FRINFORMSUM 10/31/2013: NSA Talking Points Use Fear as Surveillance Justification (Despite Director’s Admission of Lying to Congress About Results), and Much More.
The National Security Agency (NSA) “and its partners must make sure we connect the dots so that the nation is never attacked like it was on 9/11,” and NSA officials should profess to prefer explaining the agency’s surveillance programs rather “than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent.” These talking points and “sound bites that resonate” were obtained by Al Jazeera thanks to a FOIA request and are a boon for critics who have “long noted the tendency of senior U.S. politicians and security officials to use the fear of attacks like the one that killed almost 3,000 Americans to justify policies ranging from increased defense spending to the invasion of Iraq.” Of course, despite using increased safety as a catchall justification for surveillance, NSA head Keith Alexander has already admitted that the dragnet NSA programs didn’t actually prevent the 54 attempted terrorist attacks touted by the agency in the immediate aftermath of Snowden’s leaks, and that only one or two attacks “were identified as a result of bulk phone record collection.”
The NSA has repeated time and again that Snowden’s revelations are making the agency’s job collecting overseas intelligence to thwart espionage attempts more difficult. However, revelations that the agency spied on German chancellor Angela Merkel since as early as 2002 “from the United States Embassy in the heart of Berlin” have murkier counter-espionage bona fides, and are creating a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration. The White House professed ignorance in response to reports that the NSA spied on Merkel’s cell and “monitored the phone conversations of at least 35 world leaders,” with officials saying that ‘Obama never knew that the program targeted American allies… he was aware of collection efforts aimed at leaders of “adversarial countries.”’ Unfortunately for President Obama, the administration is plagued by credibility problems on the surveillance subject after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney assured reporters last week that the NSA wasn’t currently monitoring Merkel’s communications, and Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, admitted to lying to Congress this summer about NSA surveillance practices.
Despite the mar on his testimonial record, Clapper again testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, arguing that the agency did keep senior officials informed of the surveillance, and that the White House had been aware in general terms of the NSA’s overseas eavesdropping for some time. According to other intelligence officials, the White House and State Department approved surveillance targeting phone conversations of allied leaders, and even if “Obama may not have been specifically briefed on NSA operations targeting a foreign leader’s cellphone or email communications… certainly the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous.”
The constant NSA revelations are forcing members of Congress to reposition themselves and their stance on the agency’s activities. Perhaps the NSA’s strongest congressional supporter –until now– was Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, who recently said that ‘she was “totally opposed” to gathering intelligence on foreign leaders and said it was “a big problem” if President Obama didn’t know the NSA was monitoring the phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She said the United States should only be spying on foreign leaders with hostile countries, or in an emergency, and even then the president should personally approve the surveillance.’ Feinstein also promised to “initiate a review into all intelligence collection programs,” leaving NSA officials increasingly isolated on Capitol Hill.
Senator Feinstein’s statements come at the same time Senator Leahy, in partnership with congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, co-author of the Patriot Act, introduced the USA Freedom Act. The Act “aims to ban the National Security Agency from using the Patriot Act to collect bulk telephone records in the US and close a similar loophole in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) which has allowed the content of American communications to be targeted.” But the ban would be unlikely to curtail the NSA’s surveillance of email communications of Americans and others –considering the latest bombshell from the Washington Post, reporting that despite having front-door access to tech giants Google and Yahoo thanks to their PRISM program, the NSA also broke into the companies’ global data centers. This back-door access allows the NSA “to collect [data] at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans,” and “to intercept communications in real time and to take “a retrospective look at target activity.”’ This project, called MUSCUALR, “appears to be an unusually aggressive use of NSA tradecraft against flagship American companies.” No kidding.
In non-NSA news, there is a new issue of the CIA’s in-house journal Studies in Intelligence available online. The journal includes “an interesting article by intelligence historian Tom Boghardt on U.S. Army intelligence collection operations in Germany in the years immediately after the end of World War II.” The CIA also recently declassified revelations about its U-2 spy plane, which reignited enormous public interest in the U-2’s secret test site at Area 51, but documents posted this week by the Archive show that Area 51 played an even larger role in the Air Force’s top secret stealth programs in the 1970s and 1980s, and hosted secretly obtained Soviet MiG fighters during the Cold War.
Certainly some scary stuff this Halloween. Happy FOIA-ing!