TBR News JUly 6, 2013

Jul 07 2013


The Voice of the White House


Washington, D.C. July 6, 2013: “ Official Washington is livid with vindictive rage over the Snowden revelations, both past and future. They have made frantic efforts to lay their hands on him, both to punish him and prevent any more devastating exposures. They pressured their friends, the few left, in European governments to force down the personal aircraft of a head of state because some clever person passed them the disniformation that Snowden was on board. All of this reminds me of a story a friend of mine told me some time ago. He discovered that a neighbor was sexually molesting his daughter and turned him in to the police. They man was subsequently arrested and sent to jail for a long time. After this, the man’s wife ran around the neighborhood, telling anyone who would listen, that my friend had ruined her life and ought to be arrested! Mind you, not the guity husband but the good citizen who had him removed from society for his criminal acts!”



‘The World Will Be Shocked’: Greenwald on Upcoming NSA Exposé


Obama administration’s objective with Snowden is “to intimidate future whistleblowers from coming forward


July 2, 2013

by Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Common Dreams


“The world will be shocked” by the next story on the National Security Agency’s vast spying operations, said Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist leading the exposure—made possible by leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden—of the agency’s far-reaching surveillance.


Speaking Tuesday morning with conservative host Eric Bolling on Fox News’ Fox & Friends, Greenwald hinted that a new NSA story was forthcoming and potentially explosive. 


When asked if he was ready to unveil a new NSA scoop, Greenwald responded:

I will say that there are vast programs of both domestic and international spying that the world will be shocked to learn about that the NSA is engaged in with no democratic accountability, and that’s what’s driving our reporting.


Greenwald also gave a preview of this next exposé over the weekend during a speech given to the Socialism 2013 conference, saying it would report on “a brand new technology [that] enables the National Security Agency to redirect into its own repositories one billion cell phones calls every single day.”


The example the Obama administration is setting with Snowden, Greenwald explained to Bolling, is to give a warning to future whistleblowers that the repercussions will be swift and harsh.


I think what the Obama administration wants and has been trying to establish for the last almost five years now with the unprecedented war on whistleblowers that it is waging is to make it so that everybody is petrified of coming forward with information about what our political officials are doing in the dark that is deceitful, illegal or corrupt.


They don’t care about Edward Snowden at this point; he can no longer do anything that he hasn’t already done. What they care about is making an extremely negative example out of him to intimidate future whistleblowers from coming forward because they’ll think that they’re going to end up like him. That’s their objective.


On what he sees as “Snowden’s endgame,” Greenwald, who said he has not seen the whistleblower since he left Hong Kong, replied:


Well, from the very first time that I spoke with him he said that he completely understood that once he came forward against the U.S. government and the Obama administration that he would become the most wanted man on earth, and would be hunted down by the world’s most powerful state, and that he felt that it was worthwhile to do that because he could not in good conscience allow this massive spying program aimed at the American people to be constructed in the dark. And he said obviously he wants to stay out of the clutches of the U.S. government given the way they’ve persecuted whistleblowers. He’s obviously trying to find a place where he can do that but his real goal is to continue to be part of the conversation about why he did what he did, what it is that he saw in the NSA, how these spying powers were being abused, and to continue to make people around the world and his fellow citizens in the United States aware of what their government is doing.


Later on the program, Fox News legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr. said that Greenwald has been “involved with the WikiLeaks” and “has it a little bit mixed up.” Johnson called Greenwald “almost a flack, the alter-ego for the media” for Snowden. 


In the interview with Bolling, Greenwald explained:


This is what journalism is about—shining a light on what the most powerful people in the country are doing to them in the dark.


Johnson said that “transparency is the issue”—not the transparency of the U.S. government, officials or the NSA’s vast surveillance program—but about Mr. Greenwald, whom he said may be an “advocacy journalist,” not “merely a reporter.”



U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement


July 3, 2013

by Ron Nixon 

New York Times


WASHINGTON — Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home


“Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.


“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” said Mr. Pickering, who with his wife owns a small bookstore in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Postal officials subsequently confirmed they were indeed tracking Mr. Pickering’s mail but told him nothing else.


As the world focuses on the high-tech spying of the National Security Agency, the misplaced card offers a rare glimpse inside the seemingly low-tech but prevalent snooping of the United States Postal Service.


Mr. Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.


Together, the two programs show that postal mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.


The mail covers program, used to monitor Mr. Pickering, is more than a century old but is still considered a powerful tool. At the request of law enforcement officials, postal workers record information from the outside of letters and parcels before they are delivered. (Opening the mail would require a warrant.) The information is sent to the law enforcement agency that asked for it. Tens of thousands of pieces of mail each year undergo this scrutiny.


The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers. Highly secret, it seeped into public view last month when the F.B.I. cited it in its investigation of ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. It enables the Postal Service to retrace the path of mail at the request of law enforcement. No one disputes that it is sweeping.


“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” said Mark D. Rasch, who started a computer crimes unit in the fraud section of the criminal division of the Justice Department and worked on several fraud cases using mail covers. “Now it seems to be, ‘Let’s record everyone’s mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.’ Essentially you’ve added mail covers on millions of Americans.”


Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert and an author, said whether it was a postal worker taking down information or a computer taking images, the program was still an invasion of privacy.


“Basically they are doing the same thing as the other programs, collecting the information on the outside of your mail, the metadata, if you will, of names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations, which gives the government a pretty good map of your contacts, even if they aren’t reading the contents,” he said.


But law enforcement officials said mail covers and the automatic mail tracking program are invaluable, even in an era of smartphones and e-mail.


In a criminal complaint filed June 7 in Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, the F.B.I. said a postal investigator tracing the ricin letters was able to narrow the search to Shannon Guess Richardson, an actress in New Boston, Tex., by examining information from the front and back images of 60 pieces of mail scanned immediately before and after the tainted letters sent to Mr. Obama and Mr. Bloomberg showing return addresses near her home. Ms. Richardson had originally accused her husband of mailing the letters, but investigators determined that he was at work during the time they were mailed.


In 2007, the F.B.I., the Internal Revenue Service and the local police in Charlotte, N.C., used information gleaned from the mail cover program to arrest Sallie Wamsley-Saxon and her husband, Donald, charging both with running a prostitution ring that took in $3 million over six years. Prosecutors said it was one of the largest and most successful such operations in the country. Investigators also used mail covers to help track banking activity and other businesses the couple operated under different names.


Other agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services, have used mail covers to track drug smugglers and Medicare fraud.


“It’s a treasure trove of information,” said James J. Wedick, a former F.B.I. agent who spent 34 years at the agency and who said he used mail covers in a number of investigations, including one that led to the prosecution of several elected officials in California on corruption charges. “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena.”


But, he said: “It can be easily abused because it’s so easy to use and you don’t have to go through a judge to get the information. You just fill out a form.”


For mail cover requests, law enforcement agencies submit a letter to the Postal Service, which can grant or deny a request without judicial review. Law enforcement officials say the Postal Service rarely denies a request. In other government surveillance programs, like wiretaps, a federal judge must sign off on the requests.


The mail cover surveillance requests are granted for about 30 days, and can be extended for up to 120 days. There are two kinds of mail covers: those related to criminal activity and those requested to protect national security. Criminal activity requests average 15,000 to 20,000 per year, said law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are prohibited by law from discussing them. The number of requests for antiterrorism mail covers has not been made public.


Law enforcement officials need warrants to open the mail, although President George W. Bush asserted in a signing statement in 2007 that the federal government had the authority to open mail without warrants in emergencies or in foreign intelligence cases.


Court challenges to mail covers have generally failed because judges have ruled that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for information contained on the outside of a letter. Officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations, in fact, have used the mail-cover court rulings to justify the N.S.A.’s surveillance programs, saying the electronic monitoring amounts to the same thing as a mail cover. Congress briefly conducted hearings on mail cover programs in 1976, but has not revisited the issue.


            The program has led to sporadic reports of abuse. In May 2012, Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County supervisor in Arizona, was awarded nearly $1 million by a federal judge after winning a lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The sheriff, known for his immigration raids, had obtained mail covers from the Postal Service to track her mail. The judge called the investigation into Ms. Wilcox politically motivated because she had been a frequent critic of Mr. Arpaio’s, objecting to what she considered the targeting of Hispanics in his immigration sweeps. The case is being appealed.


In the mid-1970s the Church Committee, a Senate panel that documented C.I.A. abuses, faulted a program created in the 1950s in New York that used mail covers to trace and sometimes open mail going to the Soviet Union from the United States.


A suit brought in 1973 by a high school student in New Jersey, whose letter to the Socialist Workers Party was traced by the F.B.I. as part of an investigation into the group, led to a rebuke from a federal judge.


Postal officials refused to discuss either mail covers or the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program.


Mr. Pickering says he suspects that the F.B.I. requested the mail cover to monitor his mail because a former associate said the bureau had called with questions about him. Last month, he filed a lawsuit against the Postal Service, the F.B.I. and other agencies, saying they were improperly withholding information.


A spokeswoman for the F.B.I. in Buffalo declined to comment.


Mr. Pickering said that although he was arrested two dozen times for acts of civil disobedience and convicted of a handful of misdemeanors, he was never involved in the arson attacks the Earth Liberation Front carried out. He said he became tired of focusing only on environmental activism and moved back to Buffalo to finish college, open his bookstore, Burning Books, and start a family.


“I’m no terrorist,” he said. “I’m an activist.”


Mr. Pickering has written books sympathetic to the liberation front, but he said his political views and past association should not make him the target of a federal investigation. “I’m just a guy who runs a bookstore and has a wife and a kid,” he said.



Credit card donations to WikiLeaks flowing through Iceland again


July 3, 2013



STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – International credit card donations to WikiLeaks are flowing again after an Icelandic court ruling forced MasterCard’s and Visa’s local agent to process payments, the companies involved in processing the funds said.


One of WikiLeaks’ most important sources of funding – donations made from Visa and MasterCard users around the globe – was cut off in 2010 when the firms stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks’ direct payment line in Iceland.


Their move came after criticism by the United States of the anti-secrecy organization’s release of thousands of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables, which embarrassed Washington.


The online payment service PayPal, also among the firms that suspended WikiLeaks’ accounts used to collect donations, said at the time it had acted at the behest of the U.S. government, which deemed WikiLeaks’ activities illegal in the United States.


DataCell, the Icelandic data hosting provider that deals with WikiLeaks payments, this week announced that donations were now officially possible following the Icelandic Supreme Court’s decision in April.


WikiLeaks was not immediately available for comment.


“We have had donations from around the world,” DataCell’s Chief Executive Andreas Fink told Reuters. He did not give an exact amount.


Fink said DataCell had been processing about 70,000 euros a day in donations for WikiLeaks just before it was cut off. Iceland has been a key location for WikiLeaks due to its record of protecting Internet freedom.


WikiLeaks said its donations had fallen 95 percent after it was cut off by the world’s two largest credit and debit processors, even though it found some workarounds.


DataCell won a Supreme Court ruling against Visa’s and MasterCard’s local agent, Valitor, in April. It was announced only this week as DataCell awaited confirmation that the credit card payment line would remain open indefinitely.


“We can continue to process donations for WikiLeaks for as long as we like,” said Fink. “There has never been anything illegal. We have done normal business with a normal entity.”


Visa Europe said Valitor would comply with the court order. MasterCard was not immediately available for comment, but Valitor said it had received a go-ahead from the company.


“We have to honor the ruling of the Supreme Court,” said Sigurdur Gudjonsson, Valitor’s legal adviser. “The payment line should be open.”


The reopening of donations comes as WikiLeaks tries to help former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, holed up in a Moscow international airport, to get asylum.


A former director at DataCell said recently he would send a private plane for Snowden, wanted by Washington for espionage after divulging classified details of U.S. phone and Internet surveillance, if Iceland granted him asylum.


WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, who fled to Ecuador’s embassy in London last year to avoid extradition to Sweden to face rape and sexual assault allegations, has said the financial blockade cost WikiLeaks in excess of $20 million.


(Reporting by Mia Shanley; Editing by Jon Boyle and Kevin Liffey)


Partner and Target: NSA Snoops on 500 Million German Data Connections


June 30, 2013

by Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark




NSA spying is targeting Germany more intensely than previously believed. Secret documents viewed by SPIEGEL reveal that the American intelligence service monitors around half a billion telephone calls, emails and text messages in the country every month.

America’s National Security Agency (NSA) is apparently spying on Germany more than previously believed. Secret documents from the US intelligence service, which have been viewed by SPIEGEL journalists, reveal that the NSA systematically monitors and stores a large share of the country’s telephone and Internet connection data.

Internal NSA statistics indicate that the agency stores data from around half a billion communications connections in Germany each month. This data includes telephone calls, emails, mobile-phone text messages and chat transcripts. The metadata — or information about which call or data connections were made and when — is then stored at the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, near Washington, DC.


 The documents show for the first time the scope of American surveillance in Germany. Previously, it had only been clear that Germany had been one of the major targets of NSA spying. A map published by the Guardian shows that Germany is on a par with targets such as China, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in terms of the intensity of electronic snooping. For weeks now, new details have emerged from documents collected by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the NSA’s Prism and Britain’s Tempora digital spying programs.


 The statistics, which SPIEGEL has also seen, show that data is collected from Germany on normal days for up to 20 million telephone calls and 10 million Internet data exchanges. Last Christmas Eve, it collected data on around 13 million phone calls and about half as many online exchanges. On the busiest days, such as January 7 of this year, the information gathered spiked to nearly 60 million communication connections under surveillance.


 The NSA, it turns out, is more active in Germany than in any other of the EU’s 27 member states. By comparison, during the same time frame, the Americans only recorded data on an average of 2 million connections in France each day. The documents also show that the NSA is primarily interested in important Internet hubs in southern and western Germany. Frankfurt, for example, plays an important role in the global Internet infrastructure, and the city is listed as a central base for the country.


 One top secret document also states that while Germany may be a partner, it is still also a target of the NSA’s electronic snooping. According to the document, Germany is a so-called “3rd party foreign partner.” The only countries that are explicitly excluded from spying attacks are Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. “We can, and often do, target the signals of most 3d party foreign partners,” a slide from an internal presentation states.  ssss


 In its current issue, SPIEGEL also reports that the NSA targeted European Union diplomatic offices in Washington and New York, placing bugs in offices as well as infiltrating computer networks.



Spying Survey: Trust in US at Lowest Level Since Bush


July 5, 2013



Ongoing revelations about the NSA spying scandal have pushed German trust in the US to its lowest level since the presidency of George W. Bush. A new survey also finds that Germans want Chancellor Merkel to stand up to Washington.


It wasn’t all that long ago that US President Barack Obama could take credit for having repaired a trans-Atlantic relationship that had taken a hit under his predecessor, George W. Bush. Early in his first term, some 78 percent of Germans saw the US as “a country that could be trusted.”


This week, though, following revelations of large-scale US spying in Europe and vast Internet surveillance, that trust has taken a hit. A survey released late on Thursday found that only 49 percent of Germans now view the United States as trustworthy, the lowest level since Bush was in the White House. It also marks a plunge of 16 points relative to a survey taken in December 2011.


The survey is based on interviews with 1,500 people conducted from Monday to Wednesday of this week, just as news was breaking that the US had bugged European Union diplomatic representations in Washington and New York and spent years closely watching digital communications to, from and within Germany. SPIEGEL broke the story in this week’s issue, published on Monday.


The reaction has been one of outrage, with top German politicians demanding that the spying cease immediately. And the survey, undertaken by pollsters infratest-dimap for the public television station ARD, would seem to indicate that many in the country share that indignation. Fully 78 percent agreed with the statement that German Chancellor Angela Merkel “must protest more unequivocally to the US.”


Trust in UK Falls


Still, the survey also showed that respondents don’t believe that Germany can do much about US snooping. Sixty-seven percent believe that the German state doesn’t have the power to protect the country from spying.


The reputation of the United Kingdom — which was also revealed to have been engaged in tight Internet surveillance — has also suffered according to the survey. Only 63 percent of Germans now see the country as a trustworthy partner, down 17 points. The date of comparison for Britain, however, is late 2009. The survey does not make it clear whether the drop in standing is a result of the surveillance revelations or stems from other causes, such as what is widely perceived to be London’s anti-EU attitudes.


For all of the angst the spying scandal has triggered in the top echelons of Germany’s government, it seems not yet to have translated to Germans’ voting preferences. The survey found that, while satisfaction with Merkel has dropped by 3 percent relative to a survey taken last month, the gap in support between her conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats is greater than it has been since 2005. Some 42 percent of respondents said they would vote for Merkel’s Christian Democrats (or its Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union) were the election this Sunday against just 25 percent for the SPD.


Still, when it comes to likely coalition partners, the SPD has the better cards. The Green Party continues to have strong support, with the ARD survey finding that 14 percent of Germans are planning to vote for the party. By contrast, support for Merkel’s junior coalition partner the Free Democrats (FDP) continues to be weak, with 4 percent support. Parties must receive at least 5 percent support for representation in German parliament, the Bundestag.



Does the NSA go head-hunting at Facebook?


July 5, 2013

by Ben Knight


Last month’s revelation that a former Facebook chief security officer was now working for the NSA has shown the close relationship between social media firms and intelligence agencies. But where else would they recruit?


The extent of US data collection now suggests something like a mania in Washington, with reports of allies being bugged as well as enemies. But where does the expertise come from? When it comes to data collection, there is one digital industry that specializes in it. It is barely a decade old, but it has taken over almost every aspect of our lives – social media.


The border between protecting private data and collecting it is narrow, and, as it turns out, easily punctured. Last month, the New York Times revealed that in 2010, Max Kelly, the man in charge of protecting the personal data of Facebook’s 1.1 billion users, left his job and moved into a post at another major US organization involved in data analysis: the National Security Agency, the branch of the Defense Department responsible for collecting and analyzing digital transmissions.


Kelly, the former chief security officer for the world’s biggest social media platform, had moved to the spy agency just a few months after its PRISM program had begun to collect data from Facebook. Kelly’s move – kept secret for three years – provides a stark illustration of the deep connections between NSA activities and social media.


“Silicon Valley has what the spy agency wants: vast amounts of private data and the most sophisticated software available to analyze it,” the newspaper wrote. “The agency in turn is one of Silicon Valley’s largest customers for what is known as data analytics, one of the valley’s fastest-growing markets.”


The New York Times also reported that to pursue its ends, the NSA has even turned into a venture capitalist investor – ploughing some of its estimated $8 – 10 billion (6 – 7.5 billion euro) budget into Silicon Valley start-ups.


‘Google seeks defense contracts’


It’s obvious that state intelligence organizations have always been interested in collecting data, and IT companies have long been selling their equipment and expertise to the US government, but the rising value of customer data for consumer marketing purposes means that data collection has been a key point of interest for commercial companies too. One side needs the intelligence, while the other wants profits. Coupled with exponential advances in data storage technology, these are perfect circumstances for mutually beneficial cooperation.


“US online marketers have created a pervasive and unaccountable personalized data collection and targeting apparatus – they really can gather and reach us nearly 24/7,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of Washington-based digital rights NGO Center for Digital Democracy. “It’s not really us providing the data voluntarily. The Prism debate should focus on the growth of the unaccountable commercial data empires and facilitating technologies.” 


The link between social media companies and government agencies is not news to Chester. “There’s always been a revolving door between phone companies and government agencies,” he told DW. “Companies like Google and Microsoft actively seek Defense Department contracts.”


“I think it’s very troubling that the NSA is recruiting someone who is so high up at Facebook,” he added. “The NSA is simply replicating what social media surveillance is already doing. While Facebook and others claim social media is a tool for empowerment, it’s also being widely used for wide-ranging political and corporate surveillance.”


Size and complexity


The scale of the cooperation between the NSA and social media remains a mystery, but the technological capabilities of social networks are well-known. “They are tapping real-time geographic location and history,” Chester said. “They have been working to expand their ways to mine information on their users and their activities. They have created so-called ‘social media command centers’ with which they analyze and monitor social media.”


Simon Weiss, of the Berlin branch of Germany’s Pirate Party that specializes in Internet freedom issues, says that there is as urgent need for more transparency. “We can assume that the larger social media companies actively cooperate with state authorities,” Weiss told DW in an email. “But without public information we can only speculate about the exact extent and form of the cooperation. We know from the latest Google ‘Transparency report’ that the number of requests for information from state sources to social networks have been rising constantly in the past few years.”


“Our public information about how often which data is called on, and on what basis, should not be based on voluntary reports from Internet firms,” he added. “That is something that the respective authorities should be obliged to disclose to the public.”


Secrecy the sticking point


Carl Miller, research director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at UK think tank Demos, was also unsurprised by the revelations about Max Kelly. After all, where else are government agencies going to recruit experts from? “All the data mining and big data analytics technologies which are now required to understand social media – the expertise to conduct those, the data science, doesn’t sit within government,” he told DW. “We actually thought there needs to be a structure in place to allow government to draw on where this expertise is most concentrated, which really is in the private sector.”


And yet, as Snowden’s revelations show, there is a big gap between what is happening and what we are being told. Social media sites repeatedly assert that they only share data with government agencies when they are legally compelled to. But in fact, social media sites are being more proactive than that – according to the New York Times, they are putting together teams of in-house experts to find ways of making our data more directly available to government agencies.


Jury service for surveillance decisions?


Miller argues that the problem is not necessarily the surveillance programs themselves, but the secrecy that surrounds them – the fact that no one had even heard of PRISM or Tempora until last month. “Social media and intelligence can both pay great dividends to public safety and security, but at the same time it needs to be done in a publicly-argued framework,” he said. “And in many cases it does feel like it is being done without the clear knowledge and consent of society, and that is definitely a cause for concern.”


Miller can also see why security forces are so keen on mining data from social media. “The growth of social media means that we have transported our social lives to these digital platforms, and that means all of our social lives,” he said. “All the good things – working together, cooperating, debating, but also the bits of our social lives that are illegal or problematic. There needs to be a response to this from the agencies which keep us safe. Social media is increasingly a forum for crime and facilitating criminals.”


His own solution to the security vs. privacy balance sounds rather radical: “I think what’s required is a more profound shake-up of oversight and surveillance,” he said. “Maybe we need something that is more directly democratic – more like jury service. Where say 50 individuals are picked at random, cleared, and in our names for six months make decisions about whether the steps are being taken are necessary and proportionate.”


Agreements with private companies protect U.S. access to cables data for surveillance

July 6, 3013

by Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima,

Washington Post


The U.S. government had a problem: Spying in the digital age required access to the fiber-optic cables traversing the world’s oceans, carrying torrents of data at the speed of light. And one of the biggest operators of those cables was being sold to an Asian firm, potentially complicating American surveillance efforts.


In months of private talks, the team of lawyers from the FBI and the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security demanded that the company maintain what amounted to an internal corporate cell of American citizens with government clearances. Among their jobs, documents show, was ensuring that surveillance requests got fulfilled quickly and confidentially.


This “Network Security Agreement,” signed in September 2003 by Global Crossing, became a model for other deals over the past decade as foreign investors increasingly acquired pieces of the world’s telecommunications infrastructure.


The publicly available agreements offer a window into efforts by U.S. officials to safeguard their ability to conduct surveillance through the fiber-optic networks that carry a huge majority of the world’s voice and Internet traffic.


The agreements, whose main purpose is to secure the U.S. telecommunications networks against foreign spying and other actions that could harm national security, do not authorize surveillance. But they ensure that when U.S. government agencies seek access to the massive amounts of data flowing through their networks, the companies have systems in place to provide it securely, say people familiar with the deals.


Negotiating leverage has come from a seemingly mundane government power: the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to approve cable licenses. In deals involving a foreign company, say people familiar with the process, the FCC has held up approval for many months while the squadron of lawyers dubbed Team Telecom developed security agreements that went beyond what’s required by the laws governing electronic eavesdropping.


The security agreement for Global Crossing, whose fiber-optic network connected 27 nations and four continents, required the company to have a “Network Operations Center” on U.S. soil that could be visited by government officials with 30 minutes of warning. Surveillance requests, meanwhile, had to be handled by U.S. citizens screened by the government and sworn to secrecy — in many cases prohibiting information from being shared even with the company’s executives and directors.


“Our telecommunications companies have no real independence in standing up to the requests of government or in revealing data,” said Susan Crawford, a Yeshiva University law professor and former Obama White House official. “This is yet another example where that’s the case.”


The full extent of the National Security Agency’s access to fiber-optic cables remains classified. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement saying that legally authorized data collection “has been one of our most important tools for the protection of the nation’s — and our allies’ — security. Our use of these authorities has been properly classified to maximize the potential for effective collection against foreign terrorists and other adversaries.”


It added, “As always, the Intelligence and law enforcement communities will continue to work with all members of Congress to ensure the proper balance of privacy and protection for American citizens.”


Collecting information


Documents obtained by The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper in recent weeks make clear how the revolution in information technology sparked a revolution in surveillance, allowing the U.S. government and its allies to monitor potential threats with a reach impossible only a few years earlier.


Yet any access to fiber-optic cables allows for possible privacy intrusions into Americans’ personal communications, civil libertarians say.


As people worldwide chat, browse and post images through online services, much of the information flows within the technological reach of U.S. surveillance. Though laws, procedural rules and internal policies limit how that information can be collected and used, the data from billions of devices worldwide flow through Internet choke points that the United States and its allies are capable of monitoring.


This broad-based surveillance of fiber-optic networks runs parallel to the NSA’s PRISM program, which allows analysts to access data from nine major Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Apple, according to classified NSA PowerPoint slides. (The companies have said the collection is legal and limited.)


One NSA slide titled, “Two Types of Collection,” shows both PRISM and a separate effort labeled “Upstream” and lists four code names: Fairview, Stormbrew, Blarney and Oakstar. A diagram superimposed on a crude map of undersea cable networks describes the Upstream program as collecting “communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past.”


The slide has yellow arrows pointing to both Upstream and PRISM and says, “You Should Use Both.” It also has a header saying “FAA 702 Operations,” a reference to a section of the amended Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that governs surveillance of foreign targets related to suspected terrorism and other foreign intelligence.


Under that provision, the government may serve a court order on a company compelling it to reach into its networks for data on multiple targets who are foreigners reasonably believed to be overseas. At an Internet gateway, the government may specify a number of e-mail addresses of foreigners to be targeted without the court signing off on each one.


When the NSA is collecting the communications of a foreign, overseas target who is speaking or e-mailing with an American, that American’s e-mail or phone call is considered to be “incidentally” collected. It is considered “inadvertently” collected if the target actually turns out to be an American, according to program rules and people familiar with them. The extent of incidental and inadvertent collection has not been disclosed, leading some lawmakers to demand disclosure of estimates of how many Americans’ communications have been gathered. No senior intelligence officials have answered that question publicly.


Using software that scans traffic and “sniffs out” the targeted e-mail address, the company can pull out e-mail traffic automatically to turn over to the government, according to several former government officials and industry experts.


It is unclear how effective that approach is compared with collecting from a “downstream” tech company such as Google or Facebook, but the existence of separate programs collecting data from both technology companies and telecommunications systems underscores the reach of government intelligence agencies.


“People need to realize that there are many ways for the government to get vast amounts of e-mail,” said Chris Soghoian, a technology expert with the American Civil Liberties Union.


Controlling the data flow


The drive for new intelligence sources after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks relied on a key insight: American companies controlled most of the Internet’s essential pipes, giving ample opportunities to tap the torrents of data flowing by. Even terrorists bent on destruction of the United States, it turned out, talked to each other on Web-based programs such as Microsoft’s Hotmail.


Yet even data not handled by U.S.-based companies generally flowed across parts of the American telecommunications infrastructure. Most important were the fiber-optic cables that largely have replaced the copper telephone wires and the satellite and microwave transmissions that, in an earlier era, were the most important targets for government surveillance.


Fiber-optic cables, many of which lie along the ocean floor, provide higher-quality transmission and greater capacity than earlier technology, with the latest able to carry thousands of gigabits per second.


The world’s hundreds of undersea cables now carry 99 percent of all intercontinental data, a category that includes most international phone calls, as well, says TeleGeography, a global research firm.


The fiber-optic networks have become a rich source of data for intelligence agencies. The Guardian newspaper reported last month that the Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the NSA, taps and stores data flowing through the fiber-optic cables touching that nation, a major transit point for data between Europe and the Americas. That program, code-named Tempora, shares data with the NSA, the newspaper said.


Tapping undersea transmission cables had been a key U.S. surveillance tactic for decades, dating back to the era when copper lines carrying sensitive telephone communications could be accessed by listening devices divers could place on the outside of a cable’s housing, said naval historian Norman Polmar, author of “Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage.”


“The U.S. has had four submarines that have been outfitted for these special missions,” he said.


But the fiber-optic lines — each no thicker than a quarter — were far more difficult to tap successfully than earlier generations of undersea technology, and interception operations



It’s much easier to collect information from any of dozens of cable landing stations around the world — where data transmissions are sorted into separate streams — or in some cases from network operations centers that oversee the entire system, say those familiar with the technology who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.


Expanding powers


In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the NSA said its collection of communications inside the United States was constrained by statute, according to a draft report by the agency’s inspector general in 2009, which was obtained by The Post and the Guardian. The NSA had legal authority to conduct electronic surveillance on foreigners overseas, but the agency was barred from collecting such information on cables as it flowed into and through the United States without individual warrants for each target.


“By 2001, Internet communications were used worldwide, underseas cables carried huge volumes of communications, and a large amount of the world’s communications passed through the United States,” the report said. “Because of language used in the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] Act in 1978, NSA was required to obtain court orders to target e-mail accounts used by non-U.S. persons outside the United States if it intended to intercept the communications at a webmail service within the United States. Large numbers of terrorists were using such accounts in 2001.”


As a result, after White House and CIA officials consulted with the NSA director, President George W. Bush, through a presidential order, expanded the NSA’s legal authority to collect communications inside the United States. The President’s Surveillance Program, the report said, “significantly increased [NSA’s] access to transiting foreign communications.”


Gen. Michael Hayden, then the NSA director, described that information as “the real gold of the program” that led to the identification of threats within the United States, according to the inspector general’s report.


Elements of the President’s Surveillance Program became public in 2005, when the New York Times reported the government’s ability to intercept e-mail and phone call content inside the United States without court warrants, sparking controversy. The FISA court began oversight of those program elements in 2007.


As these debates were playing out within the government, Team Telecom was making certain that surveillance capacity was not undermined by rising foreign ownership of the fiber-optic cables that the NSA was using.


The Global Crossing deal created particular concerns. The company had laid an extensive network of undersea cables in the world, but it went bankrupt in 2002 after struggling to handle more than $12 billion in debt.


Two companies, one from Singapore and a second from Hong Kong, struck a deal to buy a majority stake in Global Crossing, but U.S. government lawyers immediately objected as part of routine review of foreign investment into critical U.S. infrastructure.


President Gerald Ford in 1975 had created an interagency group — the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS — to review deals that might harm U.S. national security. Team Telecom grew out of that review process. Those executive branch powers were expanded several times over the decades and became even more urgent after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the Defense Department became an important player in discussions with telecommunications companies.


The Hong Kong company soon withdrew from the Global Crossing deal, under pressure from Team Telecom, which was worried that the Chinese government might gain access to U.S. surveillance requests and infrastructure, according to people familiar with the negotiations.


Singapore Technologies Telemedia eventually agreed to a slate of concessions, including allowing half of the board of directors of a new subsidiary managing the undersea cable network to consist of American citizens with security clearances. They would oversee a head of network operations, a head of global security, a general counsel and a human resources officer — all of whom also would be U.S. citizens with security clearances. The FBI and the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security had the power to object to any appointments to those jobs or to the directors who had to be U.S. citizens.


U.S. law already required that telecommunications companies doing business in the United States comply with surveillance requests, both domestic and international. But the security agreement established the systems to ensure that compliance and to make sure foreign governments would not gain visibility into the working of American telecommunications systems — or surveillance systems, said Andrew D. Lipman, a telecommunications lawyer who has represented Global Crossing and other firms in negotiating such deals.


“These Network Security Agreements flesh out the details,” he said.


Lipman, a partner with Bingham McCutchen, based in Washington, said the talks with Team Telecom typically involve little give and take. “It’s like negotiating with the Motor Vehicle Department,” he said.


Singapore Technologies Telemedia sold Global Crossing in 2011 to Level 3 Communications, a company based in Colorado. But the Singaporean company maintained a minority ownership stake, helping trigger a new round of review by Team Telecom and a new Network Security Agreement that added several new conditions.


A spokesman for Level 3 Communications declined to comment for this article



‘The real threat to our future is peak water’


As population rises, overpumping means some nations have reached peak water, which threatens food supply, says Lester Brown


July 6, 2013

by Lester Brown

The Observer


Peak oil has generated headlines in recent years, but the real threat to our future is peak water. There are substitutes for oil, but not for water. We can produce food without oil, but not without water.


We drink on average four quarts (4.5 litres) of water per day, in one form or another, but the food we eat each day requires 2,000 quarts of water to produce, or 500 times as much. Getting enough water to drink is relatively easy, but finding enough to produce the ever-growing quantities of grain the world consumes is another matter.


Grain consumed directly supplies nearly half of our calories. That consumed indirectly as meat, milk, and eggs supplies a large part of the remainder. Today roughly 40% of the world grain harvest comes from irrigated land. It thus comes as no surprise that irrigation expansion has played a central role in tripling the world grain harvest over the last six decades.


During the last half of the 20th century, the world’s irrigated area expanded from 232m acres (93m hectares) in 1950 to 706m in 2000. This tripling of world irrigation within 50 years was historically unique. But since then the growth in irrigation has come to a near standstill, expanding only 9% between 2000 and 2010.


Farmers get their irrigation water either from rivers or from underground aquifers. Historically, beginning with the Sumerians some 6,000 years ago, irrigation water came from building dams across rivers, creating reservoirs that then enabled them to divert the water onto the land through a network of gravity-fed canals. This method of irrigation prevailed until the mid 20th century, but with few remaining sites for building dams the prospects for expanding surface irrigation faded. Farmers then turned to drilling wells to tap underground water resources.


In doing so, they learned that there are two types of aquifers: those that are replenishable through rainfall, which are in the majority, and those that consist of water laid down eons ago, and thus do not recharge. The latter, known as fossil aquifers, include two strategically important ones, the deep aquifer under the North China Plain and the Ogallala aquifer under the US Western Great Plains.


In looking at water and our future, we face many questions and few answers. Could the world be facing peak water? Or has it already peaked?


Tapping underground water resources, which got seriously underway in the mid-20th century, helped expand world food production, but as the demand for grain continued climbing the amount of water pumped continued to grow. Eventually the extraction of water began to exceed the recharge rate of aquifers from precipitation, and water tables began to fall. In effect, overpumping creates a water-based food bubble, one that will burst when the aquifer is depleted and the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge from precipitation.


Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers – China, India, and the United States – and several other populous countries, including Iran, Pakistan and Mexico.


During the last two decades, several of these countries have overpumped to the point that their aquifers are being depleted and their wells are going dry. They have passed not only peak water, but also peak grain production. Their aquifers are being depleted, their wells are going dry, and their grain harvests are shrinking. Among the countries whose use of water has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In these countries peak grain has followed peak water.


Nowhere are falling water tables and the shrinkage of irrigated agriculture more dramatic than in Saudi Arabia, a country as water-poor as it is oil-rich. After the Arab oil export embargo in 1975, the Saudis realised they were vulnerable to a counter-embargo on grain. To become self-sufficient in wheat, they developed a heavily subsidised irrigated agriculture based largely on pumping water from fossil aquifers.


After being self-sufficient in wheat for over 20 years, the Saudis announced in early 2008 that, with their aquifers largely depleted, they would reduce wheat planting by one-eighth each year until 2016, when production would end. By then Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15m tons of wheat, rice, corn and barley to feed its Canada-sized population of 30 million. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.


Syria, a country of 22 million people riddled by civil war, is also overpumping its underground water. Its grain production peaked in 2002 and during the decade since then has dropped 30%. It, too, is becoming heavily dependent on imported grain.


Grain production in neighbouring Iraq peaked in 2004. By 2012 it had dropped 33%, forcing the government to turn to the world market to feed its people. In addition to aquifer depletion, both Syria and Iraq are also suffering to a lesser degree from a reduced flow in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as upstream Turkey claims more water for its own use.


In Yemen, a nation of 23 million people that shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, the water table is falling by roughly 4ft a year as water use outstrips aquifer recharge. With one of the world’s fastest-growing populations and with water tables falling everywhere, Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basketcase. Grain production has fallen by half over the last 35 years. By 2015 irrigated fields will be a rarity and the country will be importing virtually all of its grain. Living on borrowed water and borrowed time, Yemen could disintegrate into an area of tribes warring over water.


Thus in the Arab Middle East the world is seeing the collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments in the region to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them.


Other countries with much larger populations, such as Iran, Pakistan and Mexico, are also near or beyond peak water. In Iran, a country with 81 million people, grain production dropped 10% between 2007 and 2012 as its irrigation wells started to go dry. One quarter of its current grain harvest is based on overpumping. With its population growing by over a million per year, it too faces a day of reckoning.


Pakistan, with a population of 177 million that is growing by 4 million per year, is also mining its underground water. Most of its irrigation water comes from the Indus river system, but in the Pakistani part of the fertile Punjab plain the drop in water tables appears to be similar to the well-known fall that is occurring in India.


Observation wells near the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi showed a fall in the water table between 1982 and 2000 that ranged from 3ft to 6ft a year. In the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan, water tables around the capital, Quetta, are falling by 3.5m per year – pointing to the day when the city will run out of water. Sardar Riaz A. Khan, former director of Pakistan’s Arid Zone Research Institute in Quetta, reports that six of Balochistan’s seven basins have exhausted their groundwater supplies, leaving their irrigated lands barren.


In a World Bank study, water expert John Briscoe says: “Pakistan is already one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, a situation which is going to degrade into outright water scarcity due to high population growth.” He then notes that “the survival of a modern and growing Pakistan is threatened by water”.


In Mexico – home to a population of 109 million that is projected to reach 129 million by 2050 – the demand for water is outstripping supply. Mexico City’s water problems are well known. Rural areas are also suffering. In the agricultural state of Guanajuato, the water table is falling by 2m or more a year. In the northwestern state of Sonora, farmers once pumped water from the Hermosillo aquifer at a depth of 35ft. Today they pump from 400ft. Mexico’s water supply appears to have peaked. Peak grain may be imminent.


Thus far only smaller countries have suffered a water-driven decline in grain harvests. Some midsize countries, such as Iran, Pakistan and Mexico, appear to be on the verge of doing so. But now aquifer depletion also threatens harvests in the big three grain producers – China, India and the United States – that together produce half of the world’s grain. The question is not whether water shortages will affect future harvests in these countries, but rather when they will do so.


Among the big three, dependence on irrigation varies widely. Some four-fifths of China’s grain harvest comes from irrigated land, most of it drawing on surface water. For India, three-fifths of its grain is irrigated, mostly with groundwater. For the United States, only one-fifth of the harvest is from irrigated land. The bulk of the grain crop is rain-fed, produced in the highly productive midwestern corn belt, where there is little or no irrigation.


Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvest prospects in China, which rivals the United States as the wor1d’s largest grain producer. A groundwater survey released in Beijing in 2001 indicated that the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces over half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, was falling fast. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well-drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.


The survey reported that under Hebei province in the heart of the North China Plain, the average level of the deep aquifer was dropping nearly 10ft per year. Around some cities in the province, it was falling twice as fast. He Qingcheng, head of the groundwater monitoring team, notes that as the deep aquifer is depleted the region is losing its last water reserve – its only safety cushion.


In 2010, He Qingcheng reported that Beijing was drilling down 1,000ft to reach an aquifer, five times deeper than 20 years ago. His concerns are mirrored in the unusually strong language of a World Bank report on China’s water situation that foresees “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.


As serious as water shortages are in China, they are even more alarming in India, where the margin between food consumption and survival is so precarious. In India, whose population is growing by 18 million per year, irrigation depends almost entirely on underground water. And since there are no restrictions on well drilling, farmers have drilled some 21m irrigation wells and are pumping vast amounts of underground water.


In this global epicentre of well drilling, pumps powered by heavily subsidised electricity are dropping water tables at an accelerating rate. Among the states most affected are Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat in the north and Tamil Nadu in the south. In north Gujarat, the water tables are falling by 20ft per year.


In Tamil Nadu, a state of 72 million people, falling water tables are drying up wells everywhere. Kuponlari Palanisamy of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University reports that falling water tables have dried up 95% of the wells owned by small farmers, reducing the irrigated area in the state by half over the last decade.


India’s grain harvest has been expanding rapidly in recent years, but in part for the wrong reason, namely massive overpumping. A 2005 World Bank study reports that 15% of India’s food supply is produced by mining groundwater. Stated otherwise, 175 million Indians are now fed with grain produced with the unsustainable use of water. As early as 2004, Fred Pearce reported in New Scientist that “half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometre.”


As India’s water table falls, well drillers are using modified oil-drilling technology to reach water, going down a half mile or more in some locations. In communities where underground water sources have dried up entirely, all agriculture is now rainfed and drinking water must be trucked in. Tushaar Shah, who heads the International Water Management Institute’s groundwater station in Gujarat, says of India’s water situation: “When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India.”


In the United States, farmers are over-pumping in the Western Great Plains, including in several leading grain-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. In these states, irrigation has not only raised wheat yields but it has also enabled a shift from wheat to corn, a much higher-yielding crop. Kansas, for example, long known as the leading wheat state, now produces more corn than wheat.


Irrigated agriculture has thrived in these states, but the water is drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground water body that stretches from Nebraska southwards to the Texas Panhandle. It is, unfortunately, a fossil aquifer, one that does not recharge. Once it is depleted, the wells go dry and farmers either go back to dryland farming or abandon farming altogether, depending on local conditions.


In the states that draw their irrigation water from the Ogallala aquifer, wells are starting to go dry. In Texas, a large grain and cattle state, which is located on the shallow end of the aquifer, irrigated area peaked in 1975 and has dropped 37% since then. In Oklahoma, irrigation peaked in 1982 and has dropped by 25%. In Kansas the peak did not come until 2009, but during the three years since then it has dropped precipitously, falling nearly 30%. Nebraska, now also a leading corn-producing state, saw its irrigated area peak in 2007. Since then its grain harvest has shrunk by 15%. Even though aquifer depletion is reducing grain output in several key states, it is not yet sufficient to reduce the overall US grain harvest, the bulk of which is produced in the rain-fed midwestern corn belt.


At the international level, water conflicts, such as the one in the Nile river basin between Egypt and the upstream countries, dominate the headlines. But within countries it is the competition for water between cities and farms that preoccupies political leaders. Indeed, in many countries farmers now face not only a shrinking water supply as aquifers are pumped dry, but also a shrinking share of that shrinking supply. In large areas of the United States, such as the southern great plains and the southwest, virtually all water is now spoken for. The growing water needs of major cities and thousands of small towns often can be satisfied only by taking water from agriculture. As the value of water rises, more farmers are selling their irrigation rights to cities, letting their land dry up.


In the western United States, hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a new sale. Half or more of all sales are by individual farmers or their irrigation districts to cities and municipalities. Felicity Barringer, writing in the New York Times from California’s Imperial Valley, notes that many fear that “a century after Colorado river water allowed this land to be a Cornucopia, unfettered urban water transfers could turn it back into a desert”.


In June, 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that the farmers in California’s highly productive Imperial Valley had agreed to sell a massive quantity of irrigation water to San Diego county. This sale of water, enough to meet the household needs of nearly one million people, is the largest farm-to-city transfer of water in US history. It will dramatically reduce food production in the Imperial Valley, a huge vegetable garden not only for California, but for countless other markets as well.


Colorado, with a fast-growing population, has one of the wor1d’s most active water markets. Cities and towns of all sizes are buying irrigation water rights from farmers and ranchers. In the Arkansas river basin, which occupies the southeastern quarter of the state, Colorado Springs and Aurora (a suburb of Denver) have already bought water rights to one-third of the basin’s farmland. Aurora has purchased rights to water that was once used to irrigate 19,000 acres of cropland in the Arkansas valley. The US Geological Survey estimates that 400,000 acres of farmland dried up statewide between 2000 and 2005.


Colorado is not alone in losing irrigation water. Farmers in India are also losing their irrigation water to cities. This is strikingly evident in Chennai [formerly Madras], a city of 9 million on the east coast. As a result of the city government’s inability to supply water to many of its residents, a thriving tank-truck industry has emerged that buys water from nearby farmers and hauls it to the city’s thirsty residents.


For farmers near cities, the market price of water typically far exceeds the value of the crops they can produce with it. Unfortunately the 13,000 privately owned tank trucks hauling water to Chennai are mining the region’s underground water resources. As water tables fall, eventually even the deeper wells will go dry, depriving rural communities of both their food supply and their livelihood.


In the competition for water between farmers on the one hand and cities and industries on the other, farmers always lose. The economics do not favour agriculture. In countries such as China, where industrial development and the jobs associated with it are an overriding national economic goal, agriculture is becoming the residual claimant on the water supply.


In countries where virtually all water has been claimed, cities can typically get more water only by taking it from irrigation. Countries then import grain to offset the loss of irrigated grain production. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, importing grain is the most efficient way to import water. Thus trading in grain futures is, in a sense, trading in water futures. To the extent that there is a world water market, it is embodied in the world grain market. We can now see how overpumping, whether in the Arab Middle East or the US great plains, can lead to aquifer depletion and shrinking grain harvests. In short, peak water can lead to peak grain. For some countries this is no longer merely a theoretical possibility. It is a reality.


Thus far, aquifer depletion has translated into shrinking harvests only in smaller countries in the Middle East. When we look at middle-sized countries such as Iran, Mexico and Pakistan, with tightening water supplies, we see that Iran is already in deep trouble. It is feeling the effects of shrinking water supplies from overpumping. Pakistan may also have reached peak water. If so, peak grain may not be far behind. In Mexico the water supply may have already peaked. With less water for irrigation, Mexico may be on the verge of a downturn in its grain harvest.


In summarising prospects for the three big grain producers – the US, China and India – we see sharp contrasts. In the US, the irrigated area is starting to shrink largely as a result of depletion of the Ogallala aquifer , making it more difficult to continue increasing grain production.


China, with four-fifths of its grain harvest coming from irrigated land, relies heavily on irrigation, but it is largely river water. A notable exception to this is the all-important North China Plain which relies heavily on underground water. With tight water supplies in northern China and with cities claiming more irrigation water, the shrinking water supply will likely reduce the harvest in some local situations. And before long it could more than offset production gains leading to an absolute decline in China’s grtain harvest.


Of the big three countries, the one most vulnerable to overpumping is India. Three-fifths of its grain harvest comes from irrigated land. And since only a small portion of its irrigation water comes from rivers, India is overwhelmingly dependent on underground water. Its 21m wells, each powered with a diesel engine or electric motor, are dropping the water table at an alarming rate.


The Indian government, recognising the political significance of its falling water tables, has classified data on aquifer depletion, refusing to make it public. India may have already passed peak water. The question is, will peak water be followed by peak grain or is there enough unrealised technological potential remaining to raise yields enough to offset any imminent losses from wells going dry?


The world has quietly transitioned into a situation where water, not land, has emerged as the principal constraint on expanding food supplies. There is a large area of land that could produce food if water were available. Water scarcity is not our only challenge. Two huge new dustbowls are forming , one in northwest China and the other in the Sahelian region of Africa. These giant dustbowls dwarf the US dustbowl of the 1930s.


Just as harvests are shrinking in some countries because of aquifer depletion, they are shrinking in other countries because of soil erosion. Among the more dramatic examples are Mongolia and Lesotho, which have both seen their grain harvests shrink by half in recent decades as a result of soil erosion.


The bottom line is that water constraints augmented by soil erosion, the loss of cropland, a shrinking backlog of unused agricultural technology, and climate change are making it more difficult to expand world food production. Is it possible that the negative influences on future food production could offset the positive ones during this second decade of the century?



Lester Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity (WW Norton 2012)


Global threat to food supply as water wells dry up, warns top environment expert



Lester Brown says grain harvests are already shrinking as US, India and China come close to ‘peak water’


July 6, 2013

by John Vidal, environment editor

The Observer


Wells are drying up and underwater tables falling so fast in the Middle East and parts of India, China and the US that food supplies are seriously threatened, one of the world’s leading resource analysts has warned.


In a major new essay Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, claims that 18 countries, together containing half the world’s people, are now overpumping their underground water tables to the point – known as “peak water” – where they are not replenishing and where harvests are getting smaller each year.


The situation is most serious in the Middle East. According to Brown: “Among the countries whose water supply has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. By 2016 Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15m tonnes of wheat, rice, corn and barley to feed its population of 30 million people. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.


“The world is seeing the collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments in the region to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them.”


Brown warns that Syria’s grain production peaked in 2002 and since then has dropped 30%; Iraq has dropped its grain production 33% since 2004; and production in Iran dropped 10% between 2007 and 2012 as its irrigation wells started to go dry.


“Iran is already in deep trouble. It is feeling the effects of shrinking water supplies from overpumping. Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basket case. Grain production has fallen there by half over the last 35 years. By 2015 irrigated fields will be a rarity and the country will be importing virtually all of its grain.”


There is also concern about falling water tables in China, India and the US, the world’s three largest food-producing countries. “In India, 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping, in China 130 million. In the United States the irrigated area is shrinking in leading farm states with rapid population growth, such as California and Texas, as aquifers are depleted and irrigation water is diverted to cities.”


Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvest prospects in China, which rivals the US as the world’s largest grain producer, says Brown. “The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces more than half of the country’s wheat and a third of its maize is falling fast. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.”


The situation in India may be even worse, given that well drillers are now using modified oil-drilling technology to reach water half a mile or more deep. “The harvest has been expanding rapidly in recent years, but only because of massive overpumping from the water table. The margin between food consumption and survival is precarious in India, whose population is growing by 18 million per year and where irrigation depends almost entirely on underground water. Farmers have drilled some 21m irrigation wells and are pumping vast amounts of underground water, and water tables are declining at an accelerating rate in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.”


In the US, farmers are overpumping in the Western Great Plains, including in several leading grain-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Irrigated agriculture has thrived in these states, but the water is drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground water body that stretches from Nebraska southwards to the Texas Panhandle. “It is, unfortunately, a fossil aquifer, one that does not recharge. Once it is depleted, the wells go dry and farmers either go back to dryland farming or abandon farming altogether, depending on local conditions,” says Brown.


“In Texas, located on the shallow end of the aquifer, the irrigated area peaked in 1975 and has dropped 37% since then. In Oklahoma irrigation peaked in 1982 and has dropped by 25%. In Kansas the peak did not come until 2009, but during the three years since then it has dropped precipitously, falling nearly 30%. Nebraska saw its irrigated area peak in 2007. Since then its grain harvest has shrunk by 15%.”


Brown warned that many other countries may be on the verge of declining harvests. “With less water for irrigation, Mexico may be on the verge of a downturn in its grain harvest. Pakistan may also have reached peak water. If so, peak grain may not be far behind.”

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