In the waning years of the Obama administration, the National Security Agency (NSA) swept up and reviewed the communications of Americans to an extent previously unknown, in direct violation of the Constitution and its own revised guidelines, recently unsealed documents reveal. The NSA is authorized to collect intelligence on foreigners under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). With this type of intelligence collection, it is virtually inevitable that Americans’ communications will be incidentally intercepted, however there are procedures in place to keep those communications protected and anonymous. Typically, when an American citizen is swept up in NSA surveillance, they are supposed to be ‘masked’ to protect their identity, but there are large loopholes in place that allow the NSA to spy on Americans without a warrant or any probable cause whatsoever. When the NSA conducts what is known as ‘upstream collection’ of internet communications, it is impossible to target a single email, instead sweeping up ‘packets’ of data containing several messages. The NSA is supposed to sift through the data packets and discard all but the targeted email(s).
Late yesterday afternoon the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a three-page executive summary (four, if we count the splendid cover photo) of its two-year inquiry into Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency (NSA) disclosures. On first reading, I described it as an ‘aggressively dishonest’ piece of work. With a day or so to reflect on it, I believe it’s worse than that. The report is not only one-sided, not only incurious, not only contemptuous of fact. It is trifling. After twenty-five months of labor, the committee’s ‘comprehensive review’ of an immensely complex subject weighs in at thirty-six pages. (None of which we may read, because it ‘must remain classified.’) I have graded college term papers that long. It is one more dispiriting commentary on the state of legislative oversight that the committee’s twenty-two members, Republican and Democratic, were unanimous in signing their names. A reminder at the outset. I am one of four journalists (with Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill) who received classified archives of NSA documents from Snowden. I am writing a book on the subject for Penguin Press. Feel free to consider, as you read this, that my stories in The Washington Post played a role in the disclosures that the committee is at pains to denounce.
On 6 June 2013, the Guardian broke the news National Security Agency (NSA) had ordered Verizon to provide it with the phone records of its customers. As the story developed it became clear that the two other major telephone networks as well as credit card companies were doing the same thing; and that the NSA and FBI were being provided with access to server systems operated by Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Skype. On 11 June the Guardian reported the source as Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old who had been working at the NSA for four years. Snowden believed it was important for him to publicly acknowledge his role in order to provide a human face to the story. He knew he was putting his life at risk and exposing himself to decades of incarceration. ‘My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,’ he explained. Snowden hoped to trigger a debate ‘about the kind of world we want to live in’. The US government began an immediate campaign to track, harass and silence him. More revelations followed that exposed a massive national security complex that spies on virtually everyone, everywhere. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), which is a secret court that was supposed to protect our privacy rights, was rubber-stamping every NSA request for the authority to spy without any real oversight. The US government was spying on foreign leaders, working with British spies to collect massive amounts of global data across the planet, and collecting over 200 million text messagesdaily. And the NSA was working to stop encryption (a technology developed to protect the privacy of both private individuals and businesses).
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.com. It’s not every day that Republicans publish an open letter announcing that their presidential candidate is unfit for office. But lately this sort of thing has been happeningmore and more frequently. The most recent example: we just heard from 50 representatives of the national security apparatus, men – and a few women – who served under Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. All of them are very worried about Donald Trump. They think we should be alerted to the fact that the Republican standard-bearer ‘lacks the character, values, and experience to be president.’ That’s true of course, but it’s also pretty rich, coming from this bunch. The letter’s signers include, among others, the man who was Condoleezza Rice’s legal advisor when she ran the National Security Council (John Bellinger III); one of George W. Bush’s CIA directors who also ran the National Security Agency (Michael Hayden); a Bush administration ambassador to the United Nations and Iraq (John Negroponte); an architect of the neoconservative policy in the Middle East adopted by the Bush administration that led to the invasion of Iraq, who has since served as president of the World Bank (Robert Zoellick). In short, given the history of the ‘global war on terror,’ this is your basic list of potential American war criminals. Their letter continues, ‘He weakens U. S. moral authority as the leader of the free world.’ There’s a sentence that could use some unpacking.
National attention is focused on Russian eavesdroppers’ possible targeting of U. S. presidential candidates and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Yet, leaked top-secret National Security Agency documents show that the Obama administration has long been involved in major bugging operations against the election campaigns – and the presidents – of even its closest allies. The United States is, by far, the world’s most aggressive nation when it comes to cyberspying and cyberwarfare. The National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on foreign cities, politicians, elections and entire countries since it first turned on its receivers in 1952. Just as other countries, including Russia, attempt to do to the United States. What is new is a country leaking the intercepts back to the public of the target nation through a middleperson. There is a strange irony in this. Russia, if it is actually involved in the hacking of the computers of the Democratic National Committee, could be attempting to influence a U. S. election by leaking to the American public the falsehoods of its leaders. This is a tactic Washington used against the Soviet Union and other countries during the Cold War.
A few weeks after leaving office, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have breathed a sigh of relief and reassurance when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denied reports of the National Security Agency eavesdropping on Americans. After all, Clinton had been handling official business at the State Department like many Americans do with their personal business, on an unsecured server. In sworn testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 12, 2013, Clapper said the NSA was not collecting, wittingly, ‘any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,’ which presumably would have covered Clinton’s unsecured emails. But NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations – starting on June 5, 2013 – gave the lie to Clapper’s testimony, which Clapper then retracted on June 21 – coincidentally, Snowden’s 30th birthday – when Clapper sent a letter to the Senators to whom he had, well, lied. Clapper admitted his ‘response was clearly erroneous – for which I apologize.’ (On the chance you are wondering what became of Clapper, he is still DNI.)
Last summer, after months of encrypted emails, I spent three days in Moscow hanging out with Edward Snowden for a Wired cover story. Over pepperoni pizza, he told me that what finally drove him to leave his country and become a whistleblower was his conviction that the National Security Agency was conducting illegal surveillance on every American. Thursday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York agreed with him. In a long-awaited opinion, the three-judge panel ruled that the NSA program that secretly intercepts the telephone metadata of every American – who calls whom and when – was illegal. As a plaintiff with Christopher Hitchens and several others in the original ACLU lawsuit against the NSA, dismissed by another appeals court on a technicality, I had a great deal of personal satisfaction. It’s now up to Congress to vote on whether or not to modify the law and continue the program, or let it die once and for all. Lawmakers must vote on this matter by June 1, when they need to reauthorize the Patriot Act. A key factor in that decision is the American public’s attitude toward surveillance. Snowden’s revelations have clearly made a change in that attitude. In a PEW 2006 survey, for example, after the New York Times’ James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed the agency’s warrantless eavesdropping activities, 51 percent of the public still viewed the NSA’s surveillance programs as acceptable, while 47 percent found them unacceptable. After Snowden’s revelations, those numbers reversed. A PEW survey in March revealed that 52 percent of the public is now concerned about government surveillance, while 46 percent is not. Given the vast amount of revelations about NSA abuses, it is somewhat surprising that just slightly more than a majority of Americans seem concerned about government surveillance. Which leads to the question of why? Is there any kind of revelation that might push the poll numbers heavily against the NSA’s spying programs? Has security fully trumped privacy as far as the American public is concerned? Or is there some program that would spark genuine public outrage? Few people, for example, are aware that a NSA program known as TREASUREMAP is being developed to continuously map every Internet connection – cellphones, laptops, tablets – of everyone on the planet, including Americans.