Tag: surveillance

The Selectivity of American “Countering Violent Extremism” Policies

This week, the Obama administration and Congress continued their public duel over whether the U.S. government is doing enough to “counter violent extremism” (CVE). The White House press release on the “Leader’s Summit to Counter ISIL and Violent Extremism” lauded the administration’s efforts to prevent the radicalization of Muslim-American youth at the hands of ISIS. A 66-page report released by the House Homeland Security Committee (HSC) condemned the administration’s actions as inadequate on multiple levels. Both documents avoided a re-airing of unpleasant truths about why ISIS has managed to grow regionally and even find a tiny number of would-be fellow travelers here.

The first unpleasant truth is that by invading Iraq in 2003, the United States helped to give new life to Salafist-oriented groups like al Qaeda. Indeed, there was no AQ element in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion. The same was true in Libya until the ill-fated U.S.-sponsored toppling of the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Neither the administration’s press release nor the HSC report acknowledged those facts.

Mindless American interventionism has been one of the greatest recruiting tools for Salafist groups like ISIS.

Indeed, every Western hostage killed by ISIS was wearing an orange-colored prison jump suit-like garment, just like the ones worn by Iraqi prisoners tortured by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison or those held still at Guantanamo. Neither President Obama nor the authors of the HSC report can bring themselves to admit that our own actions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia have helped to fuel the very terrorist violence and domestic recruiting efforts both decried this week.

The second unpleasant truth dodged by the White House and the HSC is that all the mass surveillance programs initiated in the post-9/11 era have failed to detect a string of real plots or actual attacks in advance. Yet the HSC report calls for a doubling-down on federal support for state-level intelligence “fusion centers,” none of which have uncovered actual terrorist plots while targeting civil liberties groups that question their utility and the constitutionality of their operational methods. 

A third unpleasant truth avoided by the HSC and the Obama administration is that CVE is not an “equal opportunity” program aimed at all kinds of violent extremists. The federal CVE focus is squarely on Arab- and Muslim-Americans, even though right-wing American political extremists have killed almost twice as many U.S. persons in the post-9/11 era as have American Salafist-oriented terrorists.

The taxpayer-funded CVE program is little more than a rhetorically dressed up race-and-religion-profiling counterterrorism campaign. That it is failing should surprise none of us.

Mass Surveillance Opponents Launch DecideTheFuture.org

Two grassroots groups opposed to existing U.S. government surveillance policies yesterday launched a new platform aimed at the legislative branch: DecideTheFuture.org

A project of Restore The Fourth and Fight for the Future, the website rates House and Senate members on the basis of their votes on surveillance-related legislation since 2012. Those who have voted against continuation of the PATRIOT Act or sponsored legislation to repeal it are deemed to be part of “Team Internet”; those who have championed a continuation of the status quo on surveillance are dubbed “Team Surveillance.” 

Restore The Fourth’s press release provides further details:

The scoreboard builds off a similar tool released last year by a coalition of privacy advocates, adding data from the current Congress, including the PATRIOT Act renewal fight, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 and other relevant legislation. 

“We wanted to develop something simple and easy that would allow users to quickly see which politicians oppose mass surveillance, and who’s working to expand the surveillance state” says Alex Marthews, national chair of Restore The Fourth.

At the moment, it is unclear whether those behind DecideTheFuture.org will expand the project to include ratings on presidential candidates. Thus far, government surveillance has not been a top-tier issue in any of the presidential debates and is rarely mentioned by the candidates on the campaign trail.

IntelExit.org: Encouraging More Snowdens

If WIRED magazine was looking to get the attention of the heads of American and British intelligence agencies, it has a story today that is sure to do the trick.

The magazine’s Andy Greenberg has a major piece about a new non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging morally troubled intelligence officers to resign and go public with any allegations or information they have that prove waste, fraud, abuse or criminal conduct at NSA or it’s UK equivalent, GCHQ. Known as IntelExit.org, the organization has a professionally produced “resignation pitch” video featuring nationally-known security researcher and author Bruce Schneier and former NSA senior executive-turned-whistleblower Thomas Drake. The website of the Berlin-based organization provides a resignation letter generator, an FAQ on how and why to leave the intelligence business, and advice on how to use secure messaging means like Tor and PGP to communicate with IntelExit.org staff. 

The launch of IntelExit.org comes just over a year after the Institute for Public Accuracy, in conjunction with the Freedom of the Press Foundation, launched ExposeFacts.org, a journalism project designed to encourage whistleblowers to use the SecureDrop system to submit classified or otherwise sensitive or embarrassing government documents for review and possible publication by established media outlets. ExposeFacts.org advisory board includes former Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, former Associated Press journalist Robert Parry, and former State Department official Matthew Hoh, among dozens of others.

I have written previously about the rise of a “digital resistance movement” to the kinds of government mass surveillance programs exposed by Edward Snowden over two years ago. In the immediate wake of Snowden’s revelations, a number of public interests groups and civil liberties advocates renewed their calls for the public to adopt personal encryption technology to help shield themselves from warrantless, mass electronic surveillance by NSA. The establishment of ExposeFacts.org and IntelExit.org are a clear sign that opponents of mass surveillance are taking the conflict with the American and UK governments on this issue to a new level. Only time will tell whether those behind IntelExit.org will succeed in motivating a current intelligence officer to become the next Edward Snowden.

House Leadership Blocks Key Intelligence Reforms

The House GOP leadership’s hostility to reforming the U.S. Intelligence Community is on full display this week. The House Rules Committee (which is controlled by House Speaker John Boehner) blocked several key reform amendments to the annual Intelligence Authorization bill from even reaching the House floor for consideration.

Furious over an op-ed by Privacy and Civil Liberties Board chairman David Medine that called for an independent review of the executive branch’s “assassination-by-drone” policy, House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) included language in the annual Intelligence Authorization bill banning the PCLOB from examining the “covert” drone program. A bipartisan amendment (led by Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut) that would have struck that language was barred from consideration.

Last week, the House passed a bipartisan amendment to the annual Defense Department spending bill baring the federal government from using taxpayer dollars to search the stored communications of Americans collected by NSA. That same amendment would also prevent the federal government from mandating that American tech companies build encryption-defeating “back doors” into their products. The authors of that amendment, Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California and Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky, wanted to make those provisions permanent, but their amendment was also blocked.

Snowdenversary Gifts for Privacy Advocates

Today marks the second anniversary of The Guardian’s first blockbuster story derived from files provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—launching what would become an unprecedented deluge of disclosures about the scope and scale of communications surveillance by American intelligence agencies. So it seems appropriate that this week saw not only the passage of the USA Freedom Act, but also the approval in the House of several privacy-protective appropriations amendments, about which more momentarily.  Snowden himself takes a quick victory lap in a New York Times editorial reflecting on the consequences of his disclosures, (very much in line with his remarks during our interview at the inaugural Cato Surveillance Conference):

Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing — that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations.

Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong.

Two years on, the difference is profound. In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.

He’s referring here to last month’s appellate court ruling against the notorious telephone records dragnet, followed this week by passage of the USA Freedom Act.  That law should bar bulk collection not only under §215 of the Patriot Act, the basis of the phone program, but also under §214—the “pen register” provision previously used to vacuum up international Internet metadata—and National Security Letters, which can be issued by senior FBI officials without judicial approval.  Since the latter two authorities are permanent, they would not have been affected by what quite a few lazy reporters described as “the expiration of the Patriot Act,” though in fact only about 2 percent of the law’s provisions were actually due to sunset.  While the law is far from ideal, incidentally, I think it does constitute more robust reform than many libertarians fear, for reasons I lay out in this piece at Motherboard and this blog post at Just Security.  It will, of course, be necessary to vigilantly watch for efforts to water down the law’s protection—something the public is finally at least somewhat empowered to do by a transparency provision requiring significant legal interpretations by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to be published in unclassfied form.

The Fatal Conceit of the “Right to be Forgotten”

Intelligence Squared hosted a lively debate last week over the so-called “Right to be Forgotten” embraced by European courts—which, as tech executive Andrew McLaughlin aptly noted, would be more honestly described as a “right to force others to forget.”  A primary consequence of this “right” thus far has been that citizens are entitled to demand that search engines like Google censor the results that are returned for a search on the person’s name, provided those results are “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”  In other words, if you’re unhappy that an unflattering item—such as a news story—shows up as a prominent result for your name, you can declare it “irrelevant” even if entirely truthful and ask Google to stop showing it as a result for such searches, with ultimate recourse to the courts if the company refuses.  Within two months of the ruling establishing the “right,” the company received more than 70,000 such requests.

Hearteningly, the opponents of importing this “right” to the United States won the debate by a large margin, but it occurred to me that one absolutely essential reason for rejecting this kind of censorship process was only indirectly and obliquely invoked.  As even the defenders of the Right to be Forgotten conceded, it would be inappropriate to allow a person to suppress search results that were of some legitimate public value: Search engines are obligated to honor suppression requests only when linking some piece of truthful information to a person’s name would be embarrassing or harmful to that person without some compensating benefit to those who would recieve the information.  Frequent comparison was made to the familiar legal standards that have been applied to newspapers publishing (lawfully obtained) private information about non-public figures. In those cases, of course, the person seeking to suppress the information is typically opposed in court by the entity publishing the information—such as a newspaper—which is at least in a position to articulate why it believes there is some public interest in that information at the time of publication. 

The FBI versus the Citizens

This Thursday at Cato, we’re hosting an event for a remarkable new book: Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (RSVP here). As I explain in the Washington Examiner today, it’s a story as riveting as any heist film, and far more significant:  

Forty-three years ago last Saturday, an unlikely band of antiwar activists calling themselves “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into a Bureau branch office in Media, Pennsylvania, making off with reams of classified documents. Despite a manhunt involving 200 agents at its peak, the burglars were never caught, but the files they mailed to selected journalists proved that the agency was waging a secret, unconstitutional war against American citizens.  

As a young Washington Post reporter, Medsger was the first to receive and publish selections from the files—over the protests of then-attorney general (and later Watergate felon) John Mitchell, who called the Post three times falsely claiming that publication would jeopardize national security and threaten agents’ lives. 

Four decades later, those claims echo in former NSA head Michael Hayden’s assertion that the US is “infinitely weaker” because of Snowden’s leaks. Like the apocryphal old saw suggests, if history doesn’t repeat itself, at least it rhymes.

“As if arranged by the gods of irony,” Medsger writes, the very morning Hoover learned of the break-in, then-assistant attorney general William H. Rehnquist (later Chief Justice), in testimony the FBI had helped prepare, told a Senate subcommittee that what little surveillance the government engaged in did not have a “chilling effect” on constitutional rights. Among the first documents Medsger reported weeks later, was a memo urging agents to “enhance the paranoia… get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

Ironies abound. The burglars timed the heist for March 8, 1971, when the country would be distracted by the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Medsger notes the “poetic justice” that the much-spied upon Ali would unwittingly help provide cover for exposure of FBI spying. Oddly, it’s acting attorney general Robert Bork–survivor of the “Saturday Night Massacre” and nobody’s idea of a civil libertarian)–who orders the release of key documents on the COINTELPRO program and urged the incoming attorney general to investigate the program. There’s another vignette where President Nixon speaks to an FBI Academy graduating class about “reestablishing respect for the law”–and the next evening orders Haldeman to have someone break into the Brookings Institution and steal a purloined copy of the Pentagon Papers (a zealous Chuck Colson suggested firebombing the think tank to create a distraction).