Tag Archives: Nsa

The Deep State Is Spying On Congress? You Don’t Say

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The Wall Street Journal, not having the benefit of a near-pathological obsession with all things surveillance-related, has done some goldfish reporting on how shocked, shocked they are that the NSA may have “inadvertently” and “incidentally” gathered up some communications of US elected representatives, during the course of closely scrutinizing the communications of Binyamin Netanyahu.

It’s goldfish reporting because it exhibits no long-term memory of the history of political surveillance; and more particularly, of recent domestic political surveillance stories.

In 2009, liberal Congresswoman Jane Harman was caught in an almost identical scandal, having likewise been a vehement defender of the NSA, and reacted in the same way, denouncing mass surveillance only when it was turned her way.

From 2009 to 2012, the CIA spied on staffers for Senator Dianne Feinstein and other Democratic Intelligence Committee senators, in order to monitor, and to attempt to discredit, their efforts to hold the CIA accountable for horrific and repeated acts of torture; leading Senator Rand Paul to describe the CIA as “drunk with power” and to talk about the “real fear in Senators’ eyes”.

After the Snowden revelations, speculation ran rampant that Supreme Court Justice John Roberts’s last-minute and unexpected change of his key vote on the constitutionality of Obamacare, had been influenced by the NSA’s possession of information on him derived from its mass surveillance systems.

In April 2015, Congressman Jason Chaffetz had personal information from his past leaked by the Secret Service in order to discredit his efforts to investigate the Secret Service for a series of scandals involving drunk driving, hiring sex workers, and failing to protect the White House from trespassers.

The testimony of NSA whistleblower Russell Tice suggests that these are not just isolated cases that happen to have come to light. Instead, they are likely to be the visible portions of an active practice of surveillance of elected officials and jurists with decision-making authority over the budgets and activities of the surveillance state. It’s not an accident that Congress keeps voting in favor of substantive NSA reforms in public, that then mysteriously get stripped in committee. Surveillance power is blackmail power; it’s been used before in the US, is being used now, and will be used in the future, until we stop it.

Saying this is not paranoia; it’s only to be expected. Set up a mass surveillance system, and it will inevitably be turned against its own overseers. That’s a major reason to adhere to the Fourth Amendment and refuse to set one up.

Of course the NSA will spy on their alleged political overseers. Who the hell would stop them? The FISC? Congress itself, which just gleefully expanded surveillance because somebody said “ISIS, ISIS, ISIS, Boo!”? The President?

I think not.

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Go Smart, Not Broad: A Constitutional Response To Violent Attacks

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A former Middle East advisor to President Obama, Steven Simon, suggested in Saturday’s New York Times that the administration’s response to the Paris attacks was likely to include “Tighter border controls, more intensive surveillance in the U.S. and more outreach to local communities in the hope that extremists will be fingered by their friends and family. And a tightening of already intimate cooperation with European intelligence agencies.”

These proposals, if adopted, would be immensely counterproductive, and here’s why.

First, tighter border controls are irrelevant to this attack. It appears that all of the attackers so far identified, were EU citizens; none were refugees from Syria.

Second, France already had a draconian mass surveillance law, which came into effect at the beginning of October. It didn’t work to thwart these attacks. The reason is the “false positives” problem. Any system employing demographics, metadata, or past behavior, inevitably sweeps up a vast majority of innocent people, and diverts police and intelligence resources towards ruling them out. This LA Times study of “pre-crime” efforts to prevent violent crimes by US Army soldiers added every variable they could, and still, for every 15 people who did in fact commit violence in a given year in their set of suspects, 985 did not. Similarly, before the Boston Marathon attacks, the FBI had flagged Tamarlen Tsarnaev for interview; but they interview hundreds of flagged people every week, and have no way of knowing which among them will actually commit an attack. So, it appears that six weeks before the attacks, France’s intelligence agencies snowed themselves under with an ocean of false positives, and weren’t able to detect among that traffic the communications that were suspicious. They can’t be faulted for not being able to do so; it’s mathematically impossible. All mass surveillance allows is what’s happening now, which is to be able to go back into the system and see what you missed.

Third, Muslim and black communities were already under very heavy pressure in France, and are already under very heavy pressure here from the FBI, through its “Countering Violent Extremism” program, to “finger friends and family”. CVE uses models of radicalization with no solid academic basis to identify people as potentially radical simply because they have changed their dietary habits or become more devout about their religion. To make their numbers, the FBI has even resorted, in case after case, to creating their own terrorists out of young, poor, and mentally unstable young men, using confidential informants to lead them through every stage of devising a plot till they do something the FBI can arrest them for. We don’t need more of that either.

Fourth, when it comes to “more intimate cooperation” with European intelligence agencies, the fact is that such cooperation is already “intimate” – so intimate that the British systematically tap Internet traffic and hand us the contents; so intimate that we share “raw take” intelligence with Israeli security services; so intimate that the German intelligence agency helped the NSA spy on Europe’s top politicians in exchange for access to the latest in surveillance wizardry. Short of actually being in bed with one another, there’s no more “intimacy” to be had – and it still isn’t working.

This kind of mass surveillance is not working to thwart attacks. But in four important ways, it does work. Mass surveillance intimidates citizens in their ordinary conversations and activities of life. It allows bigoted politicians to curry favor with their base, and coast on a wave of anti-Muslim suspicion. It brings great profits to the private security firms smart enough to fill their cup at the never-failing spigot of federal counterterrorism funding. And it makes the general public feel that Something Is Being Done, convincing them to trade more of their rights away for a little temporary safety.

Last, if we react in this particular way, it also serves the ends of the violent criminals who committed this attack. Lacking resources themselves to wage war, they seek to provoke a backlash that will garner them support among the peaceful Muslim majority. Back in the day, the IRA posed as the defenders of the rights of peaceful Northern Irish Catholics against foreign oppression; today, the Islamic State poses as the defenders of the rights of peaceful Muslims against foreign oppression. A governmental backlash against Muslims in general will merely bolster their propaganda: See? We told you they’re out to get you! Come join us!

Instead, we should use the Constitution to solve the false positives problem. The Fourth Amendment bars mass surveillance, requiring, before surveillance is conducted, a warrant based on individualized probable cause of involvement in actual criminal activity. Imagine that, instead of having a “TIDE” terrorist database with 750,000+ names on it, it were limited to a maximum of one thousand, but that the one thousand were each investigated thoroughly on the basis of actual evidence. The surveillance agencies would waste a lot less time chasing fruitless leads, building data centers, or shoveling money to software vendors to try to solve this insoluble problem.

Foreign policy and economic solutions are beyond our remit, but it should be obvious that in order to drain the Islamic State of support, we have to provide those fleeing its rule with a credible chance at a better life. At the bare minimum, we should let them know that if they come to our country, they will be treated justly, not kept constantly under watch even if innocent of any crime.

Zen and the Art of Cybersecurity

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In the hothouse of Congress, members have been sweating over the need to do something – anything – about “cybersecurity.” They were under pressure from the administration, the intelligence services, and the tech industry. But the latest news is that the Republican majority will be turning, in the few days left before the recess, from the contentious highways bill to a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, likely shifting the previously-catastrophically-urgent cybersecurity crisis through to the fall. So Congress, like my seven-year-olds in school assembly, can take a few deep breaths and imagine that they can smell a flower.

The truth is, there never was a “cybersecurity crisis.” Companies are already legally allowed to share information on hacking attempts with the government, and they usually do. This debate is not really about making US companies or the US government more secure; it’s about putting more of your information, that you have voluntarily shared with US companies, into the government’s hands, without companies being liable for violating their privacy policies for sharing personally identifiable information. All proposals on the table in Congress would immunize companies from suit in this way. In this sense, it would be perfectly all right for Congress to do nothing.

Nevertheless, there is a cybersecurity problem that is worth trying to solve. The government is not a good custodian of our data. Its networks are often poorly secured and vulnerable to outside intrusion. In the surveillance arena, there are now over five million people with security clearances, who are in a position to leak sensitive information. Cultivating a more disciplined approach to network protection and data retention would seem to be a good idea. That’s where the principle above comes in.

In this spirit, let’s calmly reflect on what a bill dealing with this real problem would look like.

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NSA Whistleblower Russ Tice Explains NSA Targeting of US Politicians

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Mass surveillance is damaging enough; but the capabilities we have handed to the surveillance agencies create a different kind of opportunity for the empire-building surveillance bureaucrat.

The constant claim is that Americans are not “wittingly” “targeted” under the dragnet; it’s just that their communications are vacuumed up “incidentally” because they are one, two, or three “hops” from a given “target”, a category that includes a shifting set of millions of people at a time. But even that face-saving statement is a lie. American citizens are “targets” themselves, and there’s an obvious category of people it would make strategic sense for the surveillance agencies to target: Namely, the set of people with authority over the budgets and remits of the surveillance agencies themselves.

NSA whistleblower Russell Tice is much less well known than Edward Snowden, but his testimony is just as explosive. Here’s an interview he gave in 2013, with a partial transcript:

Okay. They [the NSA] went after members of Congress, both Senate and the House, especially on the intelligence committees and on the armed services committees and judicial. But they went after other ones, too. They went after heaps of lawyers and law firms. They went after judges. One of the judges [Samuel Alito] is now sitting on the Supreme Court that I had his wiretap information in my hand. Two are former FISA court judges. They went after State Department officials. They went after people in the White House–their own people. They went after antiwar groups. They went after U.S. companies that that do business around the world. They went after U.S. banking firms and financial firms that do international business. They went after NGOs like the Red Cross that that go overseas and do humanitarian work. They went after a few antiwar civil rights groups. So, you know, don’t tell me that there’s no abuse, because I’ve had this stuff in my hand and looked at it.

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It Takes A Massive Surveillance Apparatus To Hold Us Back: Fusion Centers, Ferguson and the Deep State

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Here’s a question: How much of a national security threat are people protesting the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown?

If you answered, There’s no national security threat; they’re exercising their First Amendment rights, which should be celebrated, then you’re obviously a pre-9/11-American, which is enough to get you disinvited from the major TV propaganda shows.

Local news media reported on the Black Lives Matter protest in Boston, and noted, without really thinking about it, that “the state police Commonwealth Fusion Center monitored social media, which provided “critical intelligence about protesters’ plans to try to disrupt traffic on state highways.” It didn’t really register because journalists are mostly not watching fusion centers like we are, and aren’t seeing them come up again and again and again and again, lurking at the edges of stories about free speech and national security, and policing the boundaries of what is acceptable to say.

Think, then, of fusion centers as state-based NSAs overseen loosely by the Department of Homeland Security. Set up after 9/11 to provide “joined-up intelligence” and thwart terrorist attacks, they quickly found that there just wasn’t enough terrorism of the kind not ginned up by government informants themselves to sustain 88 separate local antiterrorism centers in addition to the NSA, FBI and CIA. So they expanded their definition of terrorism to cover many other things, which in Massachusetts have included harassing peaceful activists and elected officials while missing actual terrorist plots, and now, for lack of anything better to do with their tax dollars, vetting licenseholders for marijuana dispensaries and fostering anonymous threat reporting in public schools.

We have advocated against fusion centers for a long time. Last week, we received the results of a FOIA request to Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Fusion Center that throws more light on the kind of information they hold, and the kind of society that is being constructed without our consent.

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Midterms & Mass Surveillance, Part II: CIA and Elite Torturers Win, The Rule of Law Loses

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We lack in this country a major party that offers wholehearted and universal support for the protections embodied in the Bill of Rights, and the choices offered are often highly constrained. To take the last two presidential elections as an example, the more pro-civil-liberties of the major-party candidates has launched more Espionage Act prosecutions than all previous presidents combined; indefinitely detains legally innocent people, for fear of what they might do if released; allows agencies to gin up fake terror plots; calls the idea of actually prosecuting torturers “sanctimonious“; and would prefer a cosmetic surveillance reform that legitimates most of what the deep state is doing and that, of course, wouldn’t punish anyone. The less pro-civil-liberties candidates argued for unending war in the Middle East, invited warmongers and torturers to introduce them at campaign stops, and argued that affording due process to prisoners of war would be a kind of treason.

There’s a reason for this constrained choice set: The elites of both parties no longer, if they ever did, believe that laws apply to them, their colleagues, their funders, or the intelligence agencies. As a result of this culture of lawlessness, no candidate that genuinely seeks to have laws apply universally will garner the insider support needed to advance their candidacies.

We will see the effects of this constrained choice set in the new Congress most clearly in the field of prosecutions for US government acts of torture.

Let’s review the history.

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War-Addicted US Military Now Arguing It Can Spy On All Computers In States With Military Bases

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A new ruling from the Ninth Circuit (h/t Eugene Volokh) highlights a case where an NCIS agent:

“surveyed the entire state of Washington for computers sharing child pornography.” [their italics] It was Agent Logan’s “standard practice” to do so. There is “abundant evidence that the violation at issue has occurred repeatedly and frequently” […] [Agent Logan] “appeared to believe that these overly broad investigations were permissible, because he was a U.S. federal agent and so could investigate violations of either the Uniform Code of Military Justice or federal law.” […] Incredibly, “the government is arguing vehemently that the military may monitor for criminal activity all the computers anywhere in any state with a military base or installation, regardless of how likely or unlikely the computers are to be associated with a member of the military.”

In dissent, Justice Diarmuid O’Scannlain expresses his disgust that applying the exclusionary rule would “set a convicted child pornographer free”, and argues that “from the premise that the government believes it has a certain power, it does not follow that the government routinely exercises that power.”

This was the first time that a Posse Comitatus violation had been addressed by excluding the evidence, and legal blogs are abuzz with the question of whether that remedy was appropriate. To me, O’Scannlain’s visceral dissent naively ignores the government’s track record on surveillance and civil liberties, and the fact that this case effectively discloses a new form of mass government surveillance practice.

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