TBR News November 15, 2013

Nov 15 2013

The Voice of the White House

        Washington, D.C. November 14, 2013: “Yesterday, I was talking on the phone about Thanksgiving with an old friend when I heard a pop and click on the line and a voice said: ‘He doesn’t come on duty for another hour’ followed by a short buzzing noise. I at once began to talk, in hushed tones, as follows:


 ‘I spoke with the Colonel yesterday and he said the entire plan is about to be launched. Of course the Saudis’ will be furious but when the thing is over, they will all be dead or in exile in London. And yes, the president of the bank will go along with the entire plan.”


My friend, who knows me well, laughed and made some comment about the Grand Council and we then talked about turkey roasting.


This will give the snot-munchers something to think about, if they are capable of thought, that is.


            I find that those who can, work in the private sector and those who can’t, work for the government.


            If a little learning is a dangerous thing, learn to live dangerously and work for the government!”


Is NSA spying really about blackmail?


November 14, 2013 

by Dave Lindorff



A revealing page-one article in today’s New York Times (“Tap on Merkel Provides Peek a Vast Spy Net”) reports on how the NSA’s global spying program, dating back at least to early in the Bush/Cheney administration, was vacuuming up the phone conversations (and no doubt later the internet communications) of not just leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but opposition leader Merkel before her party took power in Germany.


As the Times puts it, the phone monitoring, which actually dates back to the Cold War Era before 1990, “is hardly limited to the 35 leaders of countries like Germany, and also includes their top aides and the heads of opposing parties.”


That’s pretty far-reaching, and the paper says that it has learned, primarily courtesy of revelations from the documents released by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden, that the spying went even beyond that, to target up-and-coming potential leaders of so-called “friendly states.”


But the Times buys without question the explanation offered by professional liar James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence and ultimate head of the embattled National Security Agency, that the NSA’s spying on leaders and potential was and is and has been, first of all, well known to presidents, and secondly that its purpose was simply to see “if what they’re saying gels with what’s actually going on, as well as how other countries’ policies “impact us across a whole range of issues.”


That’s pretty broad. The first explanation is really a euphemistic way of saying the NSA wants to see if American’s purported friends and allies are lying. The second is a euphemistic way of saying that the US is spying to gain inside information about its allies’ political goals and strategies, and probably their negotiating positions on things like trade treaties, international regulations, etc.


What the Times does not ask in its entire report on this spying program on leaders and potential leaders is whether there could be another motive for this extraordinary spying campaign on leaders: blackmail.


Is President Obama listening in on others courtesy the NSA, or is the NSA listening in on him, and if so, for whom?


How else to explain the remarkably tepid response from the leaders who are the victims of this spying by the NSA on their private communications? How else to explain Europe’s unwillingness to grant sanctuary to Snowden, who after all has allowed them to know about the perfidy of the US? How else to explain Europe’s supine acquiescence to the US in its criminal wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, and its unquestioning support of Israel?




The Daunting Challenge of Secure E-mail

November 9, 2013

by Matthew Green

The New Yorker


          When users of Lavabit, an encrypted e-mail service, logged on to the site this past August, they found a bewildering letter on the site’s main page. Ladar Levison, the founder and sole employee of Lavabit, had shut down his business rather than “become complicit in crimes against the American people.” Lavabit subscribers would later discover that Levison had walked away because federal investigators had asked him to hand over his master decryption key, which would have granted them unfettered access to most of Lavabit’s data. Shortly afterward, the encryption provider Silent Circle followed suit, summarily deleting its users’ stored mail and mothballing its e-mail servers. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, which should have driven demand for their services, encrypted e-mail providers were, in the United States at least, rapidly becoming an endangered species. This leads to a question that has received relatively little attention: Why is encrypted e-mail so rare in the first place?


More than ninety-five per cent of all e-mail flowing over the Internet today does so in a vulnerable, unencrypted form. Yet the technology used to encrypt e-mail is hardly new: in 1991, a hacker named Philip Zimmermann uploaded a free encryption program, modestly called Pretty Good Privacy, to the Internet. Better known today as P.G.P., it was nothing short of revolutionary. For the first time in history, the average citizen had access to encryption that even the N.S.A. couldn’t break. Whereas e-mail before P.G.P. was like sending an open-faced postcard through the mail, every P.G.P.-encrypted message enjoyed privacy on par with the fabled Zero Halliburton diplomatic attaché case, even if what you e-mailed was only a picture of your cat.


The most basic form of encryption is based on a single secret code, which functions as a key that allows the reader to unlock the sender’s scrambled message; anyone who gets ahold of that key could unscramble the message. But P.G.P. and its successors use a form of cryptography known as public-key cryptography, which was developed in the nineteen-seventies. Users have two keys: a public key that can be shared, which encrypts messages that are sent to them, and one that they keep private, to decrypt the messages they receive. Prior to the release of P.G.P., public-key cryptography was generally reserved for military and government use—and was viewed as inappropriate for individual users on personal computers. P.G.P. made these advanced encryption algorithms available to the masses.


Free-speech advocates rejoiced; lawmakers panicked. Zimmermann was investigated by a grand jury on charges of “exporting a munition,” the same charge that would be levelled against an international arms dealer. Many observers predicted one of two extreme outcomes: either Zimmermann would win, and all of our communications would be encrypted—making them entirely opaque to governments and law-enforcement agencies—or governments would get their way and only “government-approved” encryption technologies would survive. Neither option happened. The Justice Department did decide to back off, handing Zimmermann and his fellow pro-cryptography activists, or “cypherpunks,” what appeared to be an overwhelming political and legal victory. But it turned out to be somewhat hollow: the government had given up partly because it realized that encryption wasn’t going mainstream at all.


The main reason for this is as sad as it is simple: encrypting e-mail is just hard. Before you can send your friend an encrypted message, she must first install the software, generate an encryption key pair, and deliver the public portion to you. You must then download and install that key on your own computer and verify that it’s the right key—not a fake one sent to trick you. You must repeat this process for everyone else you want to talk to. And that’s before sending a single message.


While this might not seem terribly onerous, it’s more than enough to dissuade most users. When it comes to technology people use every day, even a tiny bit of extra complexity can spell doom. In one famous study, researchers from Carnegie Mellon and U.C. Berkeley asked a group of tech-savvy volunteers to try P.G.P. Some participants just gave up. Others took actions that completely negated the purpose of encryption, like e-mailing their secret decryption key instead of the message. (To put this in everyday terms: that’s like buying a fancy safe, then taping the combination to the door.) Few continued using it in the long term.


What’s more, even when you do get encryption working correctly, it still leaves a lot of useful data vulnerable to eavesdroppers. For example, tools like P.G.P. don’t encrypt the “metadata” associated with e-mails—stuff like dates, e-mail addresses, and even subject lines. In some instances this is inevitable—it’s hard to deliver e-mail without knowing the destination, after all—but in many cases it’s a result of the drive to stay compatible with regular e-mail, since encrypting the sending e-mail address and subject line would pose awkward problems for users who prefer to view their e-mail with standard mail programs. But, as we’re now learning, this metadata can be just as valuable as the message itself, if not more so. It’s also awfully difficult to protect this information while e-mail is in transit.


Lastly, there’s the problem of securing your decryption keys. These keys are everything. If you simply store them on your computer, you risk losing them and access to everything; meanwhile, you can access your e-mail from only one machine. But if you store them on a server for convenience—as Lavabit’s users did—an attacker who infiltrates this server (or the network leading into it) can potentially read all of your mail.


These problems aren’t intractable. It’s possible that talented engineers could solve them, with the help of companies like Apple, Microsoft, or Google, who provide mail services and applications to millions and millions of people. But they have little incentive to do so for consumers. While most mail programs support some sort of e-mail encryption (usually S/MIME), it’s often targeted at large enterprises, where an I.T. support staff can manage your keys. And for Google, which makes money by selling you ads based on the content of your e-mails, there’s not much of an upside in obscuring what they contain. So the conventional wisdom about mass e-mail encryption has remained unchanged for a decade or more: it’s a good idea whose time has just not come.


There is one possibility that it could change. Last month, Levison and Silent Circle proposed a new technological partnership named the Dark Mail Alliance. Very few details about Dark Mail are public yet, so we’ll have to wait and see how the technology works. But some early indicators are hopeful. For one, Dark Mail takes an entirely different approach from previous e-mail-encryption tools. It will encrypt both data and metadata, including e-mail subjects. Keys won’t be held long-term or ever stored on a server; they’ll be generated on the fly by your device and new ones will be periodically generated for each batch of e-mail—a technique that’s worked well for popular chat-encryption technologies like Off-the-Record Messaging. Thus, even if a Dark Mail provider is hacked or compelled to disclose your data, the government won’t get much more than a pile of encrypted bits; they’ll need to force you to disclose your password to unscramble them.


By far the biggest hope for Dark Mail is that it will provide tools that real people can understand and use. The rise of smartphones and tablet devices could change everything for e-mail encryption: P.G.P. was never designed with ordinary users in mind, yet these new devices make it easier than ever to build dedicated, secure platforms with simple user interfaces. Silent Circle already runs a popular encrypted phone service as a kind of testament to this possibility, Silent Phone, which is used by millions of paying users, including decidedly non-geeky F.B.I. agents and corporate C.E.O.s. The challenge with Dark Mail, and what we’re all waiting to see, is whether Levison and Silent Circle can offer these capabilities without locking users into a single provider, since an e-mail service is only as valuable as the set of people you can communicate with.


If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past several months, it’s that the Internet is a very different place from what we thought it was. If you’re sending e-mail “in the clear,” you no longer have to ask if it’s being read—we know it is. The question is who’s reading it. In this environment, we’re not going to preserve our privacy from dragnet surveillance through legislation or wishful thinking. The only guaranteed way forward is through technological solutions, and these can’t just be modestly better or easier to use than what we have today. They must be spectacular.


Matthew Green is a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University. He teaches applied cryptography and builds secure systems.


The Surveillance State Puts U.S. Elections at Risk of Manipulation

Imagine what Edward Snowden could have accomplished if he had a different agenda. 


November 7, 2013

by Conor Friedersdorf

The Atlantic


Did the Obama Administration ever spy on Mitt Romney during the recent presidential contest? Alex Tabarrok, who raised the question at the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, acknowledges that it is provocative. Until recently, he would’ve regarded it as a “loony” question, he writes, and he doesn’t think that President Obama ordered the NSA to spy on Romney for political gain.


Let’s be clear: I don’t think so either. In every way, I regard Obama as our legitimate head of state, full stop. But I agree with Tabarrok that today, “the only loonies are those who think the question unreasonable.” * Most Americans have a strong intuition that spying and electoral manipulation of that kind could never happen here. I share that intuition, but I know it’s nonsense: the Nixon Administration did spy on its opponents for political gain. Why do I worry that an unreformed surveillance state could put us in even greater jeopardy of such shenanigans?


Actually, I have a particular scenario in mind, and it seems frighteningly plausible. I’ll sketch it out at the end of this article. But first, let’s get back to Tabarrok:


Do I think Obama ordered the NSA to spy on Romney for political gain? No. Some people claim that President Obama didn’t even know about the full extent of NSA spying. Indeed, I imagine that President Obama was almost as surprised as the rest of us when he first discovered that we live in a mass surveillance state in which billions of emails, phone calls, Facebook metadata and other data are being collected.


The answer is yes, however, if we mean did the NSA spy on political candidates like Mitt Romney. Did Mitt Romney ever speak with Angela Merkel, whose phone the NSA bugged, or any one of the dozens of her advisers that the NSA was also bugging? Did Romney exchange emails with Mexican President Felipe Calderon? Were any of Romney’s emails, photos, texts or other metadata hovered up by the NSA’s break-in to the Google and Yahoo communications links?


Almost certainly the answer is yes.


Of course, that doesn’t mean that Romney’s information was improperly exploited during the election. “Did the NSA use the information they gathered on Mitt Romney and other political candidates for political purposes? Probably not,” Tabarrok writes. “Will the next president or the one after that be so virtuous so as to not use this kind of power? I have grave doubts. Men are not angels.”


I’ll tell you why I agree on both counts.


Why do I doubt Romney was treated unfairly? Because I doubt Obama would have dared order it, and because the prospect of a Romney victory didn’t threaten either the NSA nor a contractor like Booz Allen Hamilton nor the national-security state generally. There was reason to believe he’d have been friendlier to them than Obama!


The scenario I worry about most isn’t actually another Richard Nixon type in the Oval Office, though that could certainly happen. What I worry about actually more closely resembles Mark Felt, the retired FBI agent exposed 32 years after Watergate as Deep Throat **—that is, I worry more about people high up inside the national-security state using their insider knowledge to help take down a politician. Is part of the deference they enjoy due to politicians worrying about that too?


Imagine a very plausible 2016 presidential contest in which an anti-NSA candidate is threatening to win the nomination of one party or the other—say that Ron Wyden is challenging Hillary Clinton, or that Rand Paul might beat Chris Christie. Does anyone doubt where Keith Alexander or his successor as NSA director would stand in that race? Or in a general election where an anti-NSA candidate might win?


What would an Alexander type do if he thought the victory of one candidate would significantly rein in the NSA with catastrophic effects on national security? Would he really do nothing to prevent their victory?


I don’t know. But surely there is some plausible head of the NSA who’d be tempted to use his position to sink the political prospects of candidates antagonistic to the agency’s interests. And we needn’t imagine something so risky and unthinkable as direct blackmail.


Surveillance-state defenders will want to jump in here and insist that there are already internal safeguards and congressional oversight to prevent the abuses I am imagining. But I don’t buy it. It isn’t just that I can’t help but think Alexander could find a way to dig up dirt on politicians if he wanted to without it ever getting out to overseers or the public.


Forget about Alexander. Let’s think about someone much lower in the surveillance state hierarchy: Edward Snowden. As we know, Snowden broke protocol and violated his promise to keep classified information secret because his conscience demanded it: He believed that he was acting for the greater good; his critics have called him a narcissist for taking it upon himself to violate rules and laws he’d agreed to obey.


It isn’t hard to imagine an alternative world in which the man in Snowden’s position was bent not on reforming the NSA, but on thwarting its reformers—that he was willing to break the law in service of the surveillance state, fully believing that he was acting in the best interests of the American people.


A conscience could lead a man that way too.


This Bizarro Edward Snowden wouldn’t have to abscond to a foreign country with thousands of highly sensitive documents. He wouldn’t have to risk his freedom. Affecting a U.S. presidential election would be as easy as quietly querying Rand Paul, or Ron Wyden, or one of their close associates, finding some piece of damaging information, figuring out how someone outside the surveillance state could plausibly happen upon that information, and then passing it off anonymously or with a pseudonym to Politico, or The New York Times, or Molly Ball. Raise your hand if you think that Snowden could’ve pulled that off.


And if you were running for president, or senator, even today, might you think twice about mentioning even an opinion as establishment friendly as, “Hey, I’m all for NSA surveillance, but I don’t trust a private contractor like Booz Allen Hamilton to do it”? Maybe safeguards put in place since the first Snowden leak would prevent a Bizarro Edward Snowden with strong Booz loyalties from targeting you.


Maybe. Why risk it?


In yet another scenario, the NSA wouldn’t go so far as to use information obtained through surveillance to affect an election. But they’d use it to their advantage to thwart the reform agenda of the candidate they didn’t like if he or she won.


And maybe the NSA would be as horrified by this sort of thing as I am. But maybe one of their contractors is on the payroll of a foreign government, and that person wants to affect a presidential election by exploiting the unprecedented amounts of data that the surveillance state has collected and stored on almost everyone.


American democracy could be subverted in all sorts of hypothetical ways. Why worry about this one in particular? Here’s the general standard I’d submit as the one that should govern our thinking: If a powerful institutional actor within government has a strong incentive to do something bad, the means to do it, and a high likelihood of being able to do it without getting caught, it will be done eventually.


The NSA has the incentive. At least as recently as the Snowden leaks, an unknown number of its employees or contractors had the means. And many informed observers believe abuse undetected by overseers could be easily accomplished.


If this particular abuse happened, it would be ruinous to self-government.


Let’s fix this before it causes a scandal even bigger than Watergate—or permits behavior more scandalous than Watergate that is never uncovered, rectified or punished.




*And yes, it’s just as legitimate to ask, did the Bush Administration spy on John Kerry?


**How sure are we that we know why he leaked?



Here’s how people are changing their Internet habits to avoid NSA snooping


November 7, 2013

by Timothy B. Lee

Washington Post


 This year’s revelations of domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency have caused Washington Post readers to take new steps to protect their privacy online, the results of an online survey show.


“I’ve begun educating myself on internet security and privacy,” one reader wrote. In an atmosphere of increased concern about surveillance, users have adopted privacy-enhancing technologies, ditched services they deemed to have inadequate privacy protections, and even cut back on using the Internet for sensitive communications altogether.


The survey was not based on a random sample, so it may not be representative of all visitors to washingtonpost.com, to say nothing of all Americans. But the 81 readers who provided in-depth responses provided a fascinating glimpse of how privacy-conscious users have reacted to Ed Snowden’s revelations.


The privacy-enhancing tactic mentioned by the most readers was to avoid the use of mainstream cloud computing services, especially Gmail. “I deleted everything from my gmail account and switched to an account that comes with a domain I own,” wrote one reader. The individual uses a desktop e-mail client and avoids “leaving my e-mail on [the] server any longer than necessary.”


About 17 other users took similar precautions, halting or reducing their use of Dropbox, Yahoo Mail, and other cloud computing services. These precautions were presumably a reaction to the revelations of the NSA’s PRISM program, which gives the NSA access to the contents of Gmail and other cloud Internet services.


Almost a dozen users also reported that they had switched from mainstream search engines like Google or Yahoo to DuckDuckGo. Unlike its larger competitors, this independent search engine doesn’t track its users. That means the company wouldn’t have much information to share if the NSA came knocking.


Several users reported installing privacy-enhancing software on their computers. Leading the list was Tor, a network of servers that helps users anonymize their online activity. Also popular is HTTPS Everywhere, an extension for the Firefox and Chrome browsers that causes these browsers to always use the encrypted “https” version of the web’s fundamental protocol when accessing Web sites that support encryption.


Several users mentioned using Ghostery, a sophisticated tool for managing and blocking the third-party cookies that Web sites use to track users from site to site. A few readers also reported that they had started experimenting with using PGP software to encrypt their e-mail communications.


The irony of asking for full names and e-mail addresses in a survey about online privacy was not lost on Switch readers. “The questionnaire can’t be for real. I thought I inadvertently connected to ‘the Onion,'” one reader wrote in the comment section. Other commenters described the survey as “bizarre” and “creepy.”


Some survey respondants indicated that they had cut back on using the Internet to send sensitive personal information. But a much larger group told us that they hadn’t changed their Internet habits at all.


“If the NSA wants to know I spend too much time researching fantasy football, hotels in Las Vegas, and the best way to roast pumpkin seeds, so be it,” one wrote. “You only have something to fear if you are looking up things that the NSA would consider dangerous to US citizens.”


Other respondents haven’t changed their habits because they believe doing so is hopeless. “There is simply no defense against the NSA if they are targeting you,” one reader claimed. “I accept that I am a minnow swimming in a pool full of sharks,” wrote another.


Added a third respondent: “I always add the following to my emails ‘Hey NSA, go f–k yourselves.'”



South Florida Faces Ominous Prospects From Rising Waters


November 10, 2013

by Nick Madigan 

New York Times


MIAMI BEACH — In the most dire predictions, South Florida’s delicate barrier islands, coastal communities and captivating subtropical beaches will be lost to the rising waters in as few as 100 years.


Further inland, the Everglades, the river of grass that gives the region its fresh water, could one day be useless, some scientists fear, contaminated by the inexorable advance of the salt-filled ocean. The Florida Keys, the pearl-like strand of islands that stretches into the Gulf of Mexico, would be mostly submerged alongside their exotic crown jewel, Key West.


“I don’t think people realize how vulnerable Florida is,” Harold R. Wanless, the chairman of the geological sciences department at the University of Miami, said in an interview last week. “We’re going to get four or five or six feet of water, or more, by the end of the century. You have to wake up to the reality of what’s coming.”


Concern about rising seas is stirring not only in the halls of academia but also in local governments along the state’s southeastern coast.


The four counties there — Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach, with a combined population of 5.6 million — have formed an alliance to figure out solutions.


Long battered by hurricanes and prone to flooding from intense thunderstorms, Florida is the most vulnerable state in the country to the rise in sea levels.


Even predictions more modest than Professor Wanless’s foresee most of low-lying coastal Florida subject to increasingly frequent floods as the polar ice caps melt more quickly and the oceans surge and gain ground.


Much of Florida’s 1,197-mile coastline is only a few feet above the current sea level, and billions of dollars’ worth of buildings, roads and other infrastructure lies on highly porous limestone that leaches water like a sponge.


But while officials here and in other coastal cities, many of whom attended a two-day conference on climate change last week in Fort Lauderdale, have begun to address the problem, the issue has gotten little traction among state legislators in Tallahassee.


The issue appears to be similarly opaque to segments of the community — business, real estate, tourism — that have a vested interest in protecting South Florida’s bustling economy.


“The business community for the most part is not engaged,” said Wayne Pathman, a Miami land-use lawyer and Chamber of Commerce board member who attended the Fort Lauderdale conference. “They’re not affected yet. They really haven’t grasped the possibilities.”


It will take a truly magnificent effort, Mr. Pathman said, to find answers to the critical issues confronting the area. Ultimately, he said, the most salient indicator of the crisis will be the insurance industry’s refusal to handle risk in coastal areas here and around the country that are deemed too exposed to rising seas.


“People tend to underestimate the gravity here, I think, because it sounds far off,” said Ben Strauss, the director of the Program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists. “People are starting to tune in, but it’s not front and center. Miami is a boom town now, but in the future that I’m very confident will come, it will be obvious to everyone that the sea is marching inland and it’s not going to stop.”


The effects on real estate value alone could be devastating, Dr. Strauss said. His research shows that there is about $156 billion worth of property, and 300,000 homes, on 2,120 square miles of land that is less than three feet above the high tide line in Florida.


At that same level, Dr. Strauss said, Florida has 2,555 miles of road, 35 public schools, one power plant and 966 sites listed by the Environmental Protection Agency, such as hazardous waste dumps and sewage plants.


The amount of real estate value, and the number of properties potentially affected, rises incrementally with each inch of sea-level rise, he said.


Professor Wanless insists that no amount of engineering proposals will stop the onslaught of the seas. “At two to three feet, we start to lose everything,” he said.


The only answer, he said, is to consider drastic measures like establishing a moratorium on development along coastal areas and to compel residents whose homes are threatened to move inland.


Local officials say they are doing what they can. Jason King, a consultant for the Seven50 Southeast Florida Prosperity Plan, an economic blueprint for seven southeastern counties over the next half-century, said it proposed further replenishing of beaches and mangrove forests, raising roads, and building flood-control gates, backflow preventers and higher sea walls.


Here on Miami Beach, a densely populated 7.5-square-mile barrier island that already becomes flooded in some areas each time there is a new moon or a heavy rain, city officials have approved a $200 million project to retrofit its overwhelmed storm-water system, which now pumps floodwaters onto the island when it should be draining them off, and make other adjustments.


“The sky is not falling, but the water is rising,” said Charles Tear, the Miami Beach emergency management coordinator, who stood at an intersection at the edge of Maurice Gibb Park, just two feet above sea level, that floods regularly.


Mr. Tear said he and other city officials were focused on the more conservative prediction that the seas will rise by five to 15 inches over the next 50 years.


“We can’t look at 100 years,” he said. “We have to look at the realistic side.”


James F. Murley, the executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, was similarly unmoved by the more calamitous predictions.


“We’re not comfortable looking at 2100,” he said, noting that for planning purposes he adhered to a projection that foresaw two feet of sea-level rise by 2060.


Whatever the specifics of the predictions, the Miami Beach city manager, Jimmy L. Morales, said he and his staff had to consider whether “we should adopt more aggressive assumptions” about the effects of climate change.


Officials here are seeking advice from the Netherlands, famous for its highly effective levees and dikes, but the very different topography of Miami Beach and its sister coastal cities does not lend itself to the fixes engineered by the Dutch.


“Ultimately, you can’t beat nature, but you can learn to live with it,” Mr. Morales said. “Human ingenuity is incredible, but do we have the political will? Holland sets aside $1 billion a year for flood mitigation, and we have a lot more coastline than they do.”


Spying Scandal Alters U.S. Ties With Allies and Raises Talk of Policy Shift


November 11, 2013

by Alison Smale and David E. Sanger

New York Times


BERLIN — Just as European and American negotiators resumed work on a groundbreaking trade accord meant to tie their two continents closer together, René Obermann, the chief executive of Deutsche Telekom, the German telecommunications giant, told a cybersecurity conference in Germany on Monday that his company was working to keep electronic message traffic from “unnecessarily” crossing the Atlantic, where it could fall into the hands of the National Security Agency.


Other German executives, and some politicians, are beginning to talk of segmenting the Internet, so that they are not reliant on large American firms that by contract or court order allow United States intelligence agencies to delve into their data about phone and Internet usage. Europeans are demanding that any new trade accord include data-privacy protections that the United States is eager to avoid.


Almost never before has a spying scandal — in this case the revelation of the monitoring of the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — resulted in such a concrete, commercial backlash. Now it is also driving a debate inside the American government about whether the United States, which has long spied on allies even while nurturing them as partners, may have to change its approach.


“What’s more important?” Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the director of the N.S.A., asked during an interview last month, before the Merkel revelations. “Partnering with countries may be more important than collecting on them,” he said, especially when it comes to protecting against cyberthreats to the computer networks of the world’s largest economies.


So far the Obama administration has refused to talk publicly about that choice, other than to provide Germany with assurances that now, and in the future, Ms. Merkel’s cellphone conversations will be safe. In the past two weeks, two pairs of senior German officials have visited Washington trying to negotiate a new accord on intelligence sharing that would set ground rules as their government faces its own choice between gently pushing back a protector that has patently played a double game for years, or asserting its power in ways unknown since 1945.


John C. Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany, said he “simply cannot imagine” how the United States could target Germans that way “and not end up with egg all over their face.”


“It was unbelievably stupid, for no gain,” he said.


Over the weekend Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel that “there should be a wholesale housecleaning” of the American intelligence community, and, echoing Mr. Kornblum, said that General Alexander “should resign, or be fired.”


The White House has backed General Alexander, who is scheduled to retire early next year, but even some of President Obama’s advisers have begun questioning the judgment of the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., who is supposed to review the costs and benefits of these operations, and some officials, saying they are speaking for themselves, have suggested he should leave around the time General Alexander does.


“The only way the president is going to get a fresh start with the allies,” one of his advisers said last week, “is to present them with a new team.”


Germany is now toughening its demands that the United States respect all domestic and international laws — code words for ceasing the surveillance on German soil amid rising anger at the United States. Veteran observers of relations between the two nations suspect that over time the anger will abate, as it has in past spy scandals. But that may not prove to be as easy as the officials hope. Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who worked on European security issues for Presidents George Bush and George W. Bush, noted recently “the broad drifting away” between Europe and the United States.


For its part, Germany has amassed a different kind of power as Europe’s foremost economy. And, as Berlin’s bridling at United States Treasury criticism of its economic policy showed last week, the country is resolute in defending its financial moves.


In addition to power shifts that require adjustments by both countries, each is experiencing a febrile moment politically and governmentally. The United States appears paralyzed in many ways, while in Germany, the conservative Ms. Merkel is negotiating a new government with the center-left Social Democrats.


The attempt to rein in American activity is turning out to be harder than German officials hoped. The early talk that Germany would get the status accorded to Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — just about full sharing of data, and no-spy agreements — has given way to a much more hardheaded discussion.


Even German officials concede that a full-fledged accord is unlikely — in part because it would require congressional approval — and that negotiations are more likely to yield a memorandum of understanding.


The United States has issued no public exemption from listening in on those in the German political, diplomatic or intelligence hierarchies other than Ms. Merkel.


“The reluctance is that you never know what you may need, in a month, or a year, or 10 years,” one American intelligence official said.


Alison Smale reported from Berlin, and David E. Sanger from Washington.


Saudi Arabia and Israel Try To Derail Nuclear Negotiations With Iran by Terrorism


November 9, 2013

by Muhammad Sahimi,



Ever since Hassan Rouhani was elected Iran’s President on 14 June 2013 and promised that he will lead a government of “hope and prudence,” the United States’ most important allies in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and Israel – and their lobbies here have been doing their best to prevent any agreement between Iran and the Obama administration regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Israel and its lobby in the United States have succeeded in persuading Washington to impose the most crippling economic sanctions on Iran, disrupting and threatening the lives of tens of millions of ordinary Iranians. But that has not been enough for Israel. It wants Iran to surrender its national sovereignty and its rights under Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty that gives Iran the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy.


Thus, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been on an increasingly desperate diplomatic offensive to “prove” that Iran is not sincere in its effort to reach a nuclear agreement. After cynically calling the efforts by Iran’s new administration “a charm offensive;” referring to President Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing;” mentioning Iran 70 times and Rouhani – not Mr. Rouhani or President Rouhani – 25 times in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly meeting (while barely mentioning Israel’s war on the Palestinians); foolishly becoming an advocate of “democracy” for the Iranian people by declaring that if the Iranian youth were free, they would wear jeans and listen to Western music – which created a huge backlash by the Iranians (see here, here, and here), telling Netanyahu to first address democracy for the Palestinian people – and repeating his absurd claim that “Iran is preparing for another Holocaust,” Netanyahu threatened once again that if forced to, Israel will attack Iran alone.


Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has also let the world know that it is angry at the Obama administration for not attacking Syria, for imposing military sanctions on the military junta in Egypt even though they are insignificant, and for trying to reach a diplomatic resolution of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Never mind that Secretary of State John Kerry just said the other day that “Egyptians are following the right path.” This is a path that was paved by the junta overthrowing Egypt’s democratically-elected government and President Mohamed Morsi. Never mind that President Obama changed his mind about attacking Syria after the huge worldwide backlash against his threats of military attacks.


The opposition to U.S.-Iran rapprochement by Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the support of the former for the most extreme forces in Syria that have committed countless number of atrocities, have brought to the fore the real axis of evil consisting of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the War Party in the United States, as opposed to George W. Bush’s bogus “axis of evil.” The same Saudi Arabia that has always supposedly been the grand marshal of defending the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people, has now made an “unholy alliance” with Israel, ignoring the fact that much of Israel’s saber rattling over Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapon program is for distracting attention from the fact that it continues to devour the Palestinians’ lands, water, and other natural resources, and has made practically impossible the two-state solution for the problem.


The second round of negotiations between Iran and P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – began on Thursday November 7 in Geneva, and the initial reports have indicated that progress has been made. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has even declared that the main framework for a long-term agreement may be reached during the two days of negotiations between the two parties. That is not the news that Israel and Saudi Arabia want to hear.


Thus, in addition to pressuring the Obama administration through their lobbies in Washington, another way of derailing the negotiations and killing any potential agreement between Iran and the U.S. that the unholy alliance has put in place is provoking Iran’s hardliners that are deeply suspicious of the West and oppose any rapprochement with the U.S. The hardliners have made their opposition clear, with the latest manifestation of which being the demonstrations that they staged in front of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran on Monday on the 34th anniversary of the hostage crisis. And the best way to provoke Iranian hardliners is by terrorist attacks inside Iran, although such attacks are nothing new.


The United States and its allies have been trying for decades to destabilize Iran by supporting small groups among Iran’s ethnic minorities that have secessionist tendencies and have been carrying out terrorist attacks inside Iran. These groups include Jundallah, a Sunni extremist group that operated from Pakistan and for years carried out many terrorist attacks in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province on the border with Pakistan. Another group is the Kurdish Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, known as PJAK, the Iranian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party – usually referred to as PKK – in Turkey that has been listed as a terrorist group by both the European Union and the US PJAK is a secular group. A third group consists of Iranian Arabs in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan in southwest Iran, which is widely believed to be supported by Britain.


As the author described in detail in October 2009, Jundallah was supported for years by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Then, in December 2009 Selig Harrison of Center for International Policy reported in the New York Times that the George W. Bush administration provided support to Jundallah through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate – the infamous ISI – and to PJAK through CIA and Israel’s Mossad, which has had long-term relations with the Kurds in both Iraq and Iran. Documents released by WikiLeaks in November 2010 indicated that Israel has tried to use Kurdish dissidents against Iran. Then, in an important article in January 2012 Mark Perry described how Israeli Mossad agents posed as American spies to recruit members of the terrorist organization Jundallah to fight their covert war against Iran.


In February 2010, Iran arrested Jundallah’s leader Abdolmalek Riggi, and executed him in June 2010. A month earlier, Iran had executed his brother, Abdolhamid Rigggi. The two executions were severe blow to Jundallah. Then, another Riggi, Abdolrauf Riggi, took over the leadership of Jundallah, but he was arrested by Pakistan in December 2010. Execution of the Riggis, the arrest of the third one, and lack of popular support due to ruthless tactics, such as beheading of Iran’s border guards, and revelations about foreign support for the group, eventually led to the demise of Jundallah. But, while the Iranian branch of the group formally disappeared (its Pakistani branch still operates within Pakistan, attacking Shiites), its offshoots have emerged and are just as brutal and deadly, and supported by the same foreign powers. This became abundantly clear in the latest terrorist attacks on Iran.


The latest terrorist attacks on Iran occurred on October 25, perfectly timed in advance of the Geneva negotiations. The Sunni terrorist group, Jaish al-adl (army of justice), attacked Iran from Pakistan, killing 14 Iranian border guards (12 of whom were conscripts), wounding six, and taking three guards as hostage. Jaish al-adl is a Salafi group, of the same type as those fighting in Syria against Syrian government and supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In an apparent retaliation, Iran executed 16 prisoners, although the Iranian government claimed that the sixteen, at least half of whom were members of the terrorist groups, had already received death sentences, but their sentences had not been carried out under a deal whereby in return for not executing them, their groups will not carry out any terrorist operations. Jaish al-adl has carried out many attacks in Iran; see here, here, and here. The statement that the group issued after its most recent attack has striking similarities with those of extremist Sunni group in Syria. In fact, in its statement Jaish al-adl declared that the attacks were in retaliation for alleged Iranian “massacre” in Syria and the “cruel treatment” of Sunnis in Iran. In addition, its flag and its style of attacks are very similar to those of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that is deeply involved in fighting in Syria. Similar to all other Sunni extremist groups, Jaish al-adl uses children in its operations, and carries out suicide bombing. Interestingly, no Western nation, including the United States, condemned the terrorist attacks. On November 7 the public prosecutor in city of Zabol in Sistan was assassinated, and for which Jaish al-adl took responsibility.


Jaish al-adl is led by Abdolrahim Mollazadeh, although he uses the pseudonym Salaheddin Faroughi. He was a prominent member of Jundallah. His brother, Abdolmalek Mollazadeh, was executed in January 2012 by the Iranian government, after he was arrested and charged with the assassination of a local Sunni leader, Molavi Mostafa Jangizehi, who had worked with the government and its paramilitary group, the Basij. After 12 other people were arrested in April 2012 in connection with the assassination, Mollazadeh fled Iran and moved to Pakistan, where he set up Jaish al-adl. Jaish al adl’s spokesman is Mohsen Mohammadi. Its first terrorist operation occurred in August 2012.


Jaish al-adl operates in a far more sophisticated manner than did Jundallah. It has a Facebook page (although it was recently blocked), and issues its statements not just in Farsi, but also in Arabic, English and other languages, in an apparent effort to put itself within the global movement of the Sunni groups. It has three military branches, named after three of its prominent “martyrs,” including Abdolmalek Mollazadeh. Based on its various statements since its first operation in 2012 and what has been reported in the Iranian press, it is estimated that Jaish al-adl has killed at least between 100-150 military personnel and policemen in Sistan and Baluchestan.


There is another Sunni terrorist group in Iran in the same province of Sistan and Baluchestan, called Harakat Ansar Iran (HAI). It too has carried out many terrorist attacks in Iran; see here and here, for example. HAI also works with a Sunni extremist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, which currently operates under a new name, Ahlesunnat wal Jamaat, an anti-Shiite group that has been waging a low-intensity war in Pakistan for decades, and has murdered thousands of Shiites.


Both Jaish al-adl and HAI are offshoots of Jundallah. Although its current leader is Abu Yasir Muskootani, HAI still considers Abdolmalek Riggi as its “Amir” (religious/political leader). As mentioned earlier, Mollazadeh was a prominent member of Jundallah. HAI has declared that its aim is to “liberate” Iran and set up a government run based on the Sharia. Its emblem has striking similarities with that of al-Qaeda in Iraq.


Since August, PJAK has been attacking Iran’s military, hence ending the unofficial ceasefire that it had with Iran for some time. After executing the sixteen prisoners in connection with Jaish al-adl attacks, Iran also executed two people that it had accused of membership in PJAK. The two had denied the allegation, although there is evidence that at least one of the two had received military training by PJAK. Both PJAK and Iran’s military accuse the other side of breaking the ceasefire. PJAK’s leader, Abdolrahman Haji-Ahmadi has taken the same position as Netanyahu’s, warning the West that it should not be “fooled” by Rouhani.


In supporting such terrorist groups, Saudi Arabia and Israel pursue different, but complementary goals. Saudi Arabia’s goal, first and foremost, is bringing the Shiite-Sunni sectarian war that it has been supporting in Syria to Iran, hence hitting it back for its support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime that Saudi Arabia’s-supported terrorist forces have not only not been able to topple, but are actually losing the war to. One goal of Israel is having allies that are willing to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities, and assassinating its nuclear scientists.


Both Israel and Saudi Arabia seek to destabilize Iran and its government, keeping it tied up with internal problems. And, both hope that the terrorist attacks will provoke the hardliners in Tehran to react strongly, retaliate militarily and, hence, not only give an excuse to the two countries and the United States to attack Iran, but also block any diplomatic resolution of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Thus, both President Rouhani and Obama must control their hardliners, and give diplomacy a chance.


George W Bush’s new ‘crusade’: converting Jews to Christianity!

Bush is speaking at a fundraiser today for Messianic Jews. It’s the same imperial mentality that’s ravaged the holy land for ages


November 14, 2013

by Andrew Brown

The Guardian


 Some people think George W Bush did as much as he could to bring about Armageddon with his earlier interventions in the Middle East. But not the man himself, apparently. He has signed up for a fundraising event for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, an organisation which aims to promote the second coming by converting Jews to Christianity, and will speak today at their fundraiser in Irving, Texas.


Such “Messianic Jews” – who accept that Jesus was the promised Messiah – are loathed by most other Jews, and regarded with great suspicion by mainstream Christian denominations. If Jesus really was the promised Messiah, this would restore much of the traditional basis for Christian anti-semitism, which most Christians have struggled against for the last 50 years.


But a belief in the necessary conversion of the Jews still flourishes on the wilder shores of American Christianity. Portions of Biblical prophecy seem to require it. And there is widespread confusion among evangelicals about whether Israel is really a kind of America overseas – a recent poll for the Pew Foundation found that twice as many American Evangelicals as American Jews were unwavering in their support for Israel. This is something that successive Israeli governments have deliberately cultivated.


There is a delicious symbol of this confusion in the tat sold off the institute’s website – a dog tag bearing the Star of David, with “Defender” written in the middle of it. The description reads:


God is raising up an army of believers to defend Israel, especially in these times more than ever. Wear this to represent your defense of Israel. In so doing, it will create conversations to give you opportunity to give a testimony of Isaiah 31:4-5.


Maybe that’s the kind of pickup line that works better in Texas.


Bush himself famously described the war in Iraq as a “crusade” once, before it was pointed out to him that such language had unfortunate resonances in the Middle East. But the links between Zionism and Christianity go much further and deeper than that. The conversion of the Jews, and their restoration to Jerusalem, was a great enthusiasm among English evangelicals in Victorian times. Barbara Tuchman’s marvellous book Bible And Sword chronicles some of the consequences.


It’s fair to say that without the belief of Victorian upper class evangelical Englishmen – almost exactly the equivalents of George W Bush – there never would have been a Balfour Declaration. And without that declaration, there could not have been the Jewish immigration to Palestine that laid the foundations for the state of Israel.


Some people will see this as an example of the destructive craziness of religion, and perhaps it is, but it is also an example of the way in which theology is only powerful and important when it is wrapped up in identity. Because if there is one group that has suffered as a result of the establishment of the state of Israel and its support by Western Christian countries, it is the historic Christians of the Middle East – who are now the victims of persecution throughout the region and scapegoats of an angry nationalism. This is one reason why the churches with historic links to Palestinian Christians are much less pro-Israel than those which don’t, like the majority of American Baptists.


In the end, what matters is not so much what you believe about God, as who you think you are. The upper classes of any global empire feel certain that God is on their side. The Bushes feel that now as surely as the Balfours did a hundred years ago – and two thousand years ago the Caesars believed that gods were actually among their family members. None of them were good news for the inhabitants of Palestine, and I can’t help feeling that Bush and his Texan Zionists are not so close to Jesus as they are to the Romans who crucified him.


Mistaking Omniscience for Omnipotence: In a World Without Privacy, There Are No Exemptions for Our Spies

by Tom Engelhardt


Given how similar they sound and how easy it is to imagine one leading to the other, confusing omniscience (having total knowledge) with omnipotence (having total power) is easy enough.  It’s a reasonable supposition that, before the Snowden revelations hit, America’s spymasters had made just that mistake.  If the drip-drip-drip of Snowden’s mother of all leaks — which began in June and clearly won’t stop for months to come — has taught us anything, however, it should be this: omniscience is not omnipotence.  At least on the global political scene today, they may bear remarkably little relation to each other.  In fact, at the moment Washington seems to be operating in a world in which the more you know about the secret lives of others, the less powerful you turn out to be.


Let’s begin by positing this:  There’s never been anything quite like it.  The slow-tease pulling back of the National Security Agency curtain to reveal the skeletal surveillance structure embedded in our planet (what cheekbones!) has been an epochal event.  It’s minimally the political spectacle of 2013, and maybe 2014, too. It’s made a mockery of the 24/7 news cycle and the urge of the media to leave the last big deal for the next big deal as quickly as possible. 


It’s visibly changed attitudes around the world toward the U.S. — strikingly for the worse, even if this hasn’t fully sunk in here yet.  Domestically, the inability to put the issue to sleep or tuck it away somewhere or even outlast it has left the Obama administration, Congress, and the intelligence community increasingly at one another’s throats.  And somewhere in a system made for leaks, there are young techies inside a surveillance machine so viscerally appalling, so like the worst sci-fi scenarios they read while growing up, that — no matter the penalties — one of them, two of them, many of them are likely to become the next Edward Snowden(s).


So where to start, almost half a year into an unfolding crisis of surveillance that shows no signs of ending?  If you think of this as a scorecard, then the place to begin is, of course, with the line-up, which means starting with omniscience.  After all, that’s the NSA’s genuine success story — and what kid doesn’t enjoy hearing about the (not so) little engine that could?




Conceptually speaking, we’ve never seen anything like the National Security Agency’s urge to surveill, eavesdrop on, spy on, monitor, record, and save every communication of any sort on the planet — to keep track of humanity, all of humanity, from its major leaders to obscure figures in the backlands of the planet.  And the fact is that, within the scope of what might be technologically feasible in our era, they seem not to have missed an opportunity.


The NSA, we now know, is everywhere, gobbling up emails, phone calls, texts, tweets, Facebook posts, credit card sales, communications and transactions of every conceivable sort.  The NSA and British intelligence are feeding off the fiber optic cables that carry Internet and phone activity.  The agency stores records (“metadata”) of every phone call made in the United States.  In various ways, legal and otherwise, its operatives long ago slipped through the conveniently ajar backdoors of media giants like Yahoo, Verizon, and Google — and also in conjunction with British intelligence they have been secretly collecting “records” from the “clouds” or private networks of Yahoo and Google to the tune of 181 million communications in a single month, or more than two billion a year. 


Meanwhile, their privately hired corporate hackers have systems that, among other things, can slip inside your computer to count and see every keystroke you make.  Thanks to that mobile phone of yours (even when off), those same hackers can also locate you just about anywhere on the planet.  And that’s just to begin to summarize what we know of their still developing global surveillance state.


In other words, there’s my email and your phone metadata, and his tweets and her texts, and the swept up records of billions of cell phone calls and other communications by French and Nigerians, Italians and Pakistanis, Germans and Yemenis, Egyptians and Spaniards (thank you, Spanish intelligence, for lending the NSA such a hand!), and don’t forget the Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, and Burmese, among others (thank you, Australian intelligence, for lending the NSA such a hand!), and it would be a reasonable bet to include just about any other nationality you care to mention.  Then there are the NSA listening posts at all those U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, and the reports on the way the NSA listened in on the U.N., bugged European Union offices “on both sides of the Atlantic,” accessed computers inside the Indian embassy in Washington D.C. and that country’s U.N. mission in New York, hacked into the computer network of and spied on Brazil’s largest oil company, hacked into the Brazilian president’s emails and the emails of two Mexican presidents, monitored the German Chancellor’s mobile phone, not to speak of those of dozens, possibly hundreds, of other German leaders, monitored the phone calls of at least 35 global leaders, as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and — if you’re keeping score — that’s just a partial list of what we’ve learned so far about the NSA’s surveillance programs, knowing that, given the Snowden documents still to come, there has to be so much more.


When it comes to the “success” part of the NSA story, you could also play a little numbers game: the NSA has at least 35,000 employees, possibly as many as 55,000, and an almost $11 billion budget.  With up to 70% of that budget possibly going to private contractors, we are undoubtedly talking about tens of thousands more “employees” indirectly on the agency’s payroll.  The Associated Press estimates that there are 500,000 employees of private contractors “who have access to the government’s most sensitive secrets.”  In Bluffdale, Utah, the NSA is spending $2 billion to build what may be one of the largest data-storage facilities on the planet (with its own bizarre fireworks), capable of storing almost inconceivable yottabytes of information.  And keep in mind that since 9/11, according to the New York Times, the agency has also built or expanded major data-storage facilities in Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington State. 


But success, too, can have its downside and there is a small catch when it comes to the NSA’s global omniscience.  For everything it can, at least theoretically, see, hear, and search, there’s one obvious thing the agency’s leaders and the rest of the intelligence community have proven remarkably un-omniscient about, one thing they clearly have been incapable of taking in — and that’s the most essential aspect of the system they are building.  Whatever they may have understood about the rest of us, they understood next to nothing about themselves or the real impact of what they were doing, which is why the revelations of Edward Snowden caught them so off-guard.


Along with the giant Internet corporations, they have been involved in a process aimed at taking away the very notion of a right to privacy in our world; yet they utterly failed to grasp the basic lesson they have taught the rest of us.  If we live in an era of no privacy, there are no exemptions; if, that is, it’s an age of no-privacy for us, then it’s an age of no-privacy for them, too.


The word “conspiracy” is an interesting one in this context.  It comes from the Latin conspirare for “breathe the same air.”  In order to do that, you need to be a small group in a small room.  Make yourself the largest surveillance outfit on the planet, hire tens of thousands of private contractors — young computer geeks plunged into a situation that would have boggled the mind of George Orwell — and organize a system of storage and electronic retrieval that puts much at an insider’s fingertips, and you’ve just kissed secrecy goodnight and put it to bed for the duration.


There was always going to be an Edward Snowden — or rather Edward Snowdens.  And no matter what the NSA and the Obama administration do, no matter what they threaten, no matter how fiercely they attack whistleblowers, or who they put away for how long, there will be more.  No matter the levels of classification and the desire to throw a penumbra of secrecy over government operations of all sorts, we will eventually know. 


They have constructed a system potentially riddled with what, in the Cold War days, used to be called “moles.”  In this case, however, those “moles” won’t be spying for a foreign power, but for us.  There is no privacy left.  That fact of life has been embedded, like so much institutional DNA, in the system they have so brilliantly constructed.  They will see us, but in the end, we will see them, too.




With our line-ups in place, let’s turn to the obvious question: How’s it going?  How’s the game of surveillance playing out at the global level?  How has success in building such a system translated into policy and power?  How useful has it been to have advance info on just what the U.N. general-secretary will have to say when he visits you at the White House?  How helpful is it to store endless tweets, social networking interactions, and phone calls from Egypt when it comes to controlling or influencing actors there, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the generals?


We know that 1,477 “items” from the NSA’s PRISM program (which taps into the central servers of nine major American Internet companies) were cited in the president’s Daily Briefing in 2012 alone.  With all that help, with all that advanced notice, with all that insight into the workings of the world from but one of so many NSA programs, just how has Washington been getting along?


Though we have very little information about how intelligence insiders and top administration officials assess the effectiveness of the NSA’s surveillance programs in maintaining American global power, there’s really no need for such assessments.  All you have to do is look at the world.


Long before Snowden walked off with those documents, it was clear that things weren’t exactly going well.  Some breakthroughs in surveillance techniques were, for instance, developed in America’s war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. intelligence outfits and spies were clearly capable of locating and listening in on insurgencies in ways never before possible.  And yet, we all know what happened in Iraq and is happening in Afghanistan.  In both places, omniscience visibly didn’t translate into success.  And by the way, when the Arab Spring hit, how prepared was the Obama administration?  Don’t even bother to answer that one.


            In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that, while U.S. spymasters and operators were working at the technological frontiers of surveillance and cryptography, their model for success was distinctly antiquated.  However unconsciously, they were still living with a World War II-style mindset.  Back then, in an all-out military conflict between two sides, listening in on enemy communications had been at least one key to winning the war.  Breaking the German Enigma codes meant knowing precisely where the enemy’s U-boats were, just as breaking Japan’s naval codes ensured victory in the Battle of Midway and elsewhere.


Unfortunately for the NSA and two administrations in Washington, our world isn’t so clear-cut any more.  Breaking the codes, whatever codes, isn’t going to do the trick.  You may be able to pick up every kind of communication in Pakistan or Egypt, but even if you could listen to or read them all (and the NSA doesn’t have the linguists or the time to do so), instead of simply drowning in useless data, what good would it do you? 


Given how Washington has fared since September 12, 2001, the answer would undoubtedly range from not much to none at all — and in the wake of Edward Snowden, it would have to be in the negative.  Today, the NSA formula might go something like this: the more communications the agency intercepts, the more it stores, the more it officially knows, the more information it gives those it calls its “external customers” (the White House, the State Department, the CIA, and others), the less omnipotent and the more impotent Washington turns out to be.


In scorecard terms, once the Edward Snowden revelations began and the vast conspiracy to capture a world of communications was revealed, things only went from bad to worse.  Here’s just a partial list of some of the casualties from Washington’s point of view:


*The first European near-revolt against American power in living memory (former French leader Charles de Gaulle aside), and a phenomenon that is still growing across that continent along with an upsurge in distaste for Washington.


*A shudder of horror in Brazil and across Latin America, emphasizing a growing distaste for the not-so-good neighbor to the North.


*China, which has its own sophisticated surveillance network and was being pounded for it by Washington, now looks like Mr. Clean.


*Russia, a country run by a former secret police agent, has in the post-Snowden era been miraculously transformed into a global peacemaker and a land that provided a haven for an important western dissident.


*The Internet giants of Silicon valley, a beacon of U.S. technological prowess, could in the end take a monstrous hit, losing billions of dollars and possibly their near monopoly status globally, thanks to the revelation that when you email, tweet, post to Facebook, or do anything else through any of them, you automatically put yourself in the hands of the NSA.  Their CEOs are shuddering with worry, as well they should be.


And the list of post-Snowden fallout only seems to be growing.  The NSA’s vast global security state is now visibly an edifice of negative value, yet it remains so deeply embedded in the post-9/11 American national security state that seriously paring it back, no less dismantling it, is probably inconceivable.  Of course, those running that state within a state claim success by focusing only on counterterrorism operations where, they swear, 54 potential terror attacks on or in the United States have been thwarted, thanks to NSA surveillance.  Based on the relatively minimal information available to us, this looks like a major case of threat and credit inflation, if not pure balderdash.  More important, it doesn’t faintly cover the ambitions of a system that was meant to give Washington a jump on every foreign power, offer an economic edge in just about every situation, and enhance U.S. power globally.


A First-Place Line-Up and a Last-Place Finish


What’s perhaps most striking about all this is the inability of the Obama administration and its intelligence bureaucrats to grasp the nature of what’s happening to them.  For that, they would need to skip those daily briefs from an intelligence community which, on the subject, seems blind, deaf, and dumb, and instead take a clear look at the world.


As a measuring stick for pure tone-deafness in Washington, consider that it took our secretary of state and so, implicitly, the president, five painful months to finally agree that the NSA had, in certain limited areas, “reached too far.” And even now, in response to a global uproar and changing attitudes toward the U.S. across the planet, their response has been laughably modest.  According to David Sanger of the New York Times, for instance, the administration believes that there is “no workable alternative to the bulk collection of huge quantities of ‘metadata,’ including records of all telephone calls made inside the United States.”


On the bright side, however, maybe, just maybe, they can store it all for a mere three years, rather than the present five.  And perhaps, just perhaps, they might consider giving up on listening in on some friendly world leaders, but only after a major rethink and reevaluation of the complete NSA surveillance system.  And in Washington, this sort of response to the Snowden debacle is considered a “balanced” approach to security versus privacy.


In fact, in this country each post-9/11 disaster has led, in the end, to more and worse of the same.  And that’s likely to be the result here, too, given a national security universe in which everyone assumes the value of an increasingly para-militarized, bureaucratized, heavily funded creature we continue to call “intelligence,” even though remarkably little of what would commonsensically be called intelligence is actually on view.


No one knows what a major state would be like if it radically cut back or even wiped out its intelligence services.  No one knows what the planet’s sole superpower would be like if it had only one or, for the sake of competition, two major intelligence outfits rather than 17 of them, or if those agencies essentially relied on open source material.  In other words, no one knows what the U.S. would be like if its intelligence agents stopped trying to collect the planet’s communications and mainly used their native intelligence to analyze the world.  Based on the recent American record, however, it’s hard to imagine we could be anything but better off.  Unfortunately, we’ll never find out.


In short, if the NSA’s surveillance lineup was classic New York Yankees, their season is shaping up as a last-place finish.


Here, then, is the bottom line of the scorecard for twenty-first century Washington: omniscience, maybe; omnipotence, forget it; intelligence, not a bit of it; and no end in sight.


Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

No responses yet

Leave a Reply