance in full. That kind of arbitrage could incentivize servicers to offer modifications that cause borrowers to default again, investors say.


Borrowers like Ms. Darden of Maryland, meanwhile, must contend with the changes in the market. “I just don’t know how much more of this I can take,” she said

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