Sitting in Their Own Stool

August 29, 2015–Have you noticed that the National Security Agency (NSA) no longer insists its vacuum eavesdropping programs “caught” hundreds of terrorists and “saved” thousands of lives? NSA is also now silent about the specific claims it made for particular plots it alleged were broken up. It had abandoned the number “55,” alleged as a specific number of cases where the blanket spying was crucial, and the number “14,” a later version of the same claim. The ethereal spooks are no longer even talking about “one”–the guy who wanted to give cash to Somali fundamentalists, which under current statutes represents aiding terrorism. (It turns out the FBI had a bead on that person before NSA knew anything about him.)

Instead the NSA is trumpeting the latest set of court decisions, in which the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that an injunction against the NSA electronic eavesdropping has to be lifted because the original plaintiff lacked “standing” to sue, since they could not prove their phone records had been collected. The case has been sent back to the lower court for review.

How do the spin doctors pitch this? It “proves” that vacuum eavesdropping is “legal.”

Talk about Big Brother. A more convoluted, illegitimate application of judicial authority can hardly be imagined. Here is a tightly-held program–beyond top secret–that nobody knows about which is recording everybody’s information. But you can’t sue because you can’t “prove” NSA took your data. To put it another way, the original basis for “legality” was that broad classes of people have no “interest” in the privacy of their “business records,” which the NSA can therefore collect, but no member of that class can have standing to sue, essentially because the NSA has an interest in the privacy of its spying.

This despite the fact that Congress has passed a law revoking NSA’s authority to spy and giving the agency until November 29 to adapt to a new arrangement, and despite the fact that an injunction had actually been issued, simply held in abeyance.

Those are double standards. The courts should be ashamed. The NSA, which no longer dares front claims for the effectiveness of its blanket eavesdropping, now hides behind the fig leaf of “standing” for legal proceedings.

Look Who’s Opposing the Iran Agreement!

August 27, 2015–You may have heard that opponents of the Obama administration’s diplomatic agreement with Iran, designed to prevent Teheran from obtaining a near-term nuclear weapons capability, Have resorted to all kinds of chicanery.

One is the creation of a PAC lobbying group in the guise of a “grass roots” people-to-people type movement, the so-called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. That might sound promising, until you realize that American citizens have no say in Iranian politics, so the label “citizens” is a complete misnomer. As for the nuclear free part, this group opposes a treaty that will keep Iran nuclear free. What they’re really about is force versus diplomacy. They want to compel Iran to be nuclear-free. Not only is that Israeli, not U.S. policy, the only means to achieve it is war. And, not only is this a stalking horse for Israel, in Israel that policy is favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and segments of the Israeli right wing, and opposed by many, including Israeli intelligence and military chiefs.

Today brings news of another pretend grass roots maneuver, likely orchestrated by the self-same “Citizens.” This is a letter sent to legislators in Congress, in opposition to the Iranian diplomatic deal. The letter, initiated by Admiral Leon A. Edney, is designed to counter a letter sent out some days ago by a group including several dozen of our most senior military officers that supports the nuclear nonproliferation measure. Admiral Edney managed to acquire signatures from 190 military officers.

Who are they? Vice-Admiral John A. Poindexter, a character who not only presided over selling weapons to Iran as the national security adviser to Ronald Reagan in the Iran-Contra Affair. In addition Poindexter pioneered the mass data-mining and photogrammetry techniques that today threaten the privacy of every citizen. Then there is Major General Richard Secord, the character the conspirators hired to deliver the weapons to Iran in the very same Iran-Contra Affair. And not to be forgotten is the born-again Lieutenant General William G. Boykin, whose religious fundamentalism is the polar opposite of that of Shiite Iranians, and who would rather fight than seek accommodation. On the NSC staff and at the Pentagon, Boykin played a disturbing role in the run up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Look how well that turned out. You can read more about Boykin in my recent paperback The US Special Forces: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Hillary’s Emails: Bursting the Secrecy Bubble

August 22, 2015–A quick note today and I’ll come back again soon. You’ll have heard me often enough talking about the mind-deadening effects of government secrecy. Consider this: Hillary Clinton, the possible Democratic Party presidential candidate and former secretary of state in the Obama administration, is losing ground in opinion polls for an issue that revolves around the handling of secret documents, or more precisely, whether classified information was sent by her in private emails. The opinion poll losses are a real political cost.

The simple fact is that the public does not even know if Hillary really mishandled secret information.  We simply know there is a possibility, based on a survey by unnamed State Department officials of a small cross-section of the message traffic that moved across her circuits. Mind you, the likelihood is high that some classified information was transmitted this way, but there is a huge difference between a two-year old email that announces Secretary of State Clinton will make a secret visit to Afghanistan tomorrow, versus one that contains key information about, for example, the private U.S. opinion of the latest Israeli approval for building additional settlements on the West Bank. Plus the likelihood is also high that whomever conducted this survey decided some of what passed by email should have been classified at the time but was not.

Problematic classified information represents only a small fraction of what gets made secret. Often the need for secrecy is short-lived, as in Hillary’s itinerary. Sometimes the secret is merely what (open) information someone is looking at. Other times the secret is low-grade, such as the rate of casualties for U.S. forces in battle in the last week, month, or other reporting period.

The probability is high that most of what transitted Hillary’s server and phone was this kind of material. Some of the rest is a phony charge, as in seems important enough to classify today but was not then.

But the system is so crude it does not make a distinction. For example, Chelsea Manning is in prison today for Wikileaks releasing hundreds of thousands of classified messages. Big secrets? Did you look at them? Probably 98 percent of what was in that leak was of the low-grade variety. (There’s a reason for that, too: Manning was on an interagency network for sharing where the participating agencies and armed services were putting only their lowest-grade stuff out. There’s a whole conversation to have about what really happened with the 9/11 Commission’s demand the government “break down walls” between agencies, but this is not the time for it.) The story with Edward Snowden was different, but the point is that Hillary, Manning, and Snowden are all accused of precisely the same thing.

Here’s more: President Barack Obama’s White House put out a release a few months ago that revealed the name of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan. Technically Mr. Obama is guilty of the same offense as Hillary, mishandling classified information. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou was sent to prison for this. General David Petraeus, CIA chief and ex-commander in Afghanistan, was convicted and sentenced for this. Scooter Libby, a senior acolyte of our former vice-president, Dick Cheney, was convicted of obstruction of justice in connection with an episode where their office deliberately leaked classified information naming a CIA officer. Obama’s gaffe had been inadvertent. During earlier presidential campaigns there were charges against John Kerry and Bob Kerrey both, concerning things they did in Vietnam, that revolved around leaks of still-classified information, or based on just-released information. In the 1990s CIA director John Deutch was found to have classified materials at his home.

I submit to you that when the secrecy system reaches the point that senior officials routinely fall afoul the regulations for handling classified information, the system is out of control. We need a system that safeguards real secrets, high-grade information, not one capable of shifting political opinions in presidential elections based upon public misunderstanding of the secrecy system, and obscure officials’ assertions of blanket national security claims. Change the system. The alternative is that one day the secrets will swallow the government.