Obama’s NSA Reform Speech: Don’t Believe The Hype

Obama’s great NSA reform speech of 2014: Don’t Believe The Hype

Last Friday (January 17, 2014), Barack Obama gave a speech that was designed to appear as if he actually took into consideration the global outrage over the NSA’s mass surveillance practices.

Here is the full speech, from the Wall Street Journal’s YouTube channel:

A transcript from the Washington Post can be found here.

From my point of view, as a strong advocate for civil liberties, it was not at all satisfactory.

What did Obama actually say?

  1. He used to be skeptical of US surveillance programs, but now he generally he sees nothing wrong with them. The logic of the national security state prevails.
  2. He wants more control of the gathered information—inside the US. No blanket surveillance but warrants by a judge of the FISA court.
  3. Close allied leaders (such as Angela Merkel) are not to be spied on, except for “compelling national security purpose[s]”—whatever that means. But nonetheless the US will continue to spy on even allied governments.
  4. We, the U.S. government, are not going after you everyday foreigners, but we will still vacuum up all your data, just in case. – Note how Obama does not say anything about the exposed NSA programs in his speech.
  5. The FiSA court gets one voice for civil liberties.
  6. IT companies who are forced to hand over customer data to US intelligence will get temporary gag orders through National Security Letters instead of indefinite gag orders.
  7. The NSA will continue to weaken cryptographic standards on the Internet – Obama did not say a word about this important reform point proposed by a panel of experts.

There are many issues with Obama’s views on American surveillance, even if we assume that this speech actually reflects his genuine views.

First, Obama seems to have bought into the idea that the American surveillance bureaucracy is different from any other comparable institution in the history of the world. He sounds as if he believes that by the virtue of character of the people working for it, the NSA is free from all the deformities that have been known to exist in other times and places in similar settings.

He wants us to believe that American spooks are so exceptional that they can defy human nature. But the point of the revelations about the NSA’s mass surveillance is not that its employees are evil as individuals. The mere fact that the NSA as an institution has the structural potential for “turnkey totalitarianism,” as one commenter put it, is the alarming fact.

Second, the FISA court has been known to be a rubber stamp court. So far, the U.S. government has almost never been denied a request there.

Third, the term “national security” is so vague that almost anything can be connected to it and hence spying can be justified almost all of the time.

 Read more:

Global Privacy Leaders React to Obama’s NSA Reform Proposals.” (Katitza Rodriguez, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2014/01/17)

Obama bans spying on leaders of U.S. allies, scales back NSA program.” (Steve Holland, Mark Hosenball and Jeff Mason, Reuters, 2014/01/17)

auf deutsch:

Sicherheitsexperte: “Jeder Überwachungsapparat kann leicht missbraucht werden”. (, ZEIT ONLINE, 15.01.2014) – Ein Interview mit dem Google-Softwareingenieur Morgan Marquis-Boire über das Missbrauchspotenzial staatlicher Überwachungsapparate.

Obamas NSA-Vorschläge – Viele Worte, ein wenig Reform.” (Johannes Kuhn, Süddeutsche, 17.01.2014)

ZDF-Interview zur NSA: Wie Obama die Maßstäbe verschiebt.” (Johannes Kuhn, Süddeutsche, 19.01.2014).

The NSA Tries To Secure Most Surveillance Powers Before Obama Makes A Statement About Surveillance

The NSA tries to secure most surveillance powers before Obama makes a statement about the future of American surveillance

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. This article or image contains materials that originally came from a National Security Agency (NSA) website or publication. It is believed that this information is not classified, and is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:National_Security_Agency_headquarters,_Fort_Meade,_Maryland.jpg
Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. This article or image contains materials that originally came from a National Security Agency (NSA) website or publication. It is believed that this information is not classified, and is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:National_Security_Agency_headquarters,_Fort_Meade,_Maryland.jpg

As the Guardian reports, the Obama White House wants to (or at least pretends that it does) reform the NSA’s surveillance apparatus.

Obama recently met with privacy advocates, among them the ACLU, to discuss American mass surveillance.

Guess who is launching a charm offensive targeted at the American public against limiting the scope of mass surveillance in any substantial manner.

If you do not let us spy on all of you at all times, then the terrorists win

The NSA recently argued in an interview on NPR that if they do not continue indiscriminate mass surveillance, then, loosely paraphrased, the terrorists win.

Speaking about the surveillance of the phone records of all Americans (non-Americans are fair game anyway for the NSA), outgoing NSA deputy director John C. Inglis said that one money transfer from San Diego to militant islamists al-Shabaab in Somalia had been prevented. Note that he talked about a money transfer that might have financed that group’s activities, but not a specific terrorist attack.

Let that sink in for a while. To prevent one unspecific terrorism-related activity, the private communication of all Americans (not to mention everybody else on the planet) has to be destroyed, according to the NSA. I think that the price Americans and other citizens of the world have to pay for this illusion of security is too high.

Freedom and absolute security are mutually exclusive

It is a truism that in a free society, there can never be one hundred percent security against all risks of life, including terrorism. Attempting to watch and predict every individual’s next move at all times inescapably leads towards an authoritarian dystopia.

It would be a shame if the country whose national imagination prides itself to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave” would end up as ‘democratic’ as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was.

One Stasi was enough. Please America, stop this madness.

The NSA Goes On CBS’s ’60 Minutes’ To Defend Its Actions

The NSA goes on CBS’s ’60 Minutes’ to defend its actions

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. This article or image contains materials that originally came from a National Security Agency (NSA) website or publication. It is believed that this information is not classified, and is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:National_Security_Agency_headquarters,_Fort_Meade,_Maryland.jpg
Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. This article or image contains materials that originally came from a National Security Agency (NSA) website or publication. It is believed that this information is not classified, and is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:National_Security_Agency_headquarters,_Fort_Meade,_Maryland.jpg

Last weekend, NSA officials went on CBS’s 60 Minutes program to defend their mass surveillance activities and, as one might expect, put up their own ‘reality distortion field.’

The short version of the NSA’s spin goes like this: We don’t do mass surveillance, especially not on Americans, we don’t intend to break any laws, and don’t worry about us collecting ‘just’ metadata.

The task of critical journalism to control the government’s actions was not exactly helped by the ’60 Minutes’ feature. This was mostly due to the fact that host John Miller, who has been moving through the revolving door between journalism and government work throughout his career—which he did disclose—, did not present any opposing views. Miller has been working as a spokesperson for the NYPD, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and the FBI. One might see the potential for a conflict of interest here.

The Guardian has compiled a list of claims made by NSA officials on the show and commented on them on their website.

If you have been following the coverage of the NSA leaks for the last half year, it is absolutely obvious that these claims are as “least untruthful” as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March 2013.

Just some documents contradicting the NSA’s claims

Just have a look at the NSA’s “SIGINT Strategy 2012-2016″ paper in the New York Times.

Or read about the recently revealed Co-Traveller program which is exactly about the worldwide collection of mobile phone metadata in order to determine patterns of social relationships.

Above all, the whole point of the recently revealed ‘full take’ approach in the NSA’s signals intelligence seems to be to store everything in the hope that all that data can later be combed through with the help of computer algorithms, if needed.

Read, hear, and see more:

[Podcast] Unfilter 79: “CBS: The NSA Network.” (Jupiter Broadcasting, 2013/12/18) – “60 Minutes attempts the boldest white wash of the facts and lies surrounding the NSA spying yet.” – Links to more articles can be found in the shownotes.

’60 Minutes’: NSA Good, Snowden Bad.” (Sara Morrison, The Wire, 2013/12/15)

’60 Minutes’ NSA Report Gets Blasted.” (Brett Logiurato, Business Insider, 2013/12/16)

’60 Minutes’ Trashed For NSA Piece.” (Jack Mirkinson, Huffington Post, 2013/12/16)

The progressive talk show The Young Turks reporting on the ’60 Minutes’ feature: “’60 Minutes’ Blasted For NSA Piece”

NSA Leaks: Are There Hundreds Of Millions Of Terrorist Telephones?

NSA Leaks: Are there really hundreds of millions of terrorist telephones? (spoiler alert: probably not.)

As the Washington Post reports, documents from Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks reveal that the NSA is collecting 5 billion telephone records daily and uses a suite of tools known as Co-Traveller to track the location and social relationships of “foreign targets.”

"IM IN UR PHONE, RECORDIN UR CALLZ." - Ceiling cat aka the NSA
“IM IN UR PHONE, RECORDIN UR CALLZ.” – Ceiling cat aka the NSA

The NSA is said to track “at least hundreds of millions of devices [emphasis mine]” and can identify a person’s travels, both present and past, anywhere on the planet.

Notable quote from the end of the article:

“The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.”

That is perhaps because this revelation, like so many about the NSA’S activities since the summer of 2013, are utterly embarrassing for the White House.

Hundreds of millions of foreign terrorists?

So can there be hundreds of millions of (foreign) terrorists? Of course not. On the face of it, that idea is patently absurd. Even if you shrink the number of individuals by assuming that each of the alleged terrorists uses several cell phones. Vastly greater than the number of actual terrorists could ever be are the following groups: radicals, dissenters, third party politicians, or—that is where the money is—(foreign) business leaders.

If, however, the definition of terrorist is widened so far that it becomes to mean “anyone who dares to disagree with anything the (U.S.) government does,” then that would be the antithesis to liberal democracy—it is a characteristic of a totalitarian concept of statehood.

The real threat to liberty is the national security state

The out-of-control national security establishment of the U.S., and by extension that of other states, such as the UK and Germany, and the narrative of the preventive national security state itself, are the real threat to civil liberties in the U.S. and abroad.

As serious a problem and as ghastly as terrorist attacks are, the scope of their detrimental effects on democracy could never dream to be as big as those caused by our own governments’ reactions to them.

Permanent war and liberty cannot coexist

We must recognize that the ugly head of authoritarianism is rising among us, using the phantom of terrorism to scare us into giving up our liberties. As a “War against Terrorism” can by definition never end, because terrorism is a tactic, not a specific enemy, the logical conclusion of such an endless state of emergency must be the permanent destruction of civil liberties.

Do we really want to live in such a world? I certainly do not. If there is no reform of the intelligence services to achieve a balance between the legitimate goal of preventing terrorism and the rights of the individual not to be put under surveillance without reasonable suspicion, like in East Germany during the GDR, then we all lose our freedom.

Read more:

Snowden documents show NSA gathering 5bn cell phone records daily.” (Paul Lewis, Guardian, 2013/12/05)

auf deutsch:

[Podcast] Logbuch:Netzpolitik, Folge 88: “Schamoffensive.” (10.12.2013) – Linus Neumann und Tim Pritlove beschäftigen sich unter anderem mit der Ausspähung von Mobiltelefonen durch die NSA.

UK Parliament Questions Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger’s Patriotism In Anti-Terrorism Hearing

UK Parliament questions Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger’s patriotism in anti-terrorism hearing

Photograph of the debating chamber of the British House of Commons in the Palace of Westminster, London, looking north-east. | Author: UK Parliament | Used under the Parliamentary copyright | Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:House_of_Commons.jpg
Photograph of the debating chamber of the British House of Commons in the Palace of Westminster, London, looking north-east. | Author: UK Parliament | Used under the Parliamentary copyright | Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:House_of_Commons.jpg

On December 3, 2013 the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger had to testify before the House of Commons of the British Parliament  in a hearing on anti-terrorism.

One of the rather stunning questions asked by Chair Keith Vaz was whether Rusbridger “love[d] this country [the UK].”

Rusbridger replied:

We live in a democracy and most of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country, who love this country. I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question but yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can in this country discuss and report these things [emphasis mine].

With us or against us – the excluded middle

Behind the questioning of Rusbridger’s “patriotism” because he, as a journalist, does not agree with the government’s national security narrative, lies the logical fallacy of the excluded middle. Either you agree with total surveillance of the world’s citizens in the name of national security or the terrorists win.

The possibility that there might be excesses in the surveillance architectures of the so-called Global War on Terrorism (there are!) , that much of what is being done in this area has probably more to do with gaining illegitimate advantages through economic espionage, or that there might be approaches that actually help fighting terrorism without eroding civil liberties does not occur in this line of thinking.

An uninformed citizenry cannot correct its government

The elephant in the room is this: Had it not been for Snowden, we the people of the world would never have known about the extent of surveillance against innocent citizens. Democracies rely on an adversarial press to keep the government in check.

Since the summer of 2013, the Guardian has been releasing articles based on the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden, exposing the indiscriminate mass surveillance by the American NSA, the British GCHQ, and other intelligence agencies of the world’s citizens.

Read, see, and hear more:

[Audio and article] “Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger appears before MPs – live coverage.” (Paul Owen, Guardian, 2013/12/03) – Summary of the hearing and an audio recording can be found here.

Highlights from Guardian editor’s Parliament hearing.” (Kristen Hare, Poynter.org, 2013/12/03) – Many more questions to and answers from Alan Rusbridger.

MPs question Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s patriotism over Edward Snowden leaks.” (Ian Burrell, The Independent, 2013/12/03)

The progressive talk show The Young Turks reports on the hearing here:

 

 

NSA Spies On Pornography Consumption To Discredit Islamists

NSA Spies On Pornography Consumption To Discredit Islamists

Telecommunications equipment in one corner of a small data center. Contributed and licensed under the GFDL by the photographer, Gregory Maxwell. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Datacenter-telecom.jpg
Telecommunications equipment in one corner of a small data center. Contributed and licensed under the GFDL by the photographer, Gregory Maxwell. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Datacenter-telecom.jpg

According to a report by the Huffington Post, the Snowden leaks reveal that the NSA attempts to gather data about the pornography consumption habits of radical Islamists. This information is then used as kompromat in order to discredit these actors inside their respective communities.

According to the article, this is seen as a rather benign way of derailing radicalization efforts.

Still, it makes one wonder whether Islamic extremists are the only target of this strategy. My guess is that it is not. I speculate that the whole point of the NSA’s mass surveillance is to gather compromising materials on everybody, just in case.

And the article mentions a historical precedent in this regard, coming from another intelligence agency: the FBI, especially under J. Edgar Hoover. It is noteworthy that by no means were only actual threats to society at the receiving end of this kind of surveillance, but also legitimate emancipatory projects, such as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

While the NSA’s blanket mass surveillance is a scandal in itself, the potential for repressive action against legitimate democratic forces in society should alert everybody.

While I do not have the slightest bit of sympathy for the religious radicalizers that are discussed in the leaked document, the trajectory of a panoptic state that potentially knows every intimate detail of its citizens’ private lives is undeniably anti-democratic in spirit.

Read more:

Top-Secret Document Reveals NSA Spied On Porn Habits As Part Of Plan To Discredit ‘Radicalizers’.” (Adriana Usero and Ryan J. Reilly, Huffington Post, 2013/11/26)

 

The NSA Surveillance Scandal

The NSA Surveillance Scandal

Yes We Scan by walt74, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, "Yes we scan. Deal with it. United we progress toward a perfectly monitored society. Obey us. Control. Trust us. Trust us. Trust us. Repeat. We are watching you." ,Source: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/nerdcoreblog/8989863112/
Yes We Scan by walt74, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Yes we scan. Deal with it. United we progress toward a perfectly monitored society. Obey us. Control. Trust us. Trust us. Trust us. Repeat. We are watching you.” Source: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/nerdcoreblog/8989863112/

On June 6, 2013, the British Guardian newspaper, based on information from—as we now know—former NSA analyst Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the agency’s PRISM program. This NSA surveillance program is capable of spying on everybody’s online communications via backdoors/direct access to products and services from Apple, Google/YouTube, Facebook, Microsoft, Skype, Yahoo, AOL, and PalTalk—basically all the big players in today’s digital world that most people are using in some or other form (full disclosure: me, too).

“There is a massive apparatus within the United States government that with complete secrecy has been building this enormous structure that has only one goal, and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity, not just in the United States but around the world. [emphasis mine]” – Glenn Greenwald on CNN, 2013/06/07

 

Here is the series of articles from the Guardian (watch the dramatic build-up):

NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily.” (Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, Guardian, 2013/06/06)

NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others.” (Glenn Greenwald, Guardian, 2013/06/07)

Obama orders US to draw up overseas target list for cyber-attacks.” (Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, Guardian, 2013/06/07)

and finally:

Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations.” (Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras in Hong Kong, Guardian, 2013/06/10)

NSA Leaker Edward Snowden: a Timeline.” (Edward Fitzpatrick, Mashable.com, 2013/06/10)

On June 11, the Guardian wrote about the NSA’s “Boundless Informant” software for managing surveillance data:

Boundless Informant: the NSA’s secret tool to track global surveillance data.” ( and , Guardian, 2013/06/11)

On June 20, the Guardian disclosed top secret documents that show how the NSA does warrantless wiretapping on both US citizens and foreigners:

The top secret rules that allow NSA to use US data without a warrant.” ( and , Guardian, 2013/06/20)

On June 22, Snowden revealed that the NSA was hacking Chinese telephone companies, universities, and fiber-optic networks in the geographic region:

Edward Snowden claims US hacks Chinese phone messages.” (Bonnie Malkin, Telegraph, 2013/06/22)

On June 25, journalist Glenn Greenwald told the Daily Beast that Snowden had given encrypted documents to several people as an insurance. Should “anything happe[n]” to him—translation: Should the intelligence services murder him—those documents would be released:

Greenwald: Snowden’s Files Are Out There if “Anything Happens” To Him.” (Eli Lake, Daliy Beast, 2013/06/25)

On June 29, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the NSA bugged key EU offices, based on documents provided by Snowden:

Washington ‘bugged key EU offices’ – German magazine.” (BBC News, 2013/06/29)

On July 1, the Guardian revealed documents showing that the US intelligence services are spying on other state’s embassies, including members of the EU. – This last point I did not find very surprising, as governments want to know what other governments are up to.

It is not just the US spying:

On June 17, the Guardian reveales that the British GCHQ spied on G20 summits by tapping politicians’ phones and setting up fake Internet cafés.

GCHQ intercepted foreign politicians’ communications at G20 summits.” ( and , Guardian, 2013/06/17)

On June 21, the Guardian revealed GCHQ’s “Tempora” program which spies on global Internet communications and shares that information with the NSA, making a mockery of the US government’s claim that US citizens should not worry, because those programs are ‘only’ directed at foreigners. If every allied state ‘only’ surveilles foreigners and then exchanges that information with the others, that is a complete surveillance. To claim otherwise is just semantic games.

GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications.” ( and , Guardian, 2013/06/21)

 

Whistleblowers: American heroes or traitors?

In the court of public opinion, a fierce debate over whether whistleblowers like Snowden are heroes or traitors is unfolding.

The government’s apparent strategy so far has been to shift attention from mass surveillance to whistleblower Edward Snowden and his (in their view) wrongdoing.

[Update, June 22, 2013] The Department of Justice charges Snowden with ” espionage and theft of government property.”

USA: Snowden wird zum Verräter [erklärt].” – (Sabine Muscat, Zeit Online, 26.06.2013) – Die öffentliche Meinung in den USA kippt gegen Edward Snowden, weil er über Staaten geflohen ist, die den USA gegenüber mehr oder weniger feindselig eingestellt sind (Hong Kong/China, Kuba (wohl doch nicht), Russland).

[Update, July 1, 2013] The past two weeks have produced a plethora of stories about the cat and mouse game playing out between a fugitive Edward Snowden and the US government. Unfortunately, this focus on the person of Snowden and a spy-thriller-like chase around the globe along the lines of “Where in the world is Edward Snowden?” has been a distraction from the real issue at hand.

That issue is the blanket surveillance of citizens by their democratically elected governments, who increasingly view their own populations as potential enemies. In the national security state, a mockery is made of the rule of law by turning the long-standing legal principle of the presumption of innocence on its head. But as history has shown over and over, creating secretive, all-powerful, and unaccountable institutions inevitably leads to abuses. That is why President Obama’s message of ‘Trust us, we’re the good guys.’ is in the end meaningless.

And to be clear, the problem here is not just with the US government. At least since 2001, there has been a general trend within Western democracies of justifying all kinds of anti-democratic legal measures with reference to the necessity of fighting terrorism. But as important as that may be—and I do believe that terrorism poses a threat—these efforts are never worth turning our democracies into authoritarian surveillance states.

Snowden as a traitor:

On the side that considers whistleblowers like Snowden to be traitors, there is surprising bipartisan consensus. Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida called Snowden’s going public an “act of treason.” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has also called Snowden’s leaks an “act of treason.” DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz called for Snowden’s prosecution. Along the same line are Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), liberal Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), and diplomat Richard Haass.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) called Snowden a “traitor.” Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) lambasted Snowden as “a high-school drop-out who had little maturity [and] had not successfully completed anything he had undertaken.” The point about lack of formal credentials might be true, but until Snowden became a whistleblower, his employers in the intelligence services and defense contractors obviously valued his skills.

On June 16, former Vice President Dick Cheney, unsurprisingly, joined the chorus of those calling Snowden “a traitor” and implied that Snowden might be a Chinese spy.

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) has called for the arrest of journalist Glenn Greenwald, claiming that he threatened to disclose names of CIA operatives. King’s grandstanding on national security is quite interesting, given his own documented long history of supporting the IRA, which would make him a supporter of a terrorist organization. In 2011, King was the driving force behind a McCarthyite series of Homeland Security Committee hearings on radicalization in the Muslim community.

Character assassination by pundits

Some of the leading elite press, above all the New York Times in the form of David Brooks, and the Washington Post in the form of Matt Miller, have begun a character assassination of Snowden.

More in the same vein can be found in these articles:

10 Dumbest Pundit Reactions to NSA Revelations.” (Evan McMurry, Alternet, 2013/06/13)

A Pundit’s Guide to Edward Snowden Fan Fiction.” (Elspeth Reeve, The Atlantic Wire, 2013/06/11)

The mainstream press turns against investigative journalists

Some within the beltway press are even calling for the prosecution of investigative journalists such as Glenn Greenwald. For instance, Meet the Press host David Gregory asked Greenwald this week (June 24) on his show why he should not be charged with a crime for “aiding and abetting” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Independent of how one thinks of Snowden’s leaking in detail, that development is an alarming trend, indicative of a much bigger problem with mainstream media in the US.

The concept of an adversarial press, which is absolutely necessary to keep the government honest, has apparently been long-lost on many established so-called journalists, spoiled by their access and personal wealth. Rather than by default challenging the official statements of the government in search for the truth, these figures have decided to become the American version of Pravda. This is to the detriment of public awareness within a democracy. These parts of the press should remember the great American tradition of muckraking journalism.

Here is Glenn Greenwald’s article about how he is now on the receiving end of personal smears for working with Snowden as a source:

The personal side of taking on the NSA: emerging smears.” (Glenn Greenwald, Guardian, 2013/06/26)

Snowden as hero:

On the side of those supporting Snowden are such strange bedfellows as libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh, Arianna Huffington, Al Gore and Van JonesSen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Michael Moore; Glenn Greenwald (obviously), Julian Assange (obviously) and Daniel Ellsberg (obviously).

There is also some blatant partisanship going on around the issue. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly supported the NSA’s domestic spying under President Bush and now, under Obama, opposes it. Democratic Senator Al Franken, a harsh critic of the some practices under the Bush administration, now supports similar practices under a Democratic president.

Divisions Over National Security State Scramble Old Alliances, Political Coalitions.” (Ryan Grim, Huffington Post, 2013/06/11)

Establishment renders harsh verdict on Edward Snowden.” (Alexander Burns, POLITICO.com, 2013/06/12)

 

Civil libertarian Senator Obama in 2007 versus national security hawk President Obama in 2013

You might remember a little-known Senator from Chicago who once was big on civil liberties. Here is what he said in 2007 about the massive surveillance put in place by the Bush administration:

“This [Bush’s] administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary. [emphasis mine]”

Against the recent revelations about the scope of the NSA’s mass surveillance, I can think of but two possible conclusions. Either Obama never really believed what he said back then and was just going to cynically exploit the growing public unease about Bush’s post-9/11 surveillance state, or, once elected President, he was swarmed by national security advisors who made him reconsider—everything (Richard A. Clarke seems to confirm the latter below).

Down the memory hole: Change.gov quietly removes pledge to protect whistleblowers

As the Sunlight Foundation reports, a pledge to protect whistleblowers was quietly removed from Change.gov, the website set up by Obama’s transition team, in July 2013. Here is what it said:

Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process [emphasis mine].”

Unfortunately for the Obama administration, just as the NSA does not ‘forget’ any of our data, the Internet does not forget either. So this likely attempt to sweep an apparent and embarassing broken campaign promise under the rug will not be allowed to succeed.

One excellent resource on Obama’s transformation is http://www.obamatheconservative.com/ , a website by Ilari Kaila and Tim Paige “tracking Obama’s abandoning of the progressive agenda, and the disconnect between his words and deeds.”

Richard A. Clarke, a top counter-terrorism official under Clinton and Bush, Jr., voiced his concerns about government overreach in regards to the general collection of telephone records in an editorial for NYDailyNews.com:

“I am troubled by the precedent of stretching a law on domestic surveillance almost to the breaking point. On issues so fundamental to our civil liberties, elected leaders should not be so needlessly secretive.”

“[Obama] inherited this vacuum cleaner approach to telephone records from Bush. When Obama was briefed on it, there was no forceful and persuasive advocate for changing it. His chief adviser on these things at the time was John Brennan, a life-long CIA officer.”

“[W]e should worry about this program because government agencies, particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have a well-established track record of overreaching, exceeding their authority and abusing the law. The FBI has used provisions of the Patriot Act, intended to combat terrorism, for purposes that greatly exceed congressional intent. [emphasis mine]”

 

Top spooks in denial mode

Earlier this year, on March 12, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress and was asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) whether the NSA gathered “any type of data at all on millions of Americans.”  As is now quite clear, Clapper lied “gave the least untruthful answer possible” when he denied it back then, as he now tells NBC News (June 11, 2013).

[Update] On June 18, NSA chief General Keith Alexander testified before the House Intelligence Committee about the two recently revealed surveillance programs PRISM and Boundless Informant. When asked whether the NSA was technically capable of spying on Americans’ phone calls or emails, he said this:

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: Does the NSA have the ability to listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails under these two programs?

ALEXANDER: No, we do not have that authority.

ROGERS: Does the technology exist at the NSA to flip a switch by some analyst to listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails?

ALEXANDER: No.

Did you notice the diversion? Alexander did not reply to the question about capability but  said that the NSA did not have the authority to spy on Americans. Technically, the NSA might not have a mechanical switch—that image seems rather anachronistic—but as whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed, it works via software on computers.

[Update] During his visit to Berlin on June 19, 2013, President Obama defended the NSA programs while talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, claiming that the NSA would not scan ordinary citizens’ emails at home or abroad:

“This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else,” he said. “This is not a situation where we can go on to the internet and start searching any way we want.” – Barack Obama, June 19, 2013

 

But this does not seem wholly convincing, given that the basic principle of big data analysis on the scale of intelligence services such as the NSA contains the search for patterns in enormous amounts of data.

But there is also keyword analysis. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security released a list of keywords that it monitored on social media channels—after being sued to release the document.

Corporations like Google already scan all emails for keywords for the commercial purpose of displaying fitting ads to their users.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the only feasible way for intelligence services to check on a broad scale whether Bob is sending dangerous contents to Sally, is to scan emails for keywords. But to do that, they must have access to all those emails.

From this premise it follows that by design, the intelligence services have a vested interest in scanning all email traffic. If they do not bug individual computers in targeted operations, how else should they find out whatever they are looking for? Therefore, the denials of James Clapper, Keith Alexander, and Barack Obama seem rather unbelievable.

What do Americans think about surveillance, according to polls?

Fourty-five percent of Americans, according to a recent poll by the Washington Post and Pew, are willing to be spied on for a false sense of security.

Many think that they personally ‘have nothing to hide’ and that surveillance is thus not detrimental to them. But everybody has something to hide.

If the supposedly benevolent guardians of the NSA decided one day that democracy is, let’s say, a little outdated in a world where capitalism and authoritarianism converge so neatly, there would be big trouble ahead (see the Atlantic piece linked below).

As many historians will tell you, there is really nothing new under the sun. As npr reports, Americans have been ambivalent about the balance between security and privacy since the beginning of the country:

Privacy Past And Present: A Saga Of American Ambivalence.” (NPR Staff, 2013/06/16)

Read and listen more:

[Op-Ed] “The NSA has us snared in its trap – and there’s no way out.” (John Naughton, The Observer, Guardian, 2013/06/16)  – Why it is not that easy to leave all web services known to be part of the NSA’s PRISM spying program.

[Op-Ed] “From hope to fear: the broken promise of Barack Obama.” (Paul Harris, The Observer, The Raw Story, 2013/06/15) – How the hope that former constitutional law professor Barack Obama would reverse the excesses of the Bush administration’s national security state were bitterly disappointed. Also read http://www.obamatheconservative.com/ for a detailed chronic of Obama’s transformation.

Americans’ Fickle Stance on Data Mining and Surveillance.” (Zachary Karabell, The Atlantic, 2013/06/14) – Not only government agencies, but also datamining companies pose a problem.

NSA Snooping Was Only the Beginning. Meet the Spy Chief Leading Us Into Cyberwar.” (James Bamford, Threat Level Blog, Wired, 2013/06/13) – A portrait of General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, chief of the Central Security Service, and commander of the US Cyber Command.

[Op-Ed] “Was Cheney Right About Obama?” (Patrick Radden Keefe, New Yorker, 2013/06/11) – Very interesting point: Former Vice President Dick Cheney, the architect of the Bush administration’s executive power grab, said in an exit interview in 2008 that Obama, or any successor, for that matter, would like the additional powers, once he gets into office. The article argues that Obama, as a candidate in 2008, benefitted massively from leaks which his administration now mercilessly persecutes. “Obama,” Radden Keefe writes, “knew the full extent of [the Bush administration’s] excesses because of unauthorized disclosures to the press. Without leaks, Barack Obama might never have been elected to begin with.”

[Op-Ed] “A Real Debate on Surveillance.” (New York Times Editorial Board, 2013/06/10) – Obama’s new ‘openness’ about surveillance is hypocritical, opines the New York Times.

Our Reflection in the N.S.A.’s Prism.” (Maria Bustillos, New Yorker, 2013/06/09) – On PRISM, Boundless Informant, tech companies’ denial of their complicity with the NSA, and prior warnings about a growing surveillance state.

All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama.” (Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 2013/06/07) – The surveillance capabilities and legal framework in America has developed in such a way that “[m]ore and more, we’re counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils.”

Mass Surveillance in America: A Timeline of Loosening Laws and Practices.” – A project by ProPublica chronicling the emergence of America’s national security state

Podcasts:

[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 64: “75% of the Internet.” (unfilter Episode 64, 2013/08/21) – [Podcast] – “Declassified documents [. . .] reveal the NSA has intentionally abused their surveillance program, and retained data on US citizens despite a court order. [. . .] [T]he NSA collects nearly 75% of all US Internet traffic. David Miranda[,] Glenn Greenwald’s partner was held for nine hours under an Orwellian anti-terrorism law.”

[Podcast] “Die unerwünschte Diskussion – NSA Prism und die deutsche Politik.” (Peter Carstens, Deutschlandfunk, 17.08.2013) – Im deutschen Bundestagswahlkampf 2013 konnte die SPD mit dem Überwachungsskandal bisher kaum Punkte machen, da auch SPD-Politiker maßgeblich an der deutsch-amerikanischen geheimdienstlichen Zusammenarbeit nach 2001 beteiligt waren.

[Podcast] “Geheimdienste – Du warst es. Nein, du!” (Sebastian Sonntag, DRadio Wissen, 08.08.2013) – “Sebastian Sonntag mit der Webschau zum Polittheater um den BND-Skandal.” Über die Rolle der SPD bei der Zusammenarbeit zwischen BND und NSA.

[Podcast] “Wer pfeift, hat schon verloren – Obama auf Verräterjagd.” (HR2 Der Tag, 07.08.2013)

[Podcast] “Was machbar ist, wird gemacht – Der NSA Spionage-Club.” (HR2 Der Tag, 16.07.2013)

[Podcast] “Snowden – Retter der Privatsphäre.” – (Martina Schulte, DRadio WIssen, 11.07.2013)

[Podcast] “Demokratie muss mit neuen Mitteln verteidigt werden: Wie Hacker und Whistleblower die staatliche Totalüberwachung bekämpfen.” (Vlad Georgescu, Politisches Feuilleton, Deutschlandradio Kultur, 10.07.2013)

[Podcast] “Sind wir vor unseren Freunden nicht mehr sicher? Der Streit um Edward Snowden und die US-Geheimdienste.” (DRadio Kontrovers, 08.07.2013)

[Podcast] “Spionage im Netz ist Selbstschutz.” – Der Politikwissenschaftler Anthony Glees meint: “Privates wird öffentlich – das ist nicht Folge von Schnüffelei, sondern die Logik des Internet-Zeitalters.” (Anthony Glees, Ortszeit:Politisches Feuilleton, Deutschlandradio Kultur, 08.07.2013) Anmerkung meinerseits: Ich finde, Spionage ist nicht gleich Spionage. Dass sich Regierungen gegenseitig ausspionieren ist etwas völlig anderes als wenn Geheimdienste die verdachtsunabhängige Totalüberwachung ihrer Bürger*innen und der anderer Staaten verfolgen.

[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 58: “Standing with Ed.” (unfilter Episode 58, 2013/07/10) – “New leaks give us a better picture of how the NSA vacuums up your Internet traffic, and leverages their relationships with telecom companies to take what they want. Then Latin America stands with Snowden as multiple offers of asylum come in, we’ll bring you up to date on the hunt for Snowden and discuss his latest revelations.”

[Podcast] “Der NSA-Skandal und die Precrime-Fantasien der Ermittlungsbehörden.” – “Vera Linß diskutiert mit Alexander Markowetz, Ben Kees, Niko Härting und Benedikt Köhler im Online Talk darüber, [. . .] inwieweit sich mithilfe von Algorithmen und anderen Technologien kriminelle oder überhaupt Verhaltensmuster identifizieren und vor allem prognostizieren [lassen].” (NETZ.REPORTER XL, DRadio Wissen Online Talk, 07.07.2013)

[Podcast] breitband “Vergiss’ den Schlüssel nicht!” – Zur digitalen Selbstverteidigung mit Crypto-Tools, Cryptoparties und dem Erfinder der Computermaus, Doug Engelbart. (DRadio breitband, 06.07.2013)

[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 57: “Obama Is Afraid Of You.” (unfilter Episode 57, 2013/07/03) – “Obama shrugged [Snowden] off, calling him some 29 year old hacker. But this week the administration’s actions spoke louder than their words. Their hunt for Edward Snowden intensifies as they twist the arm of Vladimir Putin, ground the jet of the Bolivian president, and placing frantic calls to nation leaders around the world.”

[Podcast] “Bändigt den Geheimdienst!” – Donya Farahani in der Webschau über die Proteste und Aktionen gegen Online-Überwachung. (DRadio WIssen, 28.06.2013)

[Podcast] “Wer überwacht die Überwacher: Die gefährliche Macht der Geheimdienste.” (Thore D. Hansen, Politisches Feuilleton, Deutschlandradio Kultur, 28.06.2013)

[Podcast] Logbuch Netzpolitik, Episode 69: “Räume für Spezialbehandlung.” (LNP069, 27.06.2013) –  Linus Neumann und Tim Pritlove berichten über Edward Snowdens Flucht und das britische Spionageprogramm “Tempora”.

[Podcast] Chaosradio, Episode 191: “Die Großen Brüder: Details der Telekommunikationsüberwachung.” (Chaosradio Episode 191, 26.06.2013) – Das Chaosradio des Chaos Computer Clubs beschäftigt sich in dieser Ausgabe mit den Details von Prism, Tempora und weiteren Überwachungsprojekten.

[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 56: “From Russia With Love.” (unfilter Episode 56, 2013/06/26) – “Edward Snowden [. . .] makes his escape from Hong Kong. We’ll reflect on [the mainstream media’s] continued character assassination [. . .].”; Britain’s GCHQ and the NSA share info [from Internet fiber optic cables], create “world-wide police state.”; the death of American investigative journalist Michael hastings and the technical possibility of hacking car control systems.

[Podcast] Datenkanal, Folge 25: “National Security Agency.” (21.06.2013) – Der Datenkanal-Podcast aus Jena gibt einen ausführlichen Überblick über die Geschichte der NSA.

[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 55: “Snowden is Snowed Under.” (unfilter Episode 55, 2013/06/19) – “In the wake of the NSA leaks we’re being told to trust the government with our simple data, it’s the leaker we need to worry about. Edward Snowden takes to the web to defend his name, while the top officials in US intelligence answer softball questions read from prepared statements.”

[Podcast] “Big Brother is watching you: Der Fall Edward Snowden.” (Deutschlandfunk Hintergrund, 18.06.2013)

[Podcast] “Wieviel Überwachung brauchen wir?” (DRadio Kontrovers 17.06.2013)

[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 54: “The NSA PRISM.” (unfilter Episode 54, 2013/06/12) – “We’ll dig into the new revelations, how this could be technically be done, and then we’ll expose the lapdog media’s attempt manipulate the narrative.”

[Podcast] IQ – Wissenschaft und Forschung: “Spionage.” (IQ – Wissenschaft und Forschung, Bayern 2, 12.06.2013) – Wie die Überwachung des Internet technisch funktioniert.

[Podcast] Logbuch Netzpolitik, Episode 67: “Schon lange nichts mehr auf NSA gepostet.” (LNP067, 11.06.2013) – Linus Neumann und Tim Pritlove berichten über das amerikanische PRISM und die deutsche Variante “Strategische Fernmeldeaufklärung”.

[Podcast] Common Sense with Dan Carlin, Episode 255: “The Big Long Surveillance Show.” (2013/06/10) – Dan Carlin points out the historical irony of the Guardian, a British newspaper, taking on the role of the fourth estate on behalf of American citizens’ civil liberties.

[Podcast] EconTalk “Schneier on Power, the Internet, and Security.” (2013/06/10) – In a recent episode of EconTalk, security expert Bruce Schneier talks, among other things, about the worrying encroachments of the national security state and how the powerful have adapted to use the Internet to solidify their grip.

Other resources about Internet surveillance in general:

http://buggedplanet.info – “A [Wiki] about Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Communication Intelligence (COMINT), Tactical and Strategical Measures used to intercept Communications and the Vendors and Governmental and Private Operators of this Technology.

More links coming up!