Tag: secrecy

‘Perfect Citizen’: Congress’ Perfect Failure

Reliable national security reporter Siobhan Gorman at the Wall Street Journal has broken a story about an Internet surveillance program called “Perfect Citizen” to be managed by the National Security Agency.

Reading about it is frustrating, and for me blame quickly settles on Congress. Our legislature is utterly supine before the national security bureaucracy, which exaggerates cybersecurity threats and consistently uses the secrecy trump card to defy oversight.

If there is to be a federal government role in securing the Internet from cyberattacks, there is no good reason why its main components should not be publicly known and openly debated. Small parts, like threat signatures and such—the unique characteristics of new attacks—might be appropriately kept secret, but no favor is done to any potential attackers by revealing that there is a system for detecting their activities.

A cybersecurity effort that is not tested by public oversight will be weaker than ones that are scrutinized by private-sector experts, academics, security vendors, and watchdog groups.

Benign intentions do not control future results, and governmental surveillance of the Internet for “cybersecurity” purposes may warp over time to surveillance for ideological and political purposes.

These abstract criticisms of “Project Citizen” are all that publicly available information allows. Far better would come from me and others more qualified if Congress were to do its job.

Congress owes it to us, the United States’ true citizens, to have public hearings on “Perfect Citizen.” Congress should reject broad assertions of secrecy so that the whole body politic can participate in securing our country from all threats.

Congressional and public oversight—searching oversight that tests assumptions and asks hard questions—would strengthen any government cybersecurity effort we find warranted. It would also ameliorate the threat of such programs to our civil liberties, democratic processes, and privacy.

Cyber Security “Facts”

National Journal’s “Expert Blog” on National Security asked me late last week to comment on the question, “How Can Cyberspace Be Defended?” My comment and others went up yesterday.

My response was a fun jaunt through issues on which there are no experts. But the highlight is the response I drew out of Michael Jackson, the former #2 man at the Department of Homeland Security.

It does little to promote serious discourse about the truly grave topic of cyber security threats to begin by ridiculing DHS and DOD as “grasping for power” or to suggest that President Obama has somehow been duped into basing his sensible cyber strategy on “a lame and corny threat model called ‘weapons of mass disruption.’” It shows ignorance of the facts to deny that cyber vulnerabilities do indeed present the possibility of “paralyzing results.”

Jackson neglects to link to a source proving the factual existence of “paralyzing” threats to the Internet – he’d have to defeat the Internet’s basic resilient design to do it. (Or he has collapsed the Internet, the specific way of networking I was talking about, with “cyber” – a meaningless referent to everything.) But the need for tight argument or proof is almost always forgiven in homeland security and cyber security, where the Washington, D.C. echo-chamber relentlessly conjures problems that only an elite bureaucracy can solve.

In another comment – not taking umbrage at mine, but culturally similar to Jackson’s – Ron Marks, Senior Vice President for Government Relations at Oxford-Analytica, says, “Cyberterrorism is here to stay and will grow bigger.” The same can be said of the bogeyman, but the bogeyman isn’t real either.

(To all interlocutors: Claiming secrecy will be taken as confessing you have no evidence.)

Jackson’s close is the tour de force though: “Good people are working hard on these matters, and they deserve our unwavering financial and personal support. For now and for the long-term.”

A permanent tap on America’s wallets, and respect on command? Sounds like “grasping for power” to me.

Obama and the Interrogation Memos: The Right Decision

President Obama’s decision to release Bush-era memos discussing “enhanced interrogation techniques” is the right decision. Critics, such as the one featured in this Politico article, fail to comprehend terrorism as a strategy. Thus, they are locked into counterproductive policies like secrecy and torture.

Let’s start with the strategic logic of terrorism: By goading strong powers into overreaction and error, terrorism weakens those powers and strengthens itself. Among other things, overreaction and misdirection on the part of the strong power draw sympathy and support to terrorists as it confirms the terrorist narrative that they are in a struggle against evil powers.

Torture or credible accounts of torture provide confirmation of a suspicion among relatively unsophisticated observers in the Middle East (once known as the “street”) that the United States is a colonist and an oppressor of Muslims and Arabs. Secrecy is a way in which such stories grow and multiply. The results of torture and secrecy are millions of people who believe, suspect, or worry that they and their culture are on the losing end of a battle for supremacy in the world. (We have some of those on the American street, too.)

From these millions emerge individuals and groups — eventually perhaps networks — who devote their creativity to developing and eventually mounting attacks on the United States and the West. (The path to terrorism is not simple or well-understood. Several panels in our January counterterrorism conference explored dimensions of this question.)

Just as important, non-participants in terrorism who are ideologically or physically nearby to inchoate terrorists decline opportunities to undermine the terrorism brewing around them. Terrorists are bad people with ugly ideologies, and their neighbors know it, but these neighbors will overlook all that if they see the United States as a wrongdoer. Because of secrecy and torture, the United States loses these natural allies and the security they would otherwise provide.

But what about the loss of enhanced interrogation techniques? “Publicizing the techniques does grave damage to our national security by ensuring they can never be used again,” says a critic, “even in a ticking-time-bomb scenario where thousands or even millions of American lives are at stake.”

The ticking-time-bomb scenario is a movie plot that evidently thrills some in the counter-terrorism community. But the chance of a significant weapon being acquired and used by terrorists is very small. The chance that U.S. authorities will know about it and know who to interrogate at just the right moment: pure fantasy. Such a moment would only arrive as the result of many, many failures on the part of U.S. intelligence and security organizations to protect our interests.

Even assuming that torture actually works, which is very much in dispute, the security given by having the sympathy of millions of people in the Muslim and Arab worlds is much, much greater than the security of having legal authorization to torture. The security of having world goodwill helps ensure that we never arrive at the ticking time-bomb moment.

If that’s frustrating to torture hawks, there are video games where they can avenge the 9/11 attacks over and over again. The rest of us will rue the failings that allowed 9/11 to happen while we work on sophisticated, strategic counter-terrorism that actually secures the country. Many in the intelligence and security communities have sophisticated views on counter-terrorism and are eager to get on with policies that aren’t counterproductive.

President Obama has made the right decision in releasing the memos — and not just right in some abstract legal or moral sense. It is the correct strategic decision for countering terrorism.

His critics’ focus on one or two trees — saplings like the “ticking time-bomb” fantasy — obscures the forest that would grow higher still should the United States persist in being a secretive torturer.