Friday, November 28, 2014

Beyond Snowden

Ed Snowden, the Movie. Jim DiEugenio has written a fine story about Citizenfour, a.k.a., the Ed Snowden Movie. This piece is far more than film review -- it gives the whole history of NSA abuses and how we learned about them (to the extent that we have learned about them). In 1975, reformist congressman Frank Church offered the following prescient words about the NSA:
“If a dictator ever took over, the NSA could enable it to impose a total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back. That capability could at any time be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide."
DiEugenio goes on to note:
Those comments were probably made because Church found out about Project Minaret, an early and limited attempt at domestic surveillance which targeted the communications of famous personages who criticized the Vietnam War, e.g., himself and King.

Project Minaret lasted from 1967 to 1973 and ended up targeting about 1,650 American citizens. These names were on Watch Lists made up by the executive intelligence agencies. There was no judicial oversight and no warrants were obtained.
The surveillance state does not target them. The state targets us.

Secrecy also fosters corruption. I've mentioned NSA whistleblower William Binney in previous posts. Nevertheless, the facts he brought to light remain too little known: In March of 2013, Senator Ron Wyden asked James Clapper (the National Intelligence Director) if the NSA collects data on millions of Americans. Clapper, of course, said no.

And, of course, he was lying: Just such a program did exist. Its name was STELLARWIND.

But that's not the worst of it. In January of this year, President Obama received a memo from a small group of NSA whistleblowers, including Binney. As DiEugenio summarizes:
What the memo revealed was that the whole pubic scandal about STELLARWIND was unnecessary because Binney, Loomis and Wiebe had devised a much better program called THINTHREAD. This did much the same thing, but it had encryption formulas entered into it so that records relating to American citizens would remain secret at least until a FISA court could decide on whether or not probable cause existed to open them.

The program was also cross-relational: “It united data associated with terrorists/criminals from all databases.” And it was relatively cheap. THINTHREAD was developed in-house for a paltry $3 million and could be fully deployed for about $300 million. But NSA Director Michael Hayden vetoed this program in favor of an outside contractor’s program called TRAILBLAZER, a decision made three weeks before the 9/11 attacks.
One of the bureaucratic “advantages” of TRAILBLAZER was that it cost more than ten times as much as THINTHREAD and allowed the NSA and various members of Congress thus to show that they were doing more about terrorism – and helping out some favored contractors – even though TRAILBLAZER ultimately proved a failure and a waste of some $3.8 billion.
This blog has also discussed the story of Thomas Drake, another NSA whistleblower who went to the Baltimore Sun. The government baselessly sued him because he had dared to reveal (among other things) that the NSA had collected enough information to break up the 9/11 plot well before the disaster happened:
Drake discovered that the NSA had produced a lengthy analytic report that broke open the entire structure of Al-Qaeda and associated groups, including the content of phone calls between hijacker Khalid al-Midhar in San Diego with the known Al-Qaeda safe house communications center in Yemen.

Drake’s information, of course, undermined the whole Bush/Cheney argument that if the U.S. only had a bulk collection program prior to 9/11, the attacks could have been prevented. Instead, the problem was an analytical failure to understand the import of information already collected. Piling on vast amounts of additional data arguably made the problem worse, burying the analysts in an unimaginably giant haystack of data and expecting them to locate the crucial needle.
In an ironic twist, Cheney misused the Khalid al-Midhar case transforming it into an example of how the NSA could have prevented the attacks if it only had more data – when, in fact, the NSA had this information in hand.
In other words, the NSA did not need broader powers. Nevertheless, the misrepresentation of what really happened helped give birth to PRISM:
Snowden secured a 41-frame Power Point presentation on it. The aim of this program is to collect private electronic data belonging to users of major internet carriers like Gmail, AOL, Skype and YouTube.

With the exposure of PRISM, Snowden cut out one of the most often used defenses by both the Bush and Obama administrations, namely, that they were collecting only “metadata,” that is, only the times and durations of communications. PRISM collects the contents of emails, online chats, cloud-stored files, and much more.
As Snowden notes in the film, PRISM is not just a recording device. It can be channeled backward and forwards in time. That is, once the target is identified, PRISM can access all the information from the company’s databank, from the past to the present and monitor it into the future.
Fort Meade is not far away from where I live. I'd like to make a documentary of my own -- a short film in which the NSA workers who live in that town are asked one simple question: How do you sleep at night? I would ask that question politely, of course, and I would behave in a civilized fashion if people chose not to reply.

Now, I have every right to grab my camera, go out to Fort Meade and pose that question to random folk. Not a single person who signed the Constitution would deny my right to do this.

Yet I dare not. The NSA is a whole lot bigger than the Constitution, and don't pretend otherwise.

Note: The video embedded above does not directly relate to the film Citizenfour. It's the record of a conference called Enemies of the State, and it features remarkable disclosures from Jesselyn Radack, Thomas Drake, and William Binney.
Didn't edit the "pubic scandal" error in the Consortium article, eh?

So much for your typo record!
The error was not mine. As you know, I never make typoes.
This whole story now has a beaten-to-death quality about it. At the same time, I don't know if a story about such an abuse of public trust ever received more press but resulted in less action in the policy or political realm.
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