Saturday, December 21, 2013


The latest revelations about NSA/GCHQ spying seem, literally, more of the same.  The numbers go up, “thousands of targets,” and so do the levels of folly and indiscrimination.  The NY Times says,


Secret documents reveal more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years, including the office of an Israeli prime minister, heads of international aid organizations, foreign energy companies and a European Union official involved in antitrust battles with American technology businesses.”

The list of targets published by the Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel

includes: “senior European Union officials, foreign leaders including African heads of state and sometimes their family members, directors of United Nations and other relief programs, and officials overseeing oil and finance ministries, according to the documents. In addition to Israel, some targets involved close allies like France and Germany.”

At this point the Times reporters James Glanz and Andrew W. Lehren pause for a moment and gather a joint “straight face,” and use it to deliver this: the NSA/GCHQ to-surveil lists “also include people suspected of being terrorists or militants.”

Let me do better than just italics to highlight this.  Let me repeat:  in addition to officials of Doctors without Borders, the EU anti-trust agency, and the African economic organization ECOWAS, our security services also tracked actual potential threats to someone’s security: “people suspected of being terrorists or militants.”

How reassuring.

Less reassuring was the revelation that one of the email accounts tapped by GCHQ (likely on assignment from the NSA) was “the email address was used for correspondence with [then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s] office, which he said staff members often handled. He added that it was unlikely that any secrets could have been compromised.

“This was an unimpressive target,” Mr. Olmert said.

Unless the Times/Guardian/Spiegel missed something, the snoopers were plugged into the wrong circuit, the G rated email account.  I suspect bureaucratic buffoonery: some intel  jobsworth was tasked to set up a tap on Olmert. And he did. Incompetently and ineffectively.  But if anyone up chain asked him about the Olmert account, he could answer truthfully, “We’re on it. It’s working like a charm.”  Turning up nothing.

If the White House, or some other NSA “client” within government wanted to know what Olmert was up to, a search of Israel’s hard-charging news media, print, radio, TV and internet, almost certainly would have provided better information, at a much lower cost, measured in dollars or national dignity.

Probably the first question any spy should ask him or herself about a possible penetration for information is, “Can I get away with it?”

Probably the most frightening thing about all the secret surveillances Edward J. Snowden has publicized is, the NSA brass actually believed they could “get away with them, all of them.”

Somehow, as they burrowed deeper down intercept alley, the intelligence executive was blind to a world of change (as their analogs were so amazingly deaf to the rumble of impending collapse of the Soviet Union.)  DNI James Clapper and NSA Director Keith Alexander acted as if the universality of smartphones, digital recorders, and computers were no significant threat to data-security, and existence of a 24/7 digital livestream of global communication meant that stolen info could be instantaneously re-distributed to a worldwide public

Remember, these latest revelations cover the period 2008-2011, by which time institutional dreams of secure secrecy should have been thoroughly discredited.   In 2005 and 2006 James Risen had published in his book State of War, and in the NY Times, well-sourced stories on a secret CIA cyberwar against Iran, and the NSA’s warrantless surveillance of American telephone communications.  Barton Gellman, in 2007 and 2008, had outed the super-secret White House Group on Iraq, and in the Washington Post and his political biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, Angler, the NSA’s massive data-mining of digital communications. 

I guess the professional judgment of Clapper and Alexander was, “That can’t happen again.”

How would Angela Merkel ever find out, we’re tapping her cellphone?

It’s called risk-assessment, and it’s probably the most basic job in national security.  If you can’t manage the first, you shouldn’t be allowed to attempt the second.  So, beyond the imperative to fire the 2 retired Generals because they both lied to Congress and systematically misled their legal monitors on the FISA Court, (yeah, I know, too late to fire Alexander.  He’s already resigned.) how about firing them for their obvious and avoidable misjudgments of risk and reality that, for very little return in important intelligence, has subjected the United States to international hostility, mistrust, contempt and humiliation?

Whatever the risk, what was the expected reward from collecting and transcribing the conversations of ECOWAS’ Mohamed Ibn Chambas, which included, the Times reports, “’Am glad yr day was satisfying,’ Mr. Chambas texted one acquaintance” The Times reported.

“’I spent my whole day travelling ... Had to go from Abidjan to Accra to catch a flt to Monrovia ... The usual saga of intra afr.’ Later he recommended a book, “A Colonial History of Northern Ghana,” to the same person. ‘Interesting and informative,’ Mr. Chambas texted.”  This is an intellgience mission that seems stupid from top to bottom, beginning to end.  Chambas is even mis-identified by his snooper as “Dr. Chambers.”

The same Congress that has cut food stamps and unemployment insurance, that won’t build highways or repair bridges writes a blank check to the national security services to exemplify the idea of “a bureaucracy run amok.”

Challenged about the apparent surveillance on the EU’s anti-trust ball-buster of Intel and Microsoft, NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines actually gave a coherent and intelligent answer: “The intelligence community’s efforts to understand economic systems and policies, and monitor anomalous economic activities, are critical to providing policy makers with the information they need to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of our national security.”

Me, I buy that, we probably do want to know what the top economic movers and shakers around the world are thinking and saying.  But I’m no better than agnostic on whether that’s what the tap on Joaquín Almunia, vice president of the European Commission was really about, helping government make  better economic policies.  I suspect it could have been about helping US companies cut a better deal with the Euro-folk, a more diffuse national benefit.

At least the cost of this revelation will be borne by the security bumblers and their White House enablers.  Sr. Almunia may now, righteously, be doubly suspicious of the American Government and American IT firms, and doubly harsh in his treatment of them.  But the news that UN relief agencies, even NGOs like Medecins du Monde, have also been penetrated, their notes and observations swept into the NSA’s data files, will hurt the organizations, hamper their ability to do good around the world, perhaps even put their refugee rescuers and volunteer doctors and nurses in mortal danger.

In the case of Almunia, and of the human rights and social service workers, what they see and say may well be worth knowing.  But not at any price; and all these cases, the consequences that were risked should have forestalled any secret sweeping.

In addition to being an historically grave offense against privacy, the decade-long NSA etc surveillance campaign has been an offense against competence, judgment, discipline and common sense.

This clown show started under President George W. Bush, but it hasn’t dropped a stitch (or a seltzer bottle) since Barack Obama took over the White House.  With his characteristic mysterious mixture of diffidence (or is it laziness) and passivity (or is it cowardice?) he has permitted, nay encouraged, the most dysfunctional departments of his government to keep on doin’ their thing.

Now, 6 months after the Snowden revelations hit the fan, Obama is admitting there’s a problem.  Appallingly, it is clear from his remarks at his December 20 News Conference, the problem he sees is not an ongoing privacy problem, or competence problem, but a theoretical issue far in the future: “I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around, but I also recognize that as technologies change and people can start running algorithms and programs that map out all the information that we're downloading on a daily basis into our telephones and our computers that we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence.”

That for Barack Obama is the real problem here, a public relations problem.

The President says, “What [is clear] from the public debate, people are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse. And I think that's what the judge in the district court suggested. And although his opinion obviously differs from rulings on the FISA Court, we're taking those into account.”

Uhhh, can we hold it right there?  (1) Judge Richard Leon didn’t just worry about some as yet undocumented potential for abuse, he declared unconstitutional the present, on-going, broadscale, warrantless imposition of government surveillance on the private lives of American citizens who are suspected of crimes, and have had no direct contact with suspected terrorists.  And (2) those previous “rulings on the FISA Court,” were all predicated on now-corrected misinformation, lying claims that the DNI and NSA and the other agencies under FISA supervision were obeying the law in their actions and in their filings to the court. 

Thus, those FISA Court “rulings” are completely invalid.

I hope Mr. Obama also takes that “into account.”  But more likely his scheme is to calm down the rubes and keep doing what he and his security team have been doing since the day he took office (and to be fair, many years before).  As he himself said at the news conference, “it is clear that whatever benefits the configuration of this particular program may have, may be outweighed by the concerns that people have on its potential abuse. And if that's the case, there may be another way of skinning the cat.”

That’s not cat skin, sir, that’s my privacy.




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