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FRINFORMSUM 9/26/2013: More International NSA Fallout, Declassified Docs Show NSA Spied on Senators, NSA Chief Accuses Media of “Hyping” Reports, and More

September 26, 2013
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, tortured for opposing Brazil's totalitarian dictatorship in the 1970s, makes a strong stand against NSA surveillance practices at the UN general assembly this week. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, tortured for opposing Brazil’s totalitarian dictatorship in the 1970s, makes a strong stand against NSA surveillance practices at the UN general assembly this week. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff delivered a scathing address decrying the National Security Agency’s (NSA) espionage activities at this week’s United Nations’ general assembly. In her speech, made shortly after she called off her diplomatic visit to Washington, Rousseff said NSA practices were a “breach of international law.” Rousseff, imprisoned and tortured herself for opposing Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, said, “[a] sovereign nation can never establish itself to the detriment of another sovereign nation. The right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country.” President Obama spoke directly after the Brazilian address, saying the US was beginning to review the NSA’s intelligence gathering programs in order to protect shared privacy concerns.

Joining the Brazilian president in international criticism of the NSA is the European Union (EU), which is contemplating suspending its data sharing deal with the US that tracks terrorist funding. The US pushed heavily for the development of the joint tracking program, agreed upon in 2010, which requires EU members to transfer information from a Brussels system that amalgamates global financial transaction data directly to the US Treasury for analysis. EU representatives have said they will not continue the joint program until they receive satisfactory explanations from the NSA about its practices.

Along with upsetting international allies, NSA revelations have prompted members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to ask for an inspector general review of the agency and compelled the Senate Intelligence Committee to hold a hearing regarding surveillance programs, but none of this has slowed down the NSA. In the midst of domestic and international debates, the NSA is nearing completion of its new $1.2 billion data center in Utah. According to reports, the center is five times larger than the nearby IKEA, and the facility’s maintenance costs alone are a whopping $20 million. When asked why build such a massive facility, Lonny Anderson, the NSA’s chief information officer who runs data acquisition efforts, said, “[w]e built it big because we could.”

NSA Targets.

NSA Targets.

While NSA head Keith Alexander accuses the media of “hyping” reports of the agency’s activities, a declassified NSA history obtained by the Archive is a timely and essential reminder of how easy it is for the agency to abuse its massive surveillance abilities. The Archive’s William Burr and Archive colleague Matthew Aid obtained the history that reveals, for the first time, some of the eye-popping names the NSA targeted during the Cold War in its effort to spy on suspected critics. The document not only lists the NSA’s famous targets, like Senators Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Howard Baker (R-Tennessee), Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King, it also provides surprising details on the Panama Canal Treaty, the Berlin Wall, and the NSA’s Minaret program, whose complete ‘watch list’ the Archive just submitted a FOIA request for.

In a significant ruling last month, a federal court judge chided the CIA for making “inappropriate” use of a FOIA exemption in an attempt to withhold larger swaths of information. Steven Aftergood explains, ‘Judge Beryl A. Howell narrowed the permissible scope of records that CIA may withhold under Section 403g of the Act.  That section allows CIA to exempt from release information concerning “the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by” the Agency.’ After determining that the CIA was illegally attempting to withhold “information that relates to” the CIA’s organization and personnel, as opposed to information that directly concerns the organization and personnel, Judge Howell wrote, “[t]he CIA Act does not protect all information about CIA functions generally… The CIA may only invoke 50 USC 403g to withhold information under the FOIA if it would reveal the specific categories of personnel-related information enumerated in the statute.”

The ex-FBI agent responsible for leaking details of a Yemeni al-Qaeda bomb plot to the Associated Press (AP) last year will plead guilty to revealing secret information. The AP initially reported the bomb plot story last May, quoting an unnamed government official. A year later the Department of Justice informed the news source that the DOJ had secretly obtained nearly two months of AP phone records. The seizure was part of the Obama Administration’s aggressive campaign to plug leaks of government information, and was heavily criticized as an intimidation technique aimed at investigative journalists. For further reading, here is a complete list of the 11 Americans charged under the Espionage Act for leaks to the media.

Not one to be intimidated, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser submitted a FOIA request to the US Air Force that resulted in disclosures confirming the Air Force came horrifyingly close to nuking North Carolina in 1961. According to the disclosed documents, a break-up of a B-52 bomber resulted in the inadvertent release of two Mark 39 bombs, which had a combined explosive power 260 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Despite the government’s assertion that its nuclear arsenal has never endangered American citizens, only one safety mechanism stood between the bombs and a massive catastrophe. Thanks to his FOIA work, Schlosser has ‘discovered that at least 700 “significant” accidents and incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons were recorded between 1950 and 1968 alone.’

Archivist Kate Doyle testifies (photo credit: Saul Martinez).

Archivist Kate Doyle testifies (photo credit: Saul Martinez).

Finally this week, Archive analyst Kate Doyle testified as an expert witness in the trial of Col. Héctor Bol de la Cruz, the former Guatemala National Police director, and his subordinate, Jorge Alberto Gómez López, for the 1984 disappearance of student and labor leader Edgar Fernando García. Doyle was asked to analyze declassified U.S. documents relevant to the case that were obtained by the Archive thanks to a series of targeted Freedom of Information Act requests, aiding in the conviction of the “intellectual authors” of forced disappearances throughout Guatemala. Well done, Kate!

Happy FOIA-ing!

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