Attorney General Loretta Lynch says that USA Patriot Act dragnet spy powers must be extended or else the terrorists will get us.
Lynch said Friday the country would be “less safe” if Congress fails to renew surveillance programs included in the Patriot Act.
Lynch joined other top Obama administration officials, who are urging the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act, which would reform the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk phone records collection program while renewing other key parts of the post-Sept. 11 law.
“Our biggest fear is that we will lose important eyes on people who have made it clear that their mission is to harm American people here and abroad,” Lynch told CBS News in her first interview since becoming attorney general.
If NSA’s phone metadata program expires completely, Lynch said the U.S. government would lose “important tools” to identify terror threats.
“I think that we run the risk of essentially being less safe,” Lynch added. “I think that we lose the ability to intercept these communications, which have proven very important in cases that we have built in the past. And I am very concerned that the American people will be unprotected if this law expires.”
Lynch didn’t marshal any evidence to support her claims about the connection between dragnet spying and public safety. That’s because there isn’t one. Even the Department of Justice has acknowledged as much, writing in an Inspector General report that FBI agents interviewed couldn’t identify “any major case developments” tied to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the provision the FBI claims enables dragnet spying.
Surveillance boosters have never been able to point to a circumstance—even one example—that proves dragnet surveillance is vital in stopping terrorism. Some insiders in the security state have observed that the bigger the haystack, the more difficult it is to successfully use intelligence information to identify and track threatening people. More information is not better. Better information is better, they say.
Loretta Lynch says she fears that if the Patriot Act isn’t reauthorized, “we will lose important eyes on people who have made it clear that their mission is to harm American people here and abroad.” That’s total nonsense. Anyone who “makes it clear” that they want to kill Americans is someone a judge would authorize targeted surveillance against. The government should leave the rest of us out of it.
Just about every recent terrorist attack on US and European soil has been committed by someone known to law enforcement. That’s true for the Garland, Texas shooter and for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who blew up the Boston Marathon in April 2013. The government doesn’t need to spy on you and me in order to track people it already suspects of being up to no good.
You might be wondering: If dragnet spying doesn’t stop terrorism, and most terrorists are known to law enforcement, why do the FBI and the new Attorney General insist on renewing the Patriot Act’s worst provisions? It’s an important question, with a depressing answer.
The reason Lynch’s claims about dragnet spying don’t add up is because they are based on a perversion of the true purpose served by society wide surveillance. While the Patriot Act doesn’t stop terrorism, it’s quite good at enabling social and political control, and finding people who are vulnerable and may be easily coerced into becoming FBI informants.
If surveillance boosters were honest about why they want these powers, you might hear them talking less about terrorism and more about power. Add your voice: take action now to tell congress to reject dragnet surveillance.
Three provisions of the Patriot Act expire on June 1 and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to delay taking action on the issue by calling for a two month or 5-year reauthorization of Section 215—the provision of the Patriot Act the NSA relies on to collect millions of Americans call records.
Before June 1 we expect to see plenty of fear-mongering from intelligence officials and national security hawks. Last year, the Wall Street Journal began the foray with an op-ed by Former NSA Director General Mike Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey—key architects of many of the NSA’s unlawful activities. This time, the mongering started with op-eds by John Yoo, Senator Marco Rubio, and Senator Tom Cotton.
Here are the top excuses officials will use to continue spying on Americans calling records and why they’re wrong:
Congress Needs Time to Debate
“I don’t know how we have the kind of fulsome debate that is going to be required on NSA without passing a temporary extension,” —Sen. John Cornyn
Congress has had two full years to publicly debate the NSA’s use of Section 215. Indeed, the debate has been vigorous and thoughtful. While Congress didn’t create a separate investigative committee, it was still able to hold over a dozen hearings where Section 215 was discussed. The hearings, which called upon officials like the Attorney General, Director of National Intelligence, and Director of the NSA, included hours of testimony on the programs, what they collect, and their effectiveness.
Congress has also debated Section 215 via Senator Patrick Leahy and Jim Sensenbrenner’s reform bill called the USA Freedom Act. Last year, the House passed a gutted bill of the USA Freedom Act, but debated the legislation for days. This year, the House debated a stronger version of the USA Freedom Act and passed it 338 to 88.
The Senate has also debated the legislation. Last year, after two days of debate, the Senate failed to advance a stronger version of the USA Freedom Act by two votes. Congress has had more than enough time to discuss these authorities and must act.
The Section 215 Program is Effective
“This has been a very important part of our effort to defend the homeland since 9/11.” —Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
There’s one problem: there’s no evidence to support that. Two independent commissions concluded the calling records program was not effective and has not been used to stop a terrorist attack. The first, called the President’s Review Group on Signals Intelligence, concluded “Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks.”
Like the President’s Review Group, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board also concluded:
Based on the information provided to the Board, including classified briefings and documentation, we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation. Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.
The quotes speak for themselves.
Fixing Section 215 Puts the Nation at Risk
“[The USA Freedom Act] would be rolling [the nation] back to exactly where we were pre-9/11. —Sen. Richard Burr
The Attorney General, Director of National Intelligence, and House Intelligence Chair and Ranking Members do not think reforming the Section 215 program will harm national security. Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote letters (.pdf) to Congress noting that Section 215 reform would preserve both “vital national security authorities” and “essential Intelligence Community capabilities.”
The Program is “Lawful”
“Contrary to irresponsible rumors, the [bulk surveillance] program is lawful, carefully monitored, and protects personal privacy. The program does not conduct mass surveillance of American citizens—or any surveillance at all.” —Sen. Cotton and Rep. Mike Pompeo
Apparently, one of the “irresponsible rumors” Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Mike Pompeo reference is a decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. (The circuit courts are the federal courts directly below the Supreme Court). The Second Circuit held that the NSA’s telephone records program went far beyond what Congress authorized when it passed Section 215 of the Patriot Act in 2001. The court rejected the government’s secret reinterpretation of Section 215 that has served as the basis for the telephone records collection program. The Second Circuit’s opinion stands as a clear sign that the courts are ready to step in and rule that mass surveillance is illegal.
In addition, the program is “surveillance.” As we’ve repeatedly said: the collection of metadata matters. It reveals a host of information and context about a person’s habits, traits, and beliefs. The Circuit Court opinion explained that metadata is often a proxy for the content of the communication, and that phone records can “reveal a startling amount of detailed information” about callers. The court also recognized that aggregation of calling records matters because collection of large amounts of metadata plus the application of sophisticated data processing technologies gives the government access to even more revealing portraits of individuals and groups.
Congress Must Say No to a Short-Term Reauthorization
In the next few days, Congress will begin to debate whether or not they should vote for a short-term reauthorization of Section 215. The answer is clearly no. Join us now in telling your lawmaker to vote against any short-term reauthorization.
This week the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the NSA’s metadata collection program was not authorized in US law. The PATRIOT Act, under which the program began, was too vague, the court found. But the truth is the Act was intended to be vague so that the government could interpret it in the broadest possible way.
But this is really more of a technicality, because illegality and unconstitutionality are really two very different things. Even if Congress had explicitly authorized the government to collect our phone records, that law would still be unconstitutional because the Constitution does not grant government the power to access our personal information without a valid search warrant.
Even though the court found the NSA program illegal, it did not demand that the government stop collecting our information in this manner. Instead, the court kicked the ball back in Congress’ court, as these provisions of the PATRIOT Act are set to expire at the end of the month and the Appeals Court decided to let Congress decide how to re-authorize this spying program.
Unfortunately, this is where there is not much to cheer. If past practice is any lesson, Congress will wait until the spying program is about to expire and then in a panic try to frighten Americans into accepting more intrusions on their privacy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already put forth a new bill as a stop-gap measure to allow time for a fuller debate on the issue. His stop-gap? A five year re-authorization with no changes to the current program!
The main reform bill being floated, the FREEDOM Act, is little better. Pretending to be a step in the right direction, the FREEDOM Act may actually be worse for our privacy and liberties than the PATRIOT Act!
One silver lining in the court decision is that it should exonerate Ed Snowden, who risked it all to expose what the courts have now found was illegal US government activity. That is the definition of a whistleblower. Shouldn’t he be welcomed back home as a hero instead of being threatened with treason charges? We shouldn’t hold our breath!
This week Snowden addressed a conference in Melbourne, Australia, informing citizens that the Australian government watches all its citizens “all the time.” Australia’s program allows the government to “collect everyone’s communications in advance of criminal suspicion,” he told the conference. That means the government is no longer in the business of prosecuting crimes, but instead is collecting information in case crimes someday occur.
How is it that the Australian government can collect and track “pre-crime” information on its citizens? Last month Australia passed a law requiring telecommunications companies to retain metadata information on their customers for two years.
Why do Australia’s oppressive laws matter to us? Because the NSA “reform” legislation before Congress, the FREEDOM Act, does exactly what the Australian law does: it mandates that US telecommunications companies retain their customers’ metadata information so that the NSA can access the information as it wishes.
Some argue that this metadata information is harmless and that civil libertarians are over-reacting. But, as Ed Snowden told the Melbourne conference, “under these mandatory metadata laws you can immediately see who journalists are contacting, from which you can derive who their sources are.”
This one example of what happens when the government forces corporations to assist it in spying on the people should be a red flag. How can an independent media exist in the US if the government knows exactly whom journalists contact for information? It would be the end of any future whistleblowers.
The only reform of the PATRIOT Act is a total repeal. Accept nothing less.
The intelligence sharing relationship between German and American spy agencies is one of dominance and blackmail rather than cooperation, with Germany’s BND acting as a “colony” used to help gather information for US authorities, German activist and publicist Christoph Horstel said.
There has been much speculation regarding the seemingly close relationship between German and US intelligence agencies in recent times, following German media reports alleging that Berlin’s foreign intelligence agency — the BND — spied on various European targets on behalf of America’s National Security Agency (NSA).
According to the reports, the NSA had been given access to the e-mails of various European politicians, EU institutions and European member state ministries.
This led many to suggest Germany was complicit with the US in operating an illegal global spy network. Chancellor Angela Merkel denied Germany was involved in illegal activity, telling journalists that it was essential for the BND to keep working with the NSA in order to ensure the safety of citizens.
‘A Big Show, A Big Farce’
However, Christoph Horstel believes that while Berlin does act on behalf of Washington’s intelligence agencies, he told Sputnik that the relationship is very one-sided.
“Well this is a big show, a big farce. All of the political insiders know what the real question is. The real question is that this is not cooperation; Germany is [a] colony.”
Horstel points out that the former US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) — which later become the CIA — established the German BND, and he believes it has been set up to look after Washington’s European interests.
“What we do have here, in fact, is a written understanding that the BND has to give — free of charge — any of the fruits of its work to the CIA. That is quite normal,” he said.
“The Americans are the masters of the game in Europe, so we [Germany] have to deliver to them. It’s a kind of service; a service of Germany to the US and we have to do that — that’s fact.”
German Officials ‘Blackmailed’ by US
Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel fronting the media to deny accusations that she was in any way complicit in allowing American authorities to illegally spy on European firms, Horstel believes the chancellor would be well aware of what practices are going on.
“If she [Merkel] was not very deeply cooperating with the Americans, she would not be chancellor. We have a double system to ensure that we do exactly as Washington wants.
“What we have here is a very clear-cut system of blackmail against anyone in a high position — that’s number one,” he said, suggesting that US access to German security files allows American authorities to hold German politicians to ransom.
Meanwhile, Horstel also believes an inherent American influence on German politics and media means that governments in favor of US policy are also elected, and the media consistently follows American rhetoric on international issues, such as the crisis in Ukraine.
“Number two is that when it comes to elections, you will get into a powerful enough position to win unless the Americans are nodding their head. This also applies to the army ranks and the media ranks.
“This is why it’s important to note why the German media is so hostile to Russia. The Americans say it, and we [Germans] do it.”
Austria filed a formal complaint over suspicions that German and American intelligence agencies have spied on its authorities and firms, the Austrian interior minister said on Tuesday.
“Austria demands clarification,” Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told Reuters, following German media reports about such activities. She added that Austria’s security authorities were in contact with their German counterparts.
“Today we have filed a legal complaint with the prosecutor’s office,” she said, “against an unknown entity due to secret intelligence services to Austria’s disadvantage.”
German media reports said the BND, Germany’s intelligence agency, used its Bad Aibling listening post in Bavaria to spy on the French presidential palace, French foreign ministry and European Commission.
The snooping was done at the behest of US spy agency National Security Agency (NSA), which also asked the BND to monitor European firms to check if they were breaking trade embargos, according to reports.
Mikl-Leitner said that while there is not yet concrete evidence, “it’s not far-fetched to suspect that Austria was also spied on.”
She added that Austria will try to resolve the situation through its security, diplomatic and judicial bodies.
The NSA is believed to have passed a list of some 800,000 IP addresses, phone numbers and email addresses to the BND for monitoring, some of which belonged to European politicians and companies.
Citing an unnamed source from the German parliamentary committee on the US spying agency, German newspaper Bild said Berlin chose to remain silent and close its eyes to the information in order to avoid “endangering cooperation” with Washington and the NSA.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has denied reports that he was aware of the spying since at least 2008.
During a press briefing Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin is engaged in consultations with Washington on the NSA’s surveillance practices.
“I think what’s important here is that friends do not spy on each other. The answer is that it should not be so,” Merkel said.
She continued: “We are at the disposal of respective parliamentary bodies. The chancellor’s office is ready to provide all necessary information. This process is already under way. We are also consulting the United States.”
Secret documents leaked in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed that the US spy agency monitored Merkel’s personal cell phone too.
Apologists for the National Security Agency (NSA) point to the arrest of David Coleman Headley as an example of how warrantless mass surveillance is necessary to catch terrorists. Headley played a major role in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack that killed 166 people.
While few would argue that bringing someone like Headley to justice is not a good thing, Headley’s case in no way justifies mass surveillance. For one thing, there is no “terrorist” exception in the Fourth Amendment. Saying a good end (capturing terrorists) justifies a bad means (mass surveillance) gives the government a blank check to violate our liberties.
Even if the Headley case somehow justified overturning the Fourth Amendment, it still would not justify mass surveillance and bulk data collection. This is because, according to an investigation by ProPublica, NSA surveillance played an insignificant role in catching Headley. One former counter-terrorism official said when he heard that NSA surveillance was responsible for Headley’s capture he “was trying to figure out how NSA played a role.”
The Headley case is not the only evidence that the PATRIOT Act and other post-9/11 sacrifices of our liberty have not increased our security. For example, the NSA’s claim that its surveillance programs thwarted 54 terrorist attacks has been widely discredited. Even the president’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies found that mass surveillance and bulk data collection was “not essential to preventing attacks.”
According to the congressional Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 and the 9/11 Commission, the powers granted the NSA by the PATRIOT Act would not have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Many intelligence experts have pointed out that, by increasing the size of the haystack government agencies must look through, mass surveillance makes it harder to find the needle of legitimate threats.
Even though mass surveillance threatens our liberty, violates the Constitution, and does nothing to protect us from terrorism, many in Congress still cling to the fiction that the only way to ensure security is to give the government virtually unlimited spying powers. These supporters of the surveillance state are desperate to extend the provisions of the PATRIOT Act that are set to expire at the end of the month. They are particularly eager to preserve Section 215, which authorizes many of the most egregious violations of our liberties, including the NSA’s “metadata” program.
However, Edward Snowden’s revelations have galvanized opposition to the NSA’s ongoing violations of our liberties. This is why Congress will soon vote on the USA FREEDOM Act. This bill extends the expiring surveillance laws. It also contains some “reforms” that supposedly address all the legitimate concerns regarding mass surveillance.
However, a look at the USA FREEDOM Act’s details, as opposed to the press releases of its supporters, shows that the act leaves the government’s mass surveillance powers virtually untouched.
The USA FREEDOM Act has about as much to do with freedom as the PATRIOT Act had to do with patriotism. If Congress truly wanted to protect our liberties it would pass the Surveillance State Repeal Act, which repeals the PATRIOT Act. Congress should also reverse the interventionist foreign policy that increases the risk of terrorism by fostering resentment and hatred of Americans.
Fourteen years after the PATRIOT Act was rushed into law, it is clear that sacrificing liberty does little or nothing to preserve security. Instead of trying to fool the American people with phony reforms, Congress should repeal all laws that violate the Fourth Amendment, starting with the PATRIOT Act.
European aviation consortium Airbus said it would file criminal charges over industrial espionage, following reports that US and German foreign intelligence spied on the industry giant.
“We are aware that as a large company in the sector, we are a target and subject of espionage,” the company said in a statement to AFP on Thursday. “However, in this case we are alarmed because there is concrete suspicion of industrial espionage.”
The move follows reports in Bild newspaper and Der Spiegel news magazine based on intelligence documents, claiming US spy agency, the NSA, deliberately targeted Airbus and Eurocopter – also run by the French-based company. The reports additionally revealed Berlin was aware of the espionage and kept quiet since 2008.
Following the allegations, Airbus “asked the German government for information.”
“We will now file a criminal complaint against persons unknown on suspicion of industrial espionage,” the company said.
It is alleged the German Foreign Intelligence service (BND) collaborated with the NSA in providing information about Airbus’ industrial secrets. The German media reports also alleged BND used the Bad Aibling monitoring station in Bavaria not only to spy on industrial business, but also to eavesdrop on the French president, the French foreign ministry, and the European Commission.
A French foreign ministry spokesman was quoted by DW as saying: “We are in close contact on this issue with our German partners.”
The German public and the political elite were furious following the 2013 disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, into the NSA hack of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Yet while promising to respond, Germany has done nothing over the years.
Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service has been spying for US intelligence agencies for years. Merkel’s Office should have been informed in 2008 about this practice, but the federal government has not undertaken any corresponding measures, a German magazine wrote.
It became known on Thursday the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) overheard communications of European companies and politicians for the NSA, according to Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten.
However, Merkel’s Office seems to have done nothing to stop these activities, though it was informed about US espionage attempts in 2008.
According to the available information, the NSA was trying to get information about the multinational arms companies EADS and Eurocopter. This was contrary to German interests, and the BND had rejected the requests at that time.
However, now it has become clear that the BND assisted the US National Security Agency (NSA) in spying on European targets over the last few years.
The revelation was perceived by many German politicians as “scandalous”. They demanded an end to such ‘collaboration’ with the US and argued that the chancellor’s office should probably have been aware of the spy agencies’ cooperation.
Germany’s BND intelligence agency spied on European politicians and companies for the NSA for over a decade, Spiegel Online revealed. But an internal probe showed that at least 40,000 of those spying requests were against German and EU interests.
Over the course of 10 years, the NSA sent the BND thousands of so-called ‘selectors,’ which included IP addresses, emails, and phone numbers, Spiegel reported.
Several times a day, the BND downloaded the NSA selectors into their monitoring system and used them to spy on targets. The results were sent to the German agency’s headquarters in Pullach for evaluation, and then to some extent to the NSA, Zeit Online revealed, adding that the NSA sent about 800,000 ‘selectors’ to the BND in total.
Among the selectors were European politicians, whose names were not revealed. It was mentioned that the list included French authorities. Among the companies spied upon were the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) and Eurocopter.
Since at least 2008, BND employees felt that some of the selectors ran contrary to the mission profile of the intelligence agency and the goal of the German Foreign Ministry, as they were not covered by the 2002 Memorandum of Agreement between Germany and the US, aimed at combating global terrorism.
However, it wasn’t until 2013, in the midst of the Edward Snowden revelations, that an investigation into the spying activities took place. That probe revealed that 2,000 of the selectors actually violated German and Western European interests, with many used to spy on politicians. However, those revelations were not reported to the Chancellor’s Office. Instead, one of the BND’s department chiefs simply asked the NSA to stop making such requests.
But upon re-examination following parliamentary request, the BND came to the conclusion that up to 40,000 selectors were actually directed against Western European and German interests. The Chancellor’s Office was notified of the findings in March.
Chancellery Minister Peter Altmaier informed members of the parliamentary oversight committee of the latest developments on Wednesday. BND chief Gerhard Schindler was excluded from the meeting.
Konstantin von Notz, deputy parliamentary leaders of the Greens, told Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper that he found it “hard to imagine” that the Chancellor’s Office was unaware of the collaboration between the two spy agencies.
“The limit has now been exceeded. The chancellor must explain the situation,” he added.
Left Party leader Gregor Gysi has called the collaboration a “scandal” and demanded an end to “conformism with the US administration,” Deutsche Welle reported.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has refused to release four seconds of a recording made in the Richard Nixon White House more than 40 years ago, claiming the disclosure would expose a reference to Vietnam War peace talks and American government spying capabilities of the time.
The four-second segment, recorded on January 12, 1973 by Nixon chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, has been sought by researcher Ken Hughes of the University of Virginia, who has studied the Nixon-era tapes. It contains information related to negotiations between the U.S. government and the government of South Vietnam connected to the war.
But the NSA rejected Hughes’ request, claiming the brief recording “would reveal information that would impair U.S. cryptologic systems or activities,” NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines told Bloomberg in an email.
Bloomberg was also told by the National Archives that the segment must be kept a secret because it could reveal “the identity of a confidential human source, a human intelligence source” or a “relationship with an intelligence or security agency of a foreign government or international organization.”
Bloomberg’s Anthony Capaccio reported: “Historians say the redacted segment probably refers to a threat by former President Lyndon Johnson to expose an illegal attempt by Nixon’s presidential campaign to derail the 1968 Paris peace talks on ending the Vietnam War.”
To Learn More:
Classified: Why Is Obama Keeping Secret Four Seconds of a Nixon-Era Tape? (by Anthony Capaccio, Bloomberg )
Nixon White House Tapes (Wikipedia)
New Technology Takes Aim at Notorious Watergate Tape Gap (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov )
A 36-year veteran of America’s Intelligence Community, William Binney resigned from his position as Director for Global Communications Intelligence (COMINT) at the National Security Agency (NSA) and blew the whistle, after discovering that his efforts to protect the privacy and security of Americans were being undermined by those above him in the chain of command.
The NSA data-monitoring program which Binney and his team had developed — codenamed ThinThread — was being aimed not at foreign targets as intended, but at Americans (codenamed as Stellar Wind); destroying privacy here and around the world. Binney voices his call to action for the billions of individuals whose rights are currently being violated.
William Binney speaks out in this feature-length interview with Tragedy and Hope’s Richard Grove, focused on the topic of the ever-growing Surveillance State in America.
Over the past several years mainstream news outlets have conveyed a litany of cyber doomsday scenarios on behalf of ostensibly credible public officials. Breathless intimations of the End Times. The stuff of Hollywood screenplays. However a recent statement by the U.S. intelligence community pours a bucket of cold water over all of this. Yes, Virginia, It turns out that all the talk of cyber Armageddon was a load of bunkum. An elaborate propaganda campaign which only serves as a pretext to sacrifice our civil liberties and channel an ocean of cash to the defense industry.
Looking back the parade of scare stories is hard to miss. For example, in late 2012 Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor.” Former White House cybersecurity official Paul B. Kurtz likewise spoke of a threat which he referred to as a “cyber Katrina.” Former NSA director Mike McConnell claimed that a veritable Cyberwar was on and chided the public “are we going to wait for the cyber equivalent of the collapse of the World Trade Centers?” Yet another NSA director, Keith Alexander, described cyberattacks as constituting “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.” And finally, Vanity Fair magazine published a hyperbolic article entitled “A Declaration of Cyberwar” wherein the NSA’s Stuxnet attack against Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities was likened to a cyber “Hiroshima.”
Yet the 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. intelligence community submitted recently to the Senate Armed Services Committee has explicitly conceded that the risk of “cyber Armageddon” is at best “remote.” In other words, it’s entirely safe to ignore the hyperbolic bluster of the Cult of Cyberwar. Despite what we’ve been told the Emperor is naked.
What society has witnessed is what’s known in the public relations business as threat inflation. It’s a messaging tool that’s grounded in human emotion. Faced with ominous prophecies by trusted public servants the average person seldom pauses to consider the likelihood of ulterior motives or perform a formal quantitative risk assessment. Most people tacitly cede to the speakers’ authority —given that most speakers are, or were, high-ranking officials— and accept their graphic worst-case scenarios at face value.
The American public saw threat inflation back in the 1950s when American leadership hyperventilated over the imaginary Missile Gap. We saw it once again before the invasion of Iraq when President Bush spoke of a nuclear “smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” And after reading through the various cyber metaphors described earlier it’s hard not to recognize the fingerprints of threat inflation at work.
The goal of threat inflation is to stir up anxiety, to foment a profound sense of apprehension so that the public is receptive to marketing pitches emerging from the defense industry. Studies conducted by accredited research psychologists demonstrate that anxious people will choose to be safe rather than sorry. In the throes of an alleged crisis, anxious people aren’t necessarily particular about the solution as long as it’s presented as a remedial measure; they don’t care much about the ultimate cost or the civil liberties they relinquish. They’re willing to pay a steep price to feel safe again.
So it is that American intelligence services have raised a global panopticon and in doing so engaged in clandestine subversion programs that span entire sectors of the economy. Speaking to the public our leaders justify mass surveillance in terms of protecting the American public against terrorists. Speaking to each other intelligence officers disparage iPhone users as ‘zombies’ who pay for their own monitoring. This sharp contrast underscores an insight provided by whistleblower Ed Snowden in an open letter to Brazil. In particular Snowden stated that “These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”
This process, of capitalizing on deftly manufactured emotional responses, has been called securitization and it puts the economic and political imperatives of corporate interests before our own. An allegedly existential threat like cyber Armageddon can presumably justify any cost in the throes of a crisis mentality. This is exactly what powerful groups are betting on.
But just because there are several types of insurance doesn’t mean consumers should go out and buy all of them. Prudent buyers won’t pay any price to be safe, they purchase coverage strategically. There are prices that clear-headed people won’t pay. Something to remember when the term “national security” appears in public debate.
Bill Blunden is an independent investigator whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including The Rootkit Arsenal , and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex. Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.