National Security

Federal Board Finds NSA Program Illegal and Unjustified

AP Images/Oliver Berg
Yesterday, as Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported , the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) created by Congress issued a comprehensive report on the National Security Administration's collection of telephone data. This damning report makes it clear that President Obama's proposed reforms to the program don't go far enough . The PCLOB report raises serious questions about the legality of the program, and perhaps even more importantly, finds scant evidence that it has been effective at achieving its anti-terror goals. To start with question of the legality of the NSA program, the report raises both statutory and constitutional concerns. The report finds that the program exceeded the authority granted by Congress under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. According to the report, "Section 215 is designed to enable the FBI to acquire records that a business has in its possession, as part of an FBI investigation, when those records are relevant to the investigation...

Defense Spending Is the Most Expensive Way to Create Jobs

Th F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin).
When you're a defense contractor beginning a big new program, one of your key challenges once you've gotten the contract is to make sure the contract never goes away. One way to do that is to bring in the weapons system on time and under budget and win the thanks of a grateful nation. But since big weapons systems almost always come in late and over budget—and being over budget means bigger profits—the better way is to make sure a critical mass of congresspeople have a particular interest in keeping the taxpayer money flowing to your weapon. Which is why subcontracts on things like fighter jets and bombers are spread far and wide throughout the land, as though Lockheed Martin were a Johnny Appleseed of employment. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, involves 1,300 subcontractors spread across 45 states. Which means that almost every senator and a few hundred members of the House would never think of killing it or scaling it back, no matter how many problems it encounters. But...

The Examined Life of the Digital Age

AP Images/Jose Luis Magana
You've seen it on CSI and other police procedurals a hundred times: the detectives take a surveillance photo and watch as their computer cycles through a zillion photos of perps and crooks until it blinks with a match, telling them who their suspect is. You may have known enough to realize that they can't actually do that—computerized face recognition isn't capable of taking a grainy, shadowed photo and identifying it positively as a particular person. Or at least they couldn't until recently. But the technology has been advancing rapidly, and now some law enforcement agencies are using powerful new software that can do just that, at least sometimes. It has a ways to go yet, but the question is when, not if, computers will be able to take the video that was shot of you as you walked down the sidewalk or browsed in a store and know exactly who you are. Last Friday I brought up the question of the future of surveillance, after President Obama's speech proposing new limits on the...

One Small Step for the Fourth Amendment

AP Images/Susan Walsh
Last week, Barack Obama delivered a speech announcing some reforms in response to Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency. As with most aspects of Obama's record on civil liberties, my response is inevitably mixed. The outlined reforms would certainly constitute a real improvement over the status quo, but they are also too narrow and limited. Some of these limitations reflect real political constraints, while others don't. To start with the good news first, Obama has announced that some checks and balances will be restored to the NSA's inquiries under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Under current practices, the NSA doesn't need to get judicial approval to query the database of metadata it collects; it can simply make queries if it makes a self-determination that the query was "reasonable." This self-enforced reasonableness standard is functionally indistinguishable from having no standard at all. Obama announced that he was ending this practice: the database...

The Surveillance State of Tomorrow

Flickr/Bryan Chan
By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have finished his speech outlining some changes to the NSA's global information vacuum. According to early reports , he'll propose creating an independent body to hold the phone metadata that the NSA gathers, and forcing the agency to get some kind of approval (presumably from the FISA court) before accessing it. Which is all fine and good. But the real question is whether we set up procedures and systems that constrain the NSA from doing not just what we already know about, but the things we haven't yet heard of, and even more importantly, the kinds of surveillance that will become possible in the future. Just today, we learned from the Guardian that "The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks, and credit-card details, according to top-secret documents." I can't imagine that will be the last revelation...

Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities.

AP Images/Stephen Chernin
S ince Edward Snowden started disclosing millions of classified NSA documents in June, terms like metadata, software backdoors, and cybervulnerability have appeared regularly in headlines and sound bites. Many Americans were astonished when these stories broke. In blogs, comment sections, and op-ed pages, they expressed disbelief and outrage. But I wasn’t surprised. A decade ago, I sat talking to a young mother on welfare about her experiences with technology. When our conversation turned to Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (EBT), Dorothy* said, “They’re great. Except [Social Services] uses them as a tracking device.” I must have looked shocked, because she explained that her caseworker routinely looked at her EBT purchase records. Poor women are the test subjects for surveillance technology, Dorothy told me ruefully, and you should pay attention to what happens to us. You’re next. Poor and working-class Americans already live in the surveillance future. The revelations that are so...

Israel's Ultimate Rightist Smiles at Kerry. Be Suspicious

AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool
AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool O n Sunday morning it seemed that Israeli scientists, or perhaps John Kerry, had learned how to do personality transplants. The first operation was reserved for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, heretofore the growling voice of unreconstructed Israeli ultra-nationalism. "I want to express my true appreciation of the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, who works day and night … to bring an end to the conflict between us and the Palestinians," Lieberman told a conference of Israeli ambassadors who were home from posts around the world. Kerry's positions on a peace agreement, Lieberman added, were better than "any alternative proposal that Israel will receive from the international community." Two days earlier, Lieberman had met with Kerry and issued an upbeat statement declaring that the American-brokered negotiations "must continue." Was this the same man who began his first term as foreign minister in 2009 by declaring that the previous round...

The Doomed Wars

White House photo by Pete Souza.
Washington loves few things more than a tell-all memoir. Even if a memoir doesn't tell very much, the media will do their best to characterize it as scandalous and shocking. So it is with the book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates which will soon be appearing in airport bookstores everywhere. From the excerpts that have been released, it sounds like Gates has plenty of praise for President Obama, and some criticisms that are not particularly biting. Sure, there's plenty of bureaucratic sniping and the settling of a few scores, but his criticisms (the Obama White House is too controlling, politics sometimes intrudes on national security) sound familiar. Gates' thoughts on Afghanistan, however, do offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we've come in that long war. The quote from his book that has been repeated the most concerns a meeting in March 2011 in which Obama expressed his frustration with how things were going in Afghanistan. "As I sat there," Gates writes, "I...

The Man Who Knew Too Little

A CIA memoir whose emptiness is something to contemplate

R eaders seeking a vicarious adrenaline kick may be disappointed by former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo’s memoir of his three decades at the agency. In thrillers, the CIA is swashbuckling and sinister, replete with cloaks, daggers, and Technicolor deeds of derring-do. But Rizzo was the agency’s top lawyer, not its top spy, and Company Man —his meandering account of a life in the bureaucratic trenches—portrays not a glamorous world of espionage but a grayish realm of meetings and memos, committee reports and congressional hearings, presidential findings and memoranda of notification. Yet if Rizzo’s memoir falls short of thrilling, it’s often distinctly chilling. As the book’s title proudly proclaims, John Rizzo is the quintessential company man. For 34 years, he provides the agency with the legal assistance he feels its patriotic employees deserve, and he refrains from judgment when confronted with “vexing” issues such as CIA support for Guatemalan death squads or, more...

We Haven’t Heard the Last of Liz Cheney

AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia Monday morning, members of Al Qaeda were popping the (non-alcoholic, of course) champagne corks. Why? Because the news had just broken that Liz Cheney would be dropping out of the Wyoming Senate race . With this bold warrior-patriot no longer standing guard, America moved one tick closer to sharia rule, and Al Qaeda closer to ultimate global victory. Nonsense, of course, though when one considers the way Cheney announced her candidacy as the urgent and necessary response to a president who “has so effectively diminished our strength abroad that there’s no longer a question about whether this was his intent,” (yes, she suggested that Barack Obama went to the trouble of entering political life, running for Senate, then running for president just to make America weaker ) one could be forgiven for wondering if she actually thinks that. Cheney’s stated reason for her withdrawal from the race was that “ serious health issues have recently...

Is It Already Too Late to Stop the NSA?

The revelations about the scope of National Security Agency surveillance from the documents released to the public by Edward Snowden have been so numerous and so extraordinary that I fear we may be becoming numb to them. That's partly because there's just been so much, one revelation after another to the point where the latest one doesn't surprise us anymore. It's also partly because mixed in with the genuinely distressing surveillance programs are some things that seem almost ridiculous, like the idea of NSA agents trying to unearth terrorist plots in World of Warcraft . But there are some basic facts about this whole affair that should make us all frightened. We can sum it up as follows: 1. The scope of the NSA's surveillance is far greater than almost anyone imagined. 2. Barack Obama is not only perfectly fine with that surveillance, he was perfectly fine with it being kept secret from the American public. 3. As much discussion and consternation as Snowden's revelations produced,...

Neocons Fail Negotiation 101 Yet Again

On the other hand, we could just listen to this guy's not-at-all-oversimplified argument. (AP photo by Seth Wenig)
If you want to know how the neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq War are reacting to the interim deal to freeze Iran's nuclear program, the best way is to head over to the website of the Weekly Standard , where you can witness their wailing chagrin that the Obama administration doesn't share their hunger for yet another Middle East war. All five of the featured articles on the site concern Iran, including editor Bill Kristol's "No Deal" (illustrated with twinned photos of Bibi Netanyahu and Abraham Lincoln, believe it or not), one titled "Don't Trust, Can't Verify," and "Abject Surrender By the United States" by the always measured John Bolton. These people would be simply ridiculous if they didn't already have so much blood on their hands from Iraq, and the idea that anyone would listen to them after what happened a decade ago tells you a lot about how Washington operates. But there is something important to understand in the arguments conservatives are making about Iran. Their...

But What Does Iran Mean for 2016?

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
AP Photo/Lior Mizrahi, Pool T here are two things to say about the electoral effect of the Iran deal. Barck Obama isn’t going to be up for re-election. Still, his approval rating will matter for Democrats in both 2014 and 2016. The first thing—and it’s correct, as far as it goes—is that the deal won’t have any electoral effect, whatever happens. Smart analysts know that voters just don’t care very much about foreign policy. And this one … well, it’s pretty distant from the concerns of most voters. Iran’s nuclear program has been in the news for a long time, but it’s not headline stuff for the most part. No matter how much of a fuss there is about it in the press this week, most voters won’t engage. The blunt truth is that this too will be gone from the headlines before very long, anyway. Without most voters paying any attention to it, that leaves only the most politically attentive, and they’ll divide the way they always do: as long as the balance of the coverage isn’t radically...

Drone War Testimonials

A reporter sits down with one Pakistani family who traveled more than 7,000 miles to tell their story to Congress—only five representatives showed up to listen. 

Humna Bhojani
Humna Bhojani The Rehmans: Nabila, Rafiq, and Zubair. T wo beams of light came down from the drone lingering over the field where they had been gathering okra and hit Nabila’s grandmother, Mamana Bibi. The earth shuddered. Nabila fell; terrified, she stumbled into a run. Blood was gushing from her arm. She wrapped her red chaddar (head covering) around the shrapnel wound; moments later it was soaked through. Through the smoke, Nabila caught a glimpse of Mamana’s brown sandal. She passed out. The day Mamana was killed, October 24 th 2012, was a beautiful one in the North Waziristan village of Tapi in Pakistan. A few clouds sprinkled over the bright blue sky—perfect weather for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which was the next day. For Muslims, Eid al-Adha is the holiest day of the year, celebrating the sacrifice Abraham made. “They have told me that Eid is like Christmas,” Zubair, Nabila’s, 13-year-old brother said during his testimony at a Congressional briefing on October 29,...

Obama's Nuclear Step Forward

AP Images/Mohammad Berno
Shortly after the news broke that a deal over Iran’s nuclear program had been struck in Geneva, Switzerland between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, U.K., France, China, and Germany), President Obama made a short speech from the White House hailing the agreement, and noting the challenges ahead in hammering out a broader comprehensive deal. “Ultimately,” he said, “only diplomacy can bring about a durable solution to the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program.” Nuclear non-proliferation experts have been overwhelmingly supportive of the agreement, which offers limited and reversible sanctions relief in exchange for Iran curbing key aspects of its nuclear work. “The Geneva agreement is a good deal because Iran’s capabilities in every part of the nuclear program of concern are capped, with strong verification measures,” wrote Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “All in all, the interim agreement is a good deal,” concurred Jeffrey...

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