FRINFORMSUM 1/30/2014: Russian “Foreign Agents,” New Data Disclosure Rules, More Americans Value Privacy over Anti-Terrorism Protections, and Much More.
The US government has relaxed some data disclosure rules for technology companies this week, prompting Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook to drop their lawsuits before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The suits were initially filed because the technology companies wanted to disclose “the volume and types of national security requests” they received in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance practices. The new rules will allow technology companies to disclose the existence of the FISC orders they receive (though not the exact numbers), publish that information every six months (with a six-month delay), and release the number of “selectors” (user names, email addresses or Internet addresses) the government requested information about.
Harley Geiger, a deputy director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the data disclosure rule change “is a positive step forward but still falls short of proposals before Congress
right now.” Andrea Peterson of The Washington Post argued the new reporting metrics are primarily for PR purposes, and that “transparency reports are better than nothing, but they don’t represent a meaningful way to measure the true scope of governments’ access to private data.” Of further concern for some advocates is that a provision of the rule change “bars services less than two years old from disclosing such information for a period of two years. That caveat effectively means that no one will know whether the government is eavesdropping on a new email platform or chat service for two years.”
An Associated Press poll conducted after President Obama’s speech on NSA reforms reported that 61% of Americans now value their privacy over anti-terrorism protections, up from 58% last year. The poll showed the speech “was not enough to allay most Americans’ concerns. Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they disapprove of the way Obama is handling intelligence surveillance policies. And 61 percent said they prioritize protecting Americans’ rights and freedoms over making sure Americans are safe from terrorists.”
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden told a German news program the NSA “is involved in industrial espionage and will grab any intelligence it can get its hands on regardless of its value to national security.” Snowden’s assertions come a month after the New York Times reported the NSA put software into nearly 100,000 international computers, providing a potential “digital highway for launching cyberattacks.”
House of Representative Intelligence Committee Chair, Mike Rogers, suggested earlier this month in a televised interview that Russia gained influence over Snowden, saying “I believe there’s a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow.” Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Sen. Diane Feinstein, dismissed Rogers’ remarks this week, saying “she has seen no evidence that Russian spies helped former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden steal U.S. eavesdropping secrets.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said he would be willing “to discuss how the criminal case against Edward J. Snowden would be handled, but only if Mr. Snowden pleaded guilty first.” Holder reiterated the DOJ would not be offering Snowden clemency if he returns to the US, only saying that if he were to return and enter a plea, the government would engage with his lawyers.
Meanwhile, the DOJ is seeking billions in damages from US Investigations Services Inc. (USIS), the company that performed Edward Snowden’s background check and is the largest government contractor that investigates current and prospective federal employees. USIS fraudulently signed off on over 650,000 clearances between 2008 and 2012, including checks for Snowden and the Navy Yard Shooter, Aaron Alexis.
President Obama has nominated Vice Adm. Michael S. Rogers to be the next head of the NSA and Cyber Command. The Washington Post reports that “[i]n an unusual move, Obama himself interviewed Rogers last week, in a reflection of the job’s high profile at a time when the NSA has drawn fire for the scope of its surveillance practices.” General Keith Alexander, the current and longest-serving head of the beleaguered agency, will step down on March 14.
Guantanamo detainee Abd Malak Abd Wahab Rahbi appeared before a review board for the first partially public hearing for a detainee to determine whether his status as an enemy combatant should be changed, thus making him eligible for release. The Pentagon held its first periodic review board in secret last fall, which sparked transparency concerns, “[s]o beginning with Rahbi, reporters and representatives from nongovernmental watchdog organizations will be permitted to watch some unclassified portions of the daylong hearings through a closed-circuit television feed in a Pentagon annex.”
According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report released in September 2013 redacted information recommending Border Patrol stop using force when it encounters rock throwers. One of Border Patrol’s most controversial practices is “shooting at migrants and suspected drug runners who throw rocks and other objects at agents,” which law enforcement experts have recommended the agency stop doing because it is less effective than simply taking cover elsewhere.
The Freedom of Information Foundation (St. Petersburg), a Russian NGO advocating transparency and a longtime institutional ally of the National Security Archive, was recently declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. The Central Prosecutor’s Office of St. Petersburg charged the Foundation under Russia’s “foreign agents” law, an “unprecedented, nationwide campaign of inspections of thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to identify advocacy groups” that forces them to register with authorities. According to a translation by the Georgian Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, the “foreign agent” label was applied to the Freedom of Information Foundation because “the organization is utilizing internet resources for political reasons” and concern that the Foundation’s chairman had alerted President Obama “about the socio-political situation in Russia.” A complaint challenging the law has been filed with the European Court of Human Rights. This heavy-handed state attack on a Russian NGO striving to improve Russian citizens’ access to government information reveals the current Potemkin state of Russian democracy –not just of Sochi.
Finally this week, newly available Stasi documents of meetings between Soviet and East German security heads between 1981 and 1984 provide operational details on Operation RYaN, the Soviet plan to predict and preempt a Western nuclear first strike that contributed to the risk of nuclear war through miscalculation during the 1983 Able Archer nuclear war scare. The documents reveal that the KGB received funding to create 300 new positions so that it could monitor and report on a Western nuclear first strike (that the West had never contemplated), and hint at Stasi –and KGB– concerns over lack of “clear-headedness about the entire RYaN complex,” inferring that Operation RYaN increased, rather than decreased, the danger of nuclear war. Thanks to the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic (BStU), and Cold War International History Project for this fascinating release.