The leader of the embattled National Security Agency doubled down Wednesday against calls from Capitol Hill to restrict U.S. government surveillance programs — a campaign he attributed to “sensationalized” reporting and “media leaks.”
On the same day that key Senate lawmakers pledged to bring new oversight to the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander mounted a public defense of his agency: He stressed the intelligence community isn’t “listening to Americans’ phone calls and reading their emails,” and he urged technology and government leaders to help “get the facts out” and “get our nation to understand why we need these tools” in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures.
Speaking at a cybersecurity conference in Washington, Alexander also commended companies for cooperating with the federal government, and he made a plea for more power — particularly to thwart terrorists who have elevated their activities to cyberspace.
“Over 950 people were killed in Kenya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan,” Alexander said at the Billington CyberSecurity Summit, referencing recent violence in the region, “and we’re discussing more esoteric things here. Why? Because we’ve stopped the terrorist attacks here.”
“We’ve been fortunate, and it’s not been luck,” the general continued. “It’s our military that’s out [front], and it’s our intelligence community back here. They can’t do it without tools. So we’re going to have a debate in this country: Do we give up those tools? I’m concerned we’ll make the wrong decision.”
Alexander gave the speech before attending a classified meeting with lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee — whose chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), just this Tuesday called for sweeping changes to the NSA’s surveillance powers.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and other lawmakers later unveiled their own blueprint for surveillance reform. The package would reform the secret court that authorizes government surveillance requests while limiting the NSA’s ability to collect U.S. phone call logs in bulk.
“It is designed to set a high bar and serve as a measure for true intelligence reform,” Wyden said at a news conference, emphasizing the proposed legislation is “not cosmetic.”
Alexander heads back to the Hill on Thursday to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is exploring the NSA’s data collection and retention practices under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. He’ll return again next week for an open session with Leahy’s panel.
Even against those strong political currents, however, Alexander fiercely defended the NSA’s existing authorities.
The general repeatedly referenced Sept. 11, 2001, saying the intelligence community had learned from those attacks that it “had to connect the dots.” Alexander pointed to the Boston tragedy and “the threats this summer” as he made the case for “speed and agility” in intelligence gathering. The NSA leader also rebuffed charges that his agency had siphoned up mounds of Americans’ personal data. Pointing to Section 215, the provision in the PATRIOT Act under which the NSA has sought telephone call logs in bulk, Alexander emphasized: “There is no content, there [are] no names, just the numbers. That’s it. That’s all we asked for.”
Alexander also appeared to defend tech companies like Google and Microsoft, both of which are actively are fighting the federal government to release more data about government surveillance requests. Speaking only generally about “industry,” Alexander said companies aren’t “driving up to the NSA” and “dumping” data. They’re doing “what the courts are directing them to provide,” Alexander said. “Our industry have taken a beating on this, and it’s wrong.”
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4. Track the effectiveness.
Speaking of the TSA leads directly into a final way of minimizing the excesses and wastefulness of a national surveillance state. Every policy and every agency needs to be reviewed for effectiveness over time. On its 10-year anniversary, the TSA was the subject of a withering report by Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who noted that $56 billion invested in making flying safer after 9/11 had not increased safety by any appreciable measure.
At the same, TSA personnel increased by 400 percent while passenger volume had increased by less than 12 percent. More recently, in July, the GAO released a report documenting a 27 percent increase in TSA-employee misconduct between 2010 and 2012.
A variety of books over the past few years—including Moises Naim’s new The End of Power and Matt Welch’s and my The Declaration of Independents (2011)—document the way in which power and authority is leaching out of traditional centralized authorities such as governments, corporations, and churches. This result is a change in the relationship between state and citizen, producer and consumer, priest and congregant. What was once a far more hierarchical, top-down, and force-fed relationship is much flatter and more voluntary. Companies must do more than ever to placate their workers and customers, and even the Catholic Church can no longer issue doctrine without regard for the reaction of believers.
Governments, of course, maintain more power but even they rest ultimately upon the consent of the governed. At least since the attacks of September 11, 2001, our own government has used real and imaginary threats to engage in behavior that is not just increasingly being revealed to the public (thank you, Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers) but being reviled as noxious, misguided, and offensive to basic civil liberties and freedom. It’s little wonder then, that the president’s and Congress’ approval ratings are so low. Would that they would recognize us as partners in the war on terror rather than as potential combatants. They might just make our world a bit safer and be able to get on with their jobs of actually governing.
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3. Target the bad guys.
Supporters of a massive, effectively unregulated surveillance state are constantly touting the benefits of dragnet-style reporting requirements and snooping. For instance, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) have said repeatedly that NSA logging of phone call metadata and internet traffic were instrumental in the 2009 arrests of Najibullah Zazi, who plotted to blow up New York’s subway system, and David Headley, who traveled to Mumbai to scope the Taj Mahal hotel for an attack. Yet it turns out that neither case provides any evidence for the efficacy of widespread surveillance programs.
Indeed, they point to the effectiveness of old-fashioned intelligence and police work, where authorities keep tabs on people and groups with well-known reputations for violence and terrorism (Zazi was picked up based on tips from British agents; as a former Drug Enforcment Adminstration informant (!), Headley was well-known to investigators).
Surveillance-state supporters are constantly invoking the “needle-in-the-haystack” metaphor, the idea being that finding terrorists requires patient sifting through huge mounds of extraneous material. It’s odd then, isn’t it, that the basic urge is always to increase the size of the haystack rather than decrease it. Consider how The PATRIOT Act vastly increased the number of “currency transaction reports” (CTRs) that banks needed to file with the federal government in the name of outing terrorist money flows. Originally created to help snag drug kingpins, some 12 million CTRs were being filed annually before 9/11—a number that was already overwhelming any ability to use the information effectively. Creating a bigger haystack isn’t a smart way to find bad guys hidden within.
The same dynamic is at work in arguably the most-visible and least-popular excresence of the war on terror: the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the imposition of invasive and time-consuming procedures at the nation’s airports. The threat of hijacked planes being used as missiles was effectively ended on the morning of 9/11 itself, when passengers charged hijackers on United Flt 93 and drove the plane into a Pennsylvania field. The barricading of cockpit doors shortly after 9/11 ended the possibility of a repeat of 9/11. Yet we continue to fund a massively expensive system to search all people boarding airplanes in a long-running exercise in “security theater” that accomplishes nothing.
2. Legal authority is not optional.
Whether we’re discussing the use of drones, metadata dragnets, or anything else that seems creepy at first mention, the real anxiety stems from a lack of a clearly articulated and defensible legal framework. As disconcerting as it was to learn of a secret presidential kill list, it was far worse to realize that there was essentially no controlling legal authority which bound Barack Obama’s decisionmaking process. Similarly, recognizing that the NSA is not simply unwilling to follow the law but incapable of even understanding it is unacceptable.
No government—or branch of government—wants to have its decisions vetted by any sort of watchdog, but that’s the only way to minimize errors and build confidence that national security operations are not ultimately creating a government within a government. We have reached the point where the courts originally set up by 1978’s FISA (itself a product of an earlier era of massive violations of civil liberties), need a complete overhaul. If even sitting senators have trouble getting information about how and why the government is collecting information on citizens, something is wrong beyond repair.
The same is true for the foundational document in the War on Terror, which was passed by Congress on September 14, 2001 and grants vague and sweeping powers to the president of the United States. It reads, “The president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” A dozen years after the 9/11 attacks, any such declaration needs to be scrapped, rewritten, and voted on—in the cold light of day, not a hot flash of panic.
What was once a far more hierarchical, top-down, and force-fed relationship is much flatter and more voluntary.
Like hits for Katy Perry, the scandals for the National Security Agency just keep coming. In the wake of revelations that the NSA has been tracking virtually every phone call ever made and sifting through Internet data like a crazed prospector panning for gold at Sutter’s Mill, there’s yet more disturbing news with every passing day.
The latest is that between 2006 and 2009, Politico reports, the NSA lied about its activities to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court charged with authorizing its snooping. Worse still, this outcome is a toxic mix of spy-agency overreach and bureaucratic incompetence. “An internal inquiry into the misstatements also found that no one at the NSA understood how the entire call-tracking program worked,” says Politico, which quotes an unnamed source who explains, “There was nobody at NSA who really had a full idea of how the program was operating at the time.”
This is as outrageous as it is dispiriting (and predictable). But a dozen years after the 9/11 attacks ushered in the global war on terror, there’s no reason that we should have to live in fear of our government’s efforts to keep us safe and warm. Here are four basic principles that should inform what might be called a libertarian national security state. That is, one that helps to protects us without routinely transgressing constitutional guarantees to privacy, due process, freedom from illegal searches, and the right to be left alone.
1. Transparency uber alles.
One of the main reasons that Barack Obama’s approval ratings are in the crapper is because of his epic failure to live up to his promise to run what he guaranteed would be the most transparent administration EVAH. That’s especially true when it comes to national security issues. Even the most hardened anti-terror hawks have been shocked by revelations of widespread secret drone strikes, extra-judicial kill lists, a war on leakers and journalists, and ubiquitous snooping on Americans.
However disturbing it was to learn of massive surveillance of law-abiding citizens in violation of restrictions on the NSA, it was made even worse by blatant lies to the American public. When Director of National Intelligence James Clapper flat-out lied under oath to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), there should have been immediate and visible consequences, both in terms of personnel and policy.
In an age of Wikileaks, Anonymous, Edward Snowden, and other ultimately unstoppable forces, transparency isn’t just a buzzword, like green energy or farm-fresh. It’s an eventuality and the first government that levels with its people about what it’s actually up to will be far stronger and resilient than one that is constantly hiding its activities. We’re grownups, for Christ’s sake, and if some sort of restriction on our freedoms or oversight on our activities is actually defensible and necessary for a legitimate security purpose, we’ll respond in a responsible way.
Every bullshit, after-the-fact rationalization drives a deeper wedge between citizens and government. White House press releases like the one issued on July 23 don’t help. “In light of the recent unauthorized disclosures,” it read, “the President has said that he welcomes a debate about how best to simultaneously safeguard both our national security and the privacy of our citizens.” In such moments, Barack Obama moves beyond cynicism into the realm of pure insult.
The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures. The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear — a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.
The arms shipments, which are limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked, began arriving in Syria at a moment of heightened tensions over threats by President Obama to order missile strikes to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in a deadly attack near Damascus last month.
The arms are being delivered as the United States is also shipping new types of nonlethal gear to rebels. That aid includes vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment and advanced combat medical kits.
U.S. officials hope that, taken together, the weapons and gear will boost the profile and prowess of rebel fighters in a conflict that started about 21/2 years ago.
Although the Obama administration signaled months ago that it would increase aid to Syrian rebels, the efforts have lagged because of the logistical challenges involved in delivering equipment in a war zone and officials’ fears that any assistance could wind up in the hands of jihadists. Secretary of State John F. Kerry had promised in April that the nonlethal aid would start flowing “in a matter of weeks.”
The delays prompted several senior U.S. lawmakers to chide the Obama administration for not moving more quickly to aid the Syrian opposition after promising lethal assistance in June. The criticism has grown louder amid the debate over whether Washington should use military force against the Syrian regime, with some lawmakers withholding support until the administration committed to providing the rebels with more assistance.
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The U.S. government insists it has the intelligence to prove it, but the public has yet to see a single piece of concrete evidence produced by U.S. intelligence — no satellite imagery, no transcripts of Syrian military communications — connecting the government of President Bashar Assad to the alleged chemical weapons attack last month that killed hundreds of people.
In its absence, Damascus and its ally Russia have aggressively pushed another scenario: that rebels carried out the Aug. 21 chemical attack. Neither has produced evidence for that case, either. That’s left more questions than answers as the U.S. threatens a possible military strike.
The early morning assault in a rebel-held Damascus suburb known as Ghouta was said to be the deadliest chemical weapons attack in Syria’s 2½-year civil war. Survivors’ accounts, photographs of many of the dead wrapped peacefully in white sheets and dozens of videos showing victims in spasms and gasping for breath shocked the world and moved President Barack Obama to call for action because the use of chemical weapons crossed the red line he had drawn a year earlier.
Yet one week after Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the case against Assad, Americans — at least those without access to classified reports — haven’t seen a shred of his proof.
There is open-source evidence that provides clues about the attack, including videos of fragments from the rockets that analysts believe were likely used. U.S. officials on Saturday released a compilation of videos showing victims, including children, exhibiting what appear to be symptoms of nerve gas poisoning. Some experts think the size of the strike, and the amount of toxic chemicals that appear to have been delivered, make it doubtful that the rebels could have carried it out.
What’s missing from the public record is direct proof, rather than circumstantial evidence, tying this to the regime.
The Obama administration, searching for support from a divided Congress and skeptical world leaders, says its own assessment is based mainly on satellite and signals intelligence, including intercepted communications and satellite images indicating that in the three days prior to the attack that the regime was preparing to use poisonous gas.
But multiple requests to view that satellite imagery have been denied, though the administration produced copious amounts of satellite imagery earlier in the war to show the results of the Syrian regime’s military onslaught. When asked Friday whether such imagery would be made available showing the Aug. 21 incident, a spokesman referred The Associated Press to a map produced by the White House last week that shows what officials say are the unconfirmed areas that were attacked.
The Obama administration maintains it intercepted communications from a senior Syrian official on the use of chemical weapons, but requests to see that transcript have been denied. So has a request by the AP to see a transcript of communications allegedly ordering Syrian military personnel to prepare for a chemical weapons attack by readying gas masks.
The U.S. administration says its evidence is classified and is only sharing details in closed-door briefings with members of Congress and key allies.
Yet the assessment, also based on accounts by Syrian activists and hundreds of YouTube videos of the attack’s aftermath, has confounded many experts who cannot fathom what might have motivated Assad to unleash weapons of mass destruction on his own people — especially while U.N. experts were nearby and at a time when his troops had the upper hand on the ground.
Rebels who accuse Assad of the attack have suggested he had learned of fighters’ plans to advance on Damascus, his seat of power, and ordered the gassing to prevent that.
‘‘We can’t get our heads around this — why would any commander agree to rocketing a suburb of Damascus with chemical weapons for only a very short-term tactical gain for what is a long-term disaster,’’ said Charles Heyman, a former British military officer who edits The Armed Forces of the U.K., an authoritative bi-annual review of British forces.
Inconsistencies over the death toll and other details related to the attack also have fueled doubts among skeptics.
The Obama administration says 1,429 people died in 12 locations mostly east of the capital, an estimate close to the one put out by the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. When asked for victims’ names, however, the group provided a list of 395. On that list, some of the victims were identified by a first name only or said to be members of a certain family. There was no explanation for the hundreds of missing names.
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It’s a posture that conflicts with positions he took as a young senator, a 2008 presidential candidate and even a first-term president as he cast himself as a counterweight to the more aggressive approach to national security embodied by his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush.
The Democratic president long has advocated a U.S. foreign policy that prioritizes negotiation over confrontation, humility over diplomatic bravado and communal action over unilateralism.
Those positions are under question as Obama seeks the approval of Congress back home and as he meets with skeptical world leaders abroad while at the G-20 summit in Russia this week.
A look at some of Obama’s historical and recent comments on the use of America’s military might:
THEN: “In instances of self-defense, the president would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch.” — Response to candidate questionnaire from The Boston Globe, December 2007.
NOW: “As commander in chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security. I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress. But I did not take this to Congress just because it’s an empty exercise. I think it’s important to have Congress’ support on it.” — News conference in Stockholm, Sept. 4, 2013.
ON ACTING ALONE
THEN: “In a world in which threats are more diffuse and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. America alone cannot secure the peace.” — Speech accepting Nobel Peace Prize, December 2009.
NOW: “I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.” — Remarks in the White House Rose Garden, Aug. 31, 2013.
ON APPETITE FOR WAR
THEN: “It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward, to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path.” — Speech in Cairo, June 2009.
NOW: “The American people, understandably, want us to be focused on the business of rebuilding our economy here and putting people back to work. And I assure you, nobody ends up being more war-weary than me. But what I also believe is that part of our obligation as a leader in the world is making sure that when you have a regime that is willing to use weapons that are prohibited by international norms on their own people, including children, that they are held to account.” — Remarks at meeting with Baltic leaders, Aug. 30, 2013.
THEN: “We may not always have national security issues at stake, but we have moral issues at stake. If we could have intervened effectively in the Holocaust, who among us would say that we had a moral obligation not to go in? … And so I do believe that we have to consider it as part of our interests, our national interests, in intervening where possible.” — Presidential debate, October 2008.
NOW: “This kind of attack is a challenge to the world. We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale. This kind of attack threatens our national security interests by violating well-established international norms against the use of chemical weapons. … If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, ‘Stop doing this,’ that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term.” — Remarks at meeting with Baltic leaders, Aug. 30, 2013.
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Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff suspended preliminary steps for her October state visit to Washington, signaling allegations of US spying on her personal communications could reverse what would have been a crescendo of positive US-Brazil relations.
President Rousseff called off her advance logistics team that would have laid the ground for the only state visit the Obama administration has scheduled this year. It’s an honor reserved for Washington’s closest partners – including a black-tie dinner and military reception – and the invitation last May was viewed as an upgrade for Brazil in terms of bilateral relations.
But the US-Brazil relationship, already tense after leaks in July of alleged US eavesdropping on millions of phone calls and emails sent by citizens across Brazil, was further strained this week. After the widely viewed Sunday night TV program Fantástico alleged that the US also spied on the personal communications of President Rousseff and her aides, her administration hardened its tone, sending strong signals that the October visit could be cancelled.
Rousseff’s outrage goes beyond posturing to gain bargaining power with the US, says David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasília. “It was pretty genuine. She is a pretty short tempered person,” Mr. Fleischer says.
A state dinner is such a high-level commitment that to cancel it would be a blow to Obama; the Monitor found no examples that a state visit, once announced, has ever been cancelled before.
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