Red Flag for the Spooks: The Gathering Storm

July 11, 2014–Remember back in March? What Obama said? The spy agencies served up a menu to President Barack Obama they thought could turn the tables and get them out of deepening scandal. The National Security Agency (NSA) advanced a scheme that, while appearing to respond to criticism of its dragnet eavesdropping, might actually permit it to collect more information on Americans and other citizens. The president thought the option workable. Obama said, “I’m confident it allows us to do what is necessary in order to deal with the dangers of a terrorist attack, but does so in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people had raised.”

Meanwhile the Central Intelligence Agency was counterattacking against Congress on the Senate torture report, claiming the Senate Intelligence Committee had violated secrecy regulations, referring the case of an allegedly purloined document to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

Fearful Leader James Clapper must have felt himself riding especially high last week, when the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board delivered its opinion on the NSA’s targeted (as opposed to its dragnet) wiretapping, which expressed itself “impressed with the rigor of the government’s efforts to ensure that it acquires only those communications it is authorized to collect.”

Then it all came crashing down.

In short order a series of developments have blown away the gossamer webs of complacency. On July 6, just a few days after the Privacy Board report, the Washington Post published an extensive expose that reviewed some 22,000 actual NSA surveillance reports, finding that just 11 percent of those intercepted were targets approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Nine out of ten persons wiretapped were bystanders.

The spooks’ irrepressible consigliere Robert S. Litt jumped up with the its-just-as-we-said defense, remarking that “the most you could conclude from these news reports is that each valid foreign intelligence target talks to an average of nine people.”

That lasted for just two days. The parsing depends on what is a “valid” foreign intelligence target. On July 9 in The Intercept, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain revealed that the NSA targeted numerous American citizens, including officials of American Muslim lobbying and advocacy groups, a Pentagon official running for political office in Virginia, and other prominent Muslim citizens. The FBI, functioning as the NSA’s target provider, put out training materials clearly racist in nature, picturing Muslims as conspirators (“Mohammed Raghead”) and fundraising for any purpose as intended to support terrorism.

Let’s go back to that nine-out-of-ten bystander rate. We’re not talking 2,400 terrorists, here, plus everyone they communicated with. We’re talking a small number of legitimate targets–Anwar al-Awlaki is on that list–a much larger list of innocents targeted–and then 90 percent more innocent bystanders in the NSA crosshairs. Once the NSA finds any expression of less than sterling content, the FBI then organizes a sting to entrap the person.

I mentioned the novel 1984 in a recent posting. What could be more Orwellian than this? It is totally illegitimate.

Meanwhile there is the matter of the German spying. The NSA wiretapping of German prime minister Angela Merkel has been deplored for some time. Der Spiegel, the newsmagazine, reports the NSA has its largest listening posts in Europe ensconced near Wiesbaden. As noted here the other day (“NSA: Who’s Damaging American National Security,” July 5), the German parliament has begun to investigate NSA spying in Germany–and the CIA set one of its spies to find out what is happening. German counterintelligence caught the agent. Now we get the everybody-spies-on-allies line from flak Michael V. Hayden (“Michael Hayden’s Faustian Bargain,” April 29). Hayden probably wishes now he had kept his mouth shut. A couple of days ago the Germans arrested a second alleged CIA spy, and their government has declared the CIA station chief persona non grata. That’s the kind of thing that happened between the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War. To have it now with Germany, a close U.S. ally on whose territory thousands of American soldiers and airmen are still stationed, is astonishing. The damage to U.S. national security is evident.

So here’s where it begins. “It” being the swamp that is going to swallow Fearful Clapper and his minions. As I explain in The Family Jewels, these scandals usually have a president defending the spooks, then tossing them overboard when the White House itself becomes implicated. Now Obama is indeed on the hot seat. He promised NSA reforms and said a good scheme has been adopted, only to have American citizens openly spied upon with an enormous army of the also-threatened right behind them. Muslim-American organizations have demanded explanations direct from the White House. Obama had discussed the NSA eavesdropping with Angela Merkel, making undertakings with Germany only to have continued espionage–and CIA spies–revealed. This calls into question Mr. Obama’s leadership of the U.S. intelligence community.

The marker quietly laid down several days ago is that the White House knew nothing about the CIA spies in Germany. That’s a very temporary holding position. Here is a high profile intelligence matter with a major U.S. ally who grants basing rights to American troops and whose cooperation on the Ukraine, in NATO, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere is quite necessary. Obama had already been revealed spying on Merkel. He made promises. The Germans actually tried to negotiate a no-spy pact. Now the CIA is caught with its hand in the cookie jar? In behalf of the NSA? Obama either did not bother to inform himself of what our spooks were doing (which seems unlikely), or he was the ringleader (also unlikely), or the spy agencies are out of control. I think the president will be obliged to demonstrate leadership by cracking down.

Yesterday the Department of Justice announced it is dismissing the CIA’s complaint against the Senate intelligence committee. The shoe is falling. NSA, CIA–welcome to the Brave New World.