National Security

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...

Bibi's Agreement Anxiety Disorder

T o explain Benjamin Netanyahu's frenzied reaction to the Geneva agreement on Iran's nuclear program, let me begin with the stack of brown cardboard boxes under my wife's desk. Each of the five cartons contains a gas mask and related paraphernalia for a member of my family to use in the event of a chemical-weapons attack. They were delivered last January, as part of the gradual government effort to prepare every household in Israel for a rain of Syrian missiles. I suppose that having "defense kits" in the house could be macabre, but what we usually notice is that they're a nuisance: another thing on which to bang your toe in an overstuffed city flat. What's more, they're apparently an obsolete nuisance. A couple of weeks ago, the usual nameless military sources told the local media that the Defense Ministry would recommend ending production of gas masks for civilians. According to the leaks, intelligence assessments said that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons...

Moderating Influences

AP Images/FRANKA BRUNS
“How do you define an Iranian moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.” This was what Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk had to say Wednesday after a briefing by his former Senate colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, on the state of play in nuclear negotiations with Iran. Last weekend, the talks came tantalizingly close to closing a deal on a first phase agreement to halt to Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for limited and reversible sanctions relief, creating space for a broader comprehensive deal addressing the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The thrust of Kirk’s remark is that, whatever friendly noises any Iranian leader might make—and new President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been making a lot of them—these do not represent any genuine difference of opinion within the Iranian political system, are only the result of pressure that’s been brought to bear on Iran, and should not distract us...

Super Sad Spy Story

AP Images/Julian Stratenschulte
AP Images/Julian Stratenschulte L et’s face it, unless Democrats win back the House in 2014, Obama will soon become a lame duck president. To some degree or another, it is a universal truth that second-term presidents turn to foreign policy to burnish their historical legacy. Yet the continuous drip of revelations about the National Security Agency’s vast array of surveillance programs is not only shaping up to be the biggest headache for the Obama administration. It's potentially primed to be part of its defining legacy. And that is sad. Super sad. The latest news centers on allegations that the NSA has been tapping the cell phones of over 35 heads of state, from Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff to German chancellor Angela Merkel. Originally reported last week by the German magazine Der Spiegel , the shock waves from Berlin continue to ripple throughout the globe. Foreign governments everywhere are now scrambling their intelligence agencies’ best and brightest to see if they were...

Mission Affordabled: Why Obama’s Website Problems Aren’t “His Iraq”

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File Y es, the Affordable Care Act website rollout has been a fiasco. And, as always happens when political catastrophe strikes, the wave of bad analogies has rushed in its wake. One in particular is gaining ground: Healthcare.gov is for Barack Obama’s presidency what the invasion of Iraq was to George W. Bush’s administration, complete with outraged liberal reactions to it . Here’s the funny thing: it’s a bad analogy, which could turn out to be accurate … but probably won’t. To start with, the fact that people died in Iraq, as opposed to the inconvenience involved in a malfunctioning website, doesn’t make it a bad analogy. The analogy has to do with presidential decisions; it’s about process, not outcomes, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. No, what makes it a bad analogy is that Iraq War was misconceived from the start, and the actual events of the war, to a large extent, made obvious what some saw from the beginning. With the exchanges, on the...

Bomb Me, Big Sheldon

AP Photo/Stanley Troutman, File
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File T he world is full of crazy old men. America has its share. But most of those crazy old men don’t go out in public to advocate America nuking other countries. And most of them aren’t major donors to right-wing American and Israeli politicians and think tanks. Speaking on a panel New York’s Yeshiva University on Tuesday night, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson suggested that the U.S. launching a nuclear weapon into Iran would be the appropriate way to handle negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. “And then you say, ‘See? The next one is in the middle of Tehran,’” he explained. “’You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development.’” The audience applauded. Adelson got a lot of coverage during the 2012 presidential campaign for the amount of money he threw around. He contributed over $93 million to Republican super PACs, making him the single biggest donor to such groups “by a wide margin,” according...

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