Reprieve | October 30, 2016
Personnel on military bases in the UK have been involved in choosing targets for a secret US drone campaign which has killed hundreds of civilians in violation of international law, documents obtained by human rights charity Reprieve indicate.
Job adverts and CVs identified from publicly-available sources show that the US Air Force has employed a “MQ-9 REAPER [drone] ISR Mission Intelligence Coordinator” at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire; while a Private Military Contractor (PMC) has advertised for an “All Source Analyst – Targeting” to work at the same base.
RAF Molesworth is leased to the US, but the UK Government has refused to answer questions on whether it plays a role in the covert drone campaign – which carries out missile strikes outside of warzones with minimal accountability.
British Ministers have said that “the US does not operate RPAS [drones] from the UK,” but have refused to answer questions on whether bases in the UK play a role in choosing targets and drawing up the US ‘kill list.’
A third job advert from contractor Leidos for someone to provide “FMV [full motion video] intelligence analysis in support of USAFRICOM… and Special Operations Command Africa,” also at Molesworth, indicates that the base may be involved in supporting illegal covert drone strikes in countries such as Somalia, where neither the US nor the UK is publicly at war. Along with the CIA, US Special Operations Command is the main player in the drone programme.
Concerns have been raised over the legality of the US covert drone programme, its lack of transparency, and reports that it has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. The UN has warned that it may violate international law, and British ministers have refused to be drawn on their view of its legality. President Obama has to date refused even to formally acknowledge that the CIA is carrying out drone strikes, because of the programme’s covert status. A 2014 study by Reprieve found that covert drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan had killed as many as 1,147 unknown people in failed attempts to kill 41 named individuals.
The revelations come on top of documents published recently by The Intercept on the role played by Menwith Hill – another UK/US intelligence base – in identifying targets in Yemen, one of the main theatres in which the covert drone programme operates. One document states that targets at Yemeni internet cafes are “tasked by several target offices at NSA and GCHQ.” The document’s header shows it was copied to the UK, meaning that the British Government must have already been aware of the role its intelligence and bases were playing.
Commenting, Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve said:
“These documents are the strongest evidence yet that the US may be conducting its illegal, secret drone war from bases on British soil. Simply to say that drones are not flown from the UK is missing the point, if it is personnel on British soil that are at the top of the so-called ‘kill chain’ and British agencies who are feeding targets into those lists.
“The US drone programme, conducted in the shadows, has killed hundreds of civilians without any accountability. The British Government has questions to answer over its own involvement in this secret war and how much responsibility it bears for those deaths.”
UK spying agencies secretly and unlawfully collected and stored personal data of Britons for 17 years, according to a court ruling.
MI5, MI6 and GCHQ collected data on everyone’s communications between 1998 and 2015, according to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the watchdog for intelligence agencies.
The agencies tracked individual phone and web use and other confidential information without having adequate safeguards or supervision, senior judges ruled on Monday.
They did not abide by article 8 protecting the right to privacy of the European convention of human rights (ECHR), they added.
“The BPD (bulk personal datasets) regime failed to comply with the ECHR principles, which we have above set out throughout the period prior to its avowal in March 2015. The BCD (bulk communications data) regime failed to comply with such principles in the period prior to its avowal in November 2015, and the institution of a more adequate system of supervision as at the same date,” the ruling stated.
Spying agencies, however, will still be able to continue to do so due to small tweaks to the law that allow them to flout the ruling.
Millie Graham Wood, legal officer at Privacy International, said “today’s judgment is a long overdue indictment of UK surveillance agencies riding roughshod over our democracy and secretly spying on a massive scale.”
“There are huge risks associated with the use of bulk communications data,” Wood said. “It facilitates the almost instantaneous cataloging of entire populations’ personal data.”
According to Privacy campaigners, the ruling was “one of the most significant indictments of the secret use of the government’s mass surveillance powers” since Edward Snowden, a former contractor of the US National Security Agency, who first released the extent of American and British surveillance of citizens in 2013.
Secret documents leaked by Snowden also revealed that the GCHQ and the NSA had monitored more than 1,000 targets in at least 60 countries between 2008 and 2011 by secretly accessing cable networks carrying the world’s phone calls and internet traffic.
Since the Snowden disclosures, it has been clear that the NSA conducts unconstitutional, dragnet surveillance of Americans’ international communications. However, it now appears that the NSA is using surveillance authorities to conduct an entirely new type of surveillance: requiring major companies to conduct mass e-mail wiretaps, which involve searching the content of all incoming traffic.
Last year, Yahoo, in response to a classified government order, scanned hundreds of millions of mail accounts for a “set of characters” or digital “signature” of a communications method purportedly used by a state-sponsored terrorist organization. The search was apparently performed on all messages as they arrived at Yahoo’s servers. All of this was done without input from Yahoo’s security team, potentially placing users’ security at risk and ultimately prompting the resignation of the company’s chief security information officer.
It appears that a secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), approved the surveillance—or at least approved the general procedures the government used to identify its targets. There are conflicting reports on what authority the government relied on.
Unfortunately, the news stories and Yahoo’s cryptic response leave more questions than answers. Yahoo’s ability to disclose information about this classified government program may be limited. But the Obama Administration owes the public far more information about this spying program, especially if it is going to fulfill its promise of increased transparency. As a start, the Obama Administration and other major tech companies should publicly answer the following questions:
1. What authority did the government rely on in compelling Yahoo to search its customers’ emails?
The million-dollar question – which remains unanswered – is what legal authority the government relied on for its demand to Yahoo. Initial reports suggested that the government may have relied on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a highly controversial provision enacted as an amendment to FISA in 2008. More recently, however, news reports have stated that the government obtained what is known as a “traditional” FISA order under Title I of the statute. In either scenario, the surveillance would reflect a dramatic shift in the public understanding of how these authorities are used. Title I authorizes the government to search the communications of a particular person or entity. But, if news reports are accurate, it would mean that the government is now using this law to require that companies scan the content of all users’ incoming emails.
2. What is the program’s legal justification and has it been reviewed?
Whether government is relying on Section 702 or Title I, it seems to have strayed far from the original congressional intent. What is the government’s legal justification for this type of surveillance? And, if the surveillance was authorized by the FISC, was the court aware that its order required Yahoo to search the emails of hundreds of millions of innocent users?
In the past, the government and FISC have engaged in legal gymnastics to justify mass surveillance. The public and Congress have the right to know if this is happening yet again. The Obama Administration should release all legal memoranda it relied on in conducting the Yahoo surveillance, and it should disclose any relevant FISC opinions regarding the surveillance. If no such FISC opinions exist then the public deserves to know, as that itself is cause for concern.3. What types of content searches does the government believe it has the authority to conduct under Title I and Section 702, and are past statements about these authorities still accurate?
Intelligence officials have argued that surveillance programs conducted on U.S. soil are narrowly targeted because the government searches only for specific communication identifiers (like an email address) and not for keywords (like “bomb”). But the Yahoo story suggests that even this limitation may be falling to the wayside. If Yahoo conducted a broad search of its users’ incoming email for a “set of characters” or digital “signature,” that information may have been found in the content of communications. In other words, individuals may have been targeted not based on any preexisting suspicion about who they are or who they communicate with, but based solely on what they were communicating. Moreover, it is unclear whether this “signature” was used only by the target organization, or also by other wholly unaffiliated individuals. If the intelligence community is now engaging in this type of content-based surveillance, then the Obama Administration has a responsibility to set the record straight.
4. If the government relied on Section 702, did Yahoo attempt to filter out purely domestic communications?
Section 702 does not authorize the government to collect or search purely domestic communications. However, the stories contain no details about whether Yahoo made efforts to filter out purely domestic communications, and if so, how successful those efforts were. If such efforts were not made and the surveillance occurred under Section 702, then the Obama Administration should immediately disclose the number of purely domestic communications that were collected and searched under the order so that the public can fully assess the privacy implications.
5. If the government relied on Section 702, did the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board (PCLOB) know about this type of surveillance when they conducted their examination?
In 2014, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board issued a report on Section 702. While we disagreed with many of the report’s conclusions, there is no doubt that the PCLOB declassified important information about Section 702 to facilitate a more robust debate. However, the PCLOB’s public report makes no mention of the types of demands that were purportedly received by Yahoo. If the PCLOB was unaware that this surveillance was occurring under Section 702, why were they not informed? If they knew, why was this information withheld from the public? Either way, this further calls into question the conclusions in the PCLOB report and the adequacy of existing oversight mechanisms.
6. How are other major companies interpreting their obligations under Section 702 and Title I?
Major companies like Google have issued statements saying they have never received the types of demands described in the Yahoo stories and reaffirming that they would challenge such a demand. While we applaud these companies for their statements, more information is needed to fully understand how the government is using its surveillance authorities. Specifically, we urge major technology companies to make publicly available information on how they interpret Section 702 and Title I, and to describe the types of demands that they believe clearly fall outside the statutes’ purview. In this way, companies can help to fill the information abyss left by the Yahoo story and the intelligence community’s lack of transparency.
If you are one of the approximately 280 million people with Yahoo email accounts, your email was scanned for content and possibly turned over to the U.S. government. Yahoo, on Tuesday, admitted that fact.
Reuters revealed on Tuesday that the Internet mega-company (which is now being purchased by Verizon Communications) designed a special program last year to capture and scan all its users’ incoming email after being ordered to do that by the either the NSA or FBI. It deployed the program over the last year, scanning every piece of email Yahoo accounts received and apparently turning over all email that contained any of the tens of thousands of “keywords” the NSA considers suspicious.
The decision, Reuters says, was made by President and Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer, in collaboration with people in her legal department. It wasn’t without controversy: several Yahoo top staffers left the company including Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos (who left for a top job at Facebook).
The news is startling for several reasons. It’s also deceptive for some others.
* Email providers like Google (whose gmail program is a favorite source of NSA data capture) always claim they don’t do “blanket review” of email content. Yahoo is the first to openly admit that it does. It apparently made that decision because its executives didn’t think they could successfully resist the government orders.
That decision by Mayer, already under considerable pressure at the struggling corporate giant, was apparently taken without consultation with her security team. Instead, she just ordered technologists to write the data scanning software. Many in the company thought it could challenge the government orders in the courts and prevail. Several, including Stamos, fled in reported horror.
* They didn’t just review the emails, they built a special program to do it and never let their users know they were doing that. It might seem logical — after all, you don’t let the person who you’re spying on know you’re spying — but very few Yahoo users are the subject of investigations. Yahoo’s statement — that it complies with legal requests — doesn’t even mention the Consitution that protects your data legally and whose first and fourth amendments appear to have been clearly violated by this action.
* Finally, what do you do with all that data? While the government would contend that it was investigating illegal activity, it now has reports (at least) if not full captures on everyone. And a government that collects data on everyone isn’t a state doing policing. It is a police state.
As shocking as this revelation is, the reaction of other Internet companies has been gallingly disengenuous.
“We’ve never received such a request,” a spokeman for Google, told Reuters. “But if we did, our response would be simple: ‘No way’.”
Well… yes… “way” because Google has received thousands of NSA National Security Letters and routinely complies with them. They may not be scanning all the information but they will scan and turn over any information the government requests without informing the affected customer.
A Microsoft spokesperson also chimed in, “We have never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo.”
No, maybe not like reported today but Microsoft also routinely complies with government orders almost never challenging them.
In a sense, the way the data is collecting (and the amount collected) — as shocking and important as that is — is probably not the most important issue. If you collect and turn over data on any user just because someone in the NSA tells you to, your respect for privacy and constitutional rights is deeply questionable. That’s exactly what all these companies do.
Yahoo’s latest scandal only underscores how little respect for our rights this industry has.
There are many cases by companies challenging the government on surveillance. Why Yahoo could choose to comply so quickly and not tell anyone about it will certainly provoked widespread circulation and analysis in the coming weeks.
That is something we should all be monitoring.
(Full disclosure: as an official of MayFirst/PeopleLink, I am involved in an international lawsuit challenging the NSA’s right to conduct mass surveillance in foreign countries. The “bias” revealed, however, should not surprise any reader of this website.)
New Zealand’s security agency, using US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs, mistook pro-democracy activists for conspirators plotting a coup in Fiji, media reported.
An investigation carried out by Television New Zealand together with The Intercept media outlet revealed on Sunday that New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) used NSA-based surveillance system in the summer of 2012 to intercept the internet communications of a group of local campaigners for democracy in Fiji who were suspected of conspiring to overthrow of the government.
According to the media outlet, GCSB’s surveillance of citizens of New Zealand was not authorized at the time.
Although communications collected by the GCSB lacked evidence to prove the plot, New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service together with their counterparts from neighboring Australia were prompted to raid the homes of the suspects and their families to probe into the plot amid “national security concerns.”
Since 2013, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden has been leaking documents that have exposed numerous global surveillance programs, many of them run by the NSA and the Five Eyes surveillance alliance, which includes the intelligence agencies of New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
The horrific massacre in Orlando has once again thrust the specter of domestic terrorism into the limelight, and into the media space. Pundits and politicians alike have taken the incident as yet another opportunity to thump their chests about the need for even more counter-terrorism legislation, a further increase in surveillance state activity and, of course, more war abroad.
And while such opportunists posture as defenders of the American people, none care to face the inescapable reality that since 9-11, and the introduction of numerous pieces of draconian legislation ostensibly aimed at combatting terrorism, the agencies charged with surveillance and law enforcement have not managed to prevent attacks. Obviously, this raises the question of what exactly legislation such as the PATRIOT Act is really intended for if not to ‘keep Americans safe.’
But even more critical than retrospective criticism of the erosion of civil liberties after nearly a decade and a half of propaganda and fearmongering, is the need to oppose the further expansion of such legislation and domestic spying programs. Indeed, while what were once considered rights are now seen as passé, the US is staring down the barrel of a presidential election where the leading candidates are calling for even more surveillance, expanded government databases, and more billions of dollars to be poured into the NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, and the rest of the alphabet soup that comprises Police State USA.
Clinton, Trump, and Death as Political Currency
In the immediate aftermath of the heinous slaughter in Orlando, the neoconservative-neoliberal chimera known as Hillary Clinton predictably called for an expansion of surveillance and the police state. Less than 48 hours after the attack, in a speech in Cleveland, Clinton proclaimed:
We already know we need more resources for this fight. The professionals who keep us safe would be the first to say we need better intelligence to discover and disrupt terrorist plots before they can be carried out. That’s why I’ve proposed an ‘intelligence surge’ to bolster our capabilities across the board, with appropriate safeguards here at home.
As with all things Hillary, one must carefully deconstruct the statement to unravel the distortions and empty rhetoric, and distill her actual proposal. The first part of her statement is instantly suspect as the US has already grossly inflated its intelligence budget. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the 2017 intelligence budget will reach nearly $70 billion, with $50 billion being spent on the National Intelligence Program (NIP). One would have to seriously question the logic in Clinton’s statement, namely the implied consensus about the need for more resources. How much more exactly will prevent incidents like the one in Orlando? Perhaps another $50 billion would do the trick?
The second fallacy embedded in the torrent of misinformation that is a Hillary Clinton speech excerpt is the specious argument that “better intelligence” would “discover and disrupt terrorist plots before they can be carried out.” This vacuous statement must be dismissed out of hand after one considers the fact that the alleged Orlando killer, Omar Mateen, was investigated, followed, and interviewed by the FBI multiple times (he was also introduced to FBI informants whose responsibility was likely to keep tabs on him).
So, according to Clinton the US should spend tens of billions more dollars to fund the agencies and programs that already have the ability to single out a potential terrorist, do all the leg work to establish contact with him, invest human resources into his case, and yet still be unable to stop his alleged actions. To put it in terms Hillary’s Wall Street patrons would understand: sounds like a bad investment strategy.
The third unmistakably wrongheaded statement (I only selected three sentences, so she’s 3 for 3) is the absolutely odious suggestion of an “intelligence surge” to improve the capabilities of the intelligence community. In fact, what Clinton is actually suggesting is a massive increase in contracts awarded to private intelligence firms and military contractors, though veiling it as a boost to the intelligence community. This fact is made clear by the renowned investigative journalist Tim Shorrock in his 2008 book Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing where he notes that:
In 2006… the cost of America’s spying and surveillance activities outsourced to contractors reached $42 billion, or about 70 percent of the estimated $60 billion the government spends every year on foreign and domestic intelligence. Unfortunately, we cannot know the true extent of outsourcing, for two reasons. First, in 2007, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) refused to release an internal report on contracting out of fear that its disclosure would harm U.S. national security interests. Second, most intelligence contracts are classified, allowing companies like CACI to hide their activities behind a veil of secrecy.
Think about that figure for a second: 70 percent of the intelligence budget goes to outsourcing. In other words, government expenditure on surveillance and intelligence is an indirect subsidy to private corporations. This should come as no surprise considering similar indirect subsidies to energy companies, private mercenaries, and even big retail corporations.
Of course, Clinton knows all this perfectly well. So when she calls for an intelligence surge what she’s actually doing is making clear to her military-industrial-surveillance complex cronies that she will make sure to feed the goose that continues to lay the golden eggs. Just like her speeches to Goldman Sachs served to reassure Wall Street that she was their lady, so too does Clinton use the tragic events in Orlando to give a wink and a nod to Booz Allen Hamilton, CACI International, and the rest.
As with all things Clinton, her words drip with cynicism like her hands drip with the blood of Libyans, Syrians, Iraqis, Serbians, and countless others.
It should be mentioned too that aside from just funding, Clinton undoubtedly represents a further rightward shift in terms of “anti-terror” legislation – the kinds of bills that she’d promote and sign into law as president would be, to put it bluntly, no different than the Bush era bills that she supported such as the PATRIOT Act. As Conor Friedersdorf noted in The Atlantic in 2015:
[Clinton] served in the United States Senate from 2001 to 2009. She cast votes that enabled the very NSA spying that many now regard as a betrayal. And she knew all about what the NSA wasn’t telling the public. To say now that the NSA should’ve been more transparent raises this question: Why wasn’t Clinton among the Democrats working for more transparency?
Friedersdorf is being much too kind with his concluding rhetorical question. Clinton is perhaps one of the most hawkish surveillance state proponents in the US. Her total disregard for even the basic tenets of the US Constitution, let alone domestic or international law, make her not only unfit for office, but a dangerous criminal.
And then of course there’s the trainwreck made flesh, Donald Trump, who with his typically bombastic and utterly vacuous public statements has once again managed to make the criminal Hillary into the “sensible one.” In a speech on Monday June 13, Trump reverted to his usual racist demagogy that is light on actual policy prescriptions and heavy on xenophobia, racism, and outright lies. But in the midst of the Trump madness, there are indeed kernels of policy that should be worrying.
During the speech Trump called, once again, for a ban on Muslim immigration to the US, warning of “major consequences” for the Muslim community in the country. But Trump went further saying, “We have a dysfunctional immigration system, which does not permit us to know who we let into our country, and it does not permit us to protect our citizens properly.” Again, Trump provides no specific policy prescription, but the implication from his statement is an increase in surveillance of citizens domestically, as well as presumably the codification of a deeply racist immigration system which would discriminate based on religion and/or ethnicity.
Trump continued, saying “With these people, folks, it’s coming. We’re importing radical Islamic terrorism into the West through a failed immigration system and through an intelligence community held back by our president.” Here again Trump aligns with Clinton. While supposedly the two are opposed to one another, the fact is that both accept the false assumption that our problems would be solved if only we could just stop “holding back” the intelligence community. Clinton calls for a surge while Trump calls for taking off the training wheels. Sort of like an argument about which is better Pepsi or orange juice.
The Police State Is Not the Answer
While the Demopublican-Republicrat Party continues its political posturing, the assumptions that both have internalized are what need to be excised from the body politic. It is patently absurd to call for more surveillance in a country where, thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know the following:
- The PRISM program allows “The National Security Agency and the FBI [to tap] directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents, and connection logs.” According to cybersecurity experts PRISM uses obviously illegal tactics to “circumvent formal legal processes… to seek personal material such as emails, photos and videos.”
- The BLARNEY system is utilized extensively. According to former AT&T technician Mark Klein and former Senior Advisor for Internet Technology at the FCC Scott Marcus, “Using a device called a ‘splitter’ a complete copy of the internet traffic that AT&T receives… is diverted onto a separate fiber-optic cable which is connected to a room which is controlled by the NSA.” Therefore, unlike PRISM, which the government and its apologists attempt to justify as being used to target key individuals, BLARNEY has no such capacity. Rather, it is designed solely to collect data, all internet data, to be used and likely stored.
- The NSA has constructed enormous data storage facilities such as the Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. As one top security official told Wired, “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”
Naturally, there is not nearly enough space here to detail all of the myriad surveillance programs. But, taking them together with what we know of government funding to private intelligence firms, how could anyone rightly argue that surveillance should be increased? If anything, the enormous expenditure has proven utterly useless.
Indeed, the legal framework developed in the post-9/11 era including draconian legislation such as the PATRIOT Act, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and many others, laid the foundation for the systemic and systematic stripping away of civil liberties and human rights. The technical infrastructure has been steadily evolving since 9/11 as technology continues to improve, providing the intelligence agencies with ever more tools for surveillance and intelligence gathering. The continued, unrestrained neoliberal policy of privatization has created a complex network of companies, contractors, and subcontractors, usually working independently of each other, all in the service of the security state. Finally, the political landscape in the United States has so thoroughly devolved that elected officials are more concerned about stopping the whistleblowers and leakers, than about addressing America’s continued descent into a fascist police state.
Such is the state of the union in 2016. And while the aspiring Mass Murderer-in-Chief Clinton continues to attack the political snake-charmer Trump, and The Donald does what The Donald does, the bodies of 50 innocent people are being laid to rest. Must the values and freedoms that the US allegedly once stood for also be buried?
After a big announcement on May 16, 2016, The Intercept made 166 documents available to the public. At this rate, it will take an estimated 600 years to read all of the documents! I would like to ask The Intercept, ‘Where’s the beef?’
Last updated on May 16, 2016, Pierre Omidyar’s The Intercept released its first data dump of the Snowden NSA files. For a long time, I wondered why the Snowden files weren’t available to us like the WikiLeaks files were. After all, the information could further research on US “asymmetric warfare.” I wanted to search them just as I had done with WikiLeaks. And then, perhaps it was fate that gave me a partial answer: I used Wikileaks documents for my dissertation and was forced to scrub every WikiLeaks reference in order to get my dissertation published and receive my Ph.D.
You see, in its zeal to crack the whip on whistle blowers revealing the government’s multitudinous dirty dealings and to deter even more acts of conscience from potential whistle blowers, the Obama Administration chose to prosecute and imprison journalist Barrett Brown who had merely republished via hyperlinks some of the same WikiLeaks sources found in my dissertation.
Thus, my institution foreclosed a similar fate for me and I can write this article from a comfortable room rather than the federal penitentiary—where Barrett Brown currently is located. In one place, I had compiled Operation Condor, COINTELPRO, and WikiLeaks documents pertaining to America’s use of “asymmetric warfare” against inconvenient states and their leaders, as well as US actions against inconvenient civil society leaders.
Our knowledge of COINTELPRO helps us to understand that what was done at home to organizations like the Black Panther Party is also done abroad. In fact, many US political prisoners today are incarcerated as a result of the illegal actions of the US government against organizations like the American Indian Movement as well as the Black Panther Party. If the US would carry out such actions against its own citizens, why wouldn’t it do such things to foreigners?
My dissertation captures some of what was done abroad to President Hugo Chavez of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and places these actions in the larger context of US practice of asymmetric warfare against people and states it doesn’t like. Therefore, I relished the new information revealed in WikiLeaks about US attitudes toward Venezuela and Chavez written by American bureaucrats who believed that their words would be cloaked by classification.
So, when the Snowden leaks became known, I rushed to all sites political to find the treasure trove of US misdeeds—er, asymmetric warfare – that I knew would be buried inside the raw data. But, alas, it was nowhere to be found! I wrote e-mails to everyone I could think of who might have access to the information, but continued to draw a blank. The dribble of stories, sanitized by a suspect press, was not good enough for me. I began to have my doubts about whether I would ever see the data for myself and search it for my research needs. Indeed, articles began to question if we would ever see the Snowden data.
Cryptome, a digital library site especially for whistle blowers, began to keep a count of the released data versus the total number of pages. On May 14, 2016, Cryptome estimated that at its current rate of release, it would take as many as 620 years for the public to see all of the Snowden documents. On May 16, 2016, Omidyar’s Intercept released a fully-searchable tranche of 166 Snowden documents and promised that more are on the way. Sadly, this pace may take more than six hundred years as there are hundreds of thousands or even millions of documents to be released.
The Intercept has set aside a special section for its signals intelligence directorate newsletter releases, known in the National Security Agency (NSA) as SIDtoday. By scrolling down the page, one can find a download button to download all 166 documents, which I have done. Here, The Intercept explains its methodology of unveiling the oldest documents from 2003 first and then working its way through to its most recent 2012 articles.
The Intercept requests readers to contact them if something of public interest is found, while also noting that the names of low-level functionaries have been redacted by its staff. Additionally, it writes that its innovative approach is to partner with newspapers like Le Monde to go through the documents. The Intercept warns that some documents will not appear because of the speculative nature of accusations leveled against individuals by government operatives at NSA. The Intercept maintains that it chose a different route from WikiLeaks (fully searchable complete archive of all documents) because of different conditions set for release of the documents by different whistle blowers which The Intercept is bound to honor.
The Intercept accompanies release of the 166 documents with a story highlighting the “most intriguing” NSA reports. This first release of documents demonstrates how closely the NSA worked alongside the CIA and the Pentagon and other government departments to fight the US ‘war on terror.’ One example is the April 14, 2003 SIDtoday that boasts of the NSA role in the rescue of Jessica Lynch. What is not mentioned (how could it be?) is the role played by signals intelligence in the fabrication of the ‘Jessica-Lynch-is-an-American-hero’ story! Politifact, in reconstructing the false story, finds that the faked intelligence didn’t come from the Pentagon, and came from Iraqi “intercepts.”
The SIDtoday boasts that six government agencies, most from NSA, contributed to the successful rescue of hero Jessica Lynch. It wrote, “Such information assists the warfighter in planning operations to destroy or disable an underground facility, or, in this case, to rescue U.S. personnel and save lives.”
Recently, another leak came to our attention, the results of which are still reverberating throughout the international scene. The Panama Papers came to our attention and caused quite a stir about off-shore bank accounts, usually used to stash tax-free, ill-gotten cash abroad. Even David Cameron, the U.K. Prime Minister was found to have an off-shore account—even while calling an anti-corruption summit!
The Guardian calls the Panama Papers, at over eleven million documents, “history’s biggest data leak.” The Panama Papers contain a who’s who and a how to stash cash offshore. At 11 million plus documents, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has made the database available to the public in a fully-searchable format. I can go there and find any information that I want. The possibilities for research are phenomenal. So, what’s up with the Snowden documents and why can’t I search the approximately one million or so of them?
Well, as of May 16, the situation is improved, somewhat. Only 166 documents can be found in chronological order here; 166 documents are not going to create the kind of consciousness for which I believe Edward Snowden made his tremendous sacrifice. He is now marooned in Russia when he would much rather be at home with his family and friends, I would imagine.
Still, I believe he was right to inform us about what the US government is doing with our tax dollars, to its citizens at home and to the rest of the world. In my opinion, the US government is a rogue state and COINTELPRO, Operation Condor, WikiLeaks, and what little we know of the Snowden documents amply demonstrates that. The time for keeping secrets from the people who are paying for them is long over, in my opinion.
Edward Snowden said that he wanted to start a bottom-up revolution. The drip-drip-drip of the Snowden documents is the best way to ensure document release without revolution! I can’t help but wonder what’s going on with The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, whom Vice called “Snowden’s journalist of choice,” and the documents that I can’t wait to review! The researcher in me still wishes that, after doing its due diligence, The Intercept will see to it that Snowden’s more than one million documents will be made available to the public on a fully searchable platform in the manner that WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers has provided to the world.
After serving in the Georgia Legislature, in 1992, Cynthia McKinney won a seat in the US House of Representatives. She was the first African-American woman from Georgia in the US Congress. In 2005, McKinney was a vocal critic of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and was the first member of Congress to file articles of impeachment against George W. Bush. In 2008, Cynthia McKinney won the Green Party nomination for the US presidency.
Visiting an art exhibit featuring works about the U.S. war on terror or going to a lecture about Islam wouldn’t be cause for worry—unless you found out that the government was monitoring and keeping track of attendees. At that point, some people would be spooked and stay away, sacrificing their interests and curiosity to protect their privacy, not look suspicious, or stay off a list some intelligence agency might be keeping.
Government surveillance has that chilling effect—on our activities, choices and communications—and carries serious consequences. We argue in our lawsuit First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, et al v. NSA that the government’s collection of phone records violates the First Amendment rights of our clients—churches and civil and human rights organizations—by discouraging members and constituents from associating and communicating with them for fear of being spied on.
Now two new studies examining the use of Facebook and Wikipedia show that this chilling effect is real. Both studies demonstrate that government surveillance discourages speech and access to information and knowledge on the Internet. What happens is that people begin to self-police their communications: they are more likely to avoid associating with certain groups or individuals, or looking at websites or articles, when they think the government is watching them or the groups/people with whom they connect. This hurts our democracy and society as a whole.
The Facebook study, published in Journalism & Mass Communications Quarterly, showed that people censor themselves on the social network, refraining from posting comments voicing minority views when they’re aware that the National Security Agency (NSA) monitors online activities.
Participants in the study were told of NSA monitoring and shown a fictional Facebook posting about U.S. airstrikes against ISIS. They were asked about their willingness to comment, share, and like the post, or create a new post about the same topic. They were also asked whether they supported or opposed U.S. airstrikes, what they thought most other Americans believed about the airstrikes, and whether surveillance is necessary for national security.
The study showed that people who are aware of government surveillance and support it are significantly less likely to speak out when their views differ from what they perceive to be the majority opinion. As Dr. Elizabeth Stoycheff, Wayne State University assistant professor of journalism and new media and study author, writes:
This is the first study to provide empirical evidence that the government’s online surveillance programs may threaten the disclosure of minority views and contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion… These individuals expressed that surveillance was necessary for maintaining national security and they have nothing to hide. However, when these individuals perceive they are being monitored, they readily conform their behavior—expressing opinions when they are in the majority, and suppressing them when they’re not.
The Wikipedia study, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, found a dramatic fall in monthly traffic to Wikipedia articles about terror groups and their techniques after the June 2013 disclosures of the NSA PRISM surveillance program by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The study looked at 48 Wikipedia articles that contained terrorism-related keywords tracked by the Department of Homeland Security, such as “suicide attack” and “dirty bomb.”
Article views dropped 30 percent after June 2013, which supports “the existence of an immediate and substantial chilling effect,” wrote author Jonathon Penney. He also found that monthly views continued to fall, suggesting that the chilling effects of NSA surveillance are long term. The study, he says, has “implications for the health of democratic deliberation among citizens” and the broader health of society.
The government itself uncovered evidence in a recent survey that its surveillance causes Americans to limit their online activity. The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) found that in a survey of 41,000 U.S. households that use the Internet, one in five avoided online activity because of concerns about data collection by the government.
These studies provide evidence of what we have long argued—our freedom to read what we choose online and communicate and associate with others privately is profoundly affected by the prospect of the government looking over our shoulder. It’s changed our behavior, whether that means not commenting on a Facebook post about terrorism, avoiding a Wikipedia page, or steering clear of certain organizations.
The stakes are high for the 24 diverse political and activist groups that are our plaintiffs in First Unitarian. They connect people to advance political beliefs, and sometimes take dissenting positions on issues. Government surveillance of phone records to and from these groups, which work with whistleblowers, dissidents, Muslims, patients, gun owners, laborers, and others, have hurt their ability to carry out their missions. Their members and potential clients simply don’t want to call them, visit them on the web, or email them when they know the government is watching. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)-Ohio, a community service and civil rights organization that assists Muslim facing racial profiling, harassment, and discrimination, has seen a decrease in communications from its constituency of Muslim Americans. Calguns, a group that assists California gun owners in exercising their rights, has also experienced fewer communications from members who want their communications with the group to be confidential. Human Rights Watch, another plaintiff, says fewer people are reporting human rights abuses—the organization can no longer guarantee security and confidentiality in their communications and those people contacting the group fear retaliation.
We’ve documented these and other affects of the government surveillance in our court filings. We argue that phone record collection violates our clients’ freedoms to associate with others to advance political beliefs. Their work is hampered by the fact that people are deterred from contacting them and they can’t guarantee confidentiality because of government surveillance.
Penney points out that courts, legal scholars, and researchers have been skeptical about the extent and even the existence of the chilling effects of government surveillance. We think these studies strongly support that phone record collection has discouraged Americans from communicating and speaking out, and should put that skepticism to rest.
Warning Brits about the dangers of a new surveillance bill, UK campaigners have flooded London with sinister captioned portraits of Vladimir Putin. The choice of bogeyman however could be better, given the notoriety of Western global spying operations.
The posters and billboards which have been recently appearing all across the British capital, and also in newspapers, including the Guardian and The Telegraph, feature a very distinctive face with a caption that reads: “A government that spies on its citizens. What’s not to like?”
The Don’t Spy On Us Campaign, which is behind the billboards, is trying to warn British citizens about the danger of the UK governments’ Surveillance Bill currently going through parliament. If passed, it would give “government, intelligence agencies and police the kind of powers you would expect in an authoritarian regime,” the campaign said on its website.
The state will “snoop on our private communications and internet use,” collect and store “data about your emails, phone calls, texts and internet use,” while security agencies will be allowed to hack people’s computers and phones, campaigners stressed.
The Don’t Spy On Us Campaign, a coalition of several pro-privacy organizations, also launched an online petition urging the reformation of the surveillance bill. Photographs of Chinese and North Korean leaders were also used by campaigners, but drew less attention, RT’s Harry Fear reported from London.
“Of course, Putin’s face and the Russian brand, if you will, have resonance here in the UK given all of the demonizing in politics and the media,” Fear said. He noted however that “the British public on average knows a great deal about the American surveillance program, not the Russian or Chinese.”
Indeed many on the internet are puzzled by the choice of the Russian president as the face for the campaign, calling the whole affair “a bit peculiar.”
In particular, some mocked the campaigners’ choice of images, saying that faces of other leaders, such as US President Baraсk Obama or UK Prime Minister David Cameron would have been more suitable.
Mass surveillance practices by the US national Security Agency made headlines worldwide after they were unmasked by whistleblower, Edward Snowden, with the help of the Guardian, back in 2013.
“Some are saying that comparing the UK, perhaps, uncertain security state future to the American’s campaign and having Obama’s face instead of Putin’s face here may have been a more appropriate marketing and campaigning choice,” Fear said.
How do you spell chutzpah? I submit an alternate spelling: O-B-A-M-A D-O-J.
How the Obama administration interprets the phrase “government transparency,” in three acts.
Act One: Secret Law
The Obama administration is trying to keep secret a 2003 Office of Legal Counsel memo outlining how federal intelligence agencies interpret “commercial services agreements” between telecoms and their customers. The memo, which the ACLU seeks in a FOIA lawsuit, likely outlines the government’s legal position on how intelligence agencies can access information held by telecommunications companies. Senator Ron Wyden, who from his position on the Senate Intelligence Committee has routinely warned Americans of unconstitutional intelligence activities, has said the government’s “opinion is inconsistent with the public’s understanding of the law, and should be withdrawn.”
Wyden has also publicly stated that the DOJ misled a federal court during its legal fight to keep the memo secret. In a March 2016 letter, Wyden wrote that a DOJ memorandum of law filed in the case contains a “key assertion” that is false. “This assertion appears to be central to the DOJ’s legal arguments,” Wyden wrote.
Now the DOJ has fired back at Wyden, asserting in a brief in the ACLU lawsuit that the Senator’s claims about this “key assertion” were “wholly erroneous” and “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the law.” The Justice Department claims the administration can keep the legal memo secret because it is not “working law,” but rather confidential legal advice. According to the DOJ, even though an agency may rely on an Office of Legal Counsel memo “by acting in a manner that is consistent with the advice,” the memo doesn’t necessarily “establish agency policy,” meaning it’s not “working law”—which is subject to public disclosure—but instead confidential legal advice.
(As Wyden noted, the DOJ “isn’t denying that this opinion is inconsistent with the public’s understanding of the law”; instead, it’s arguing that the legal memo at issue doesn’t constitute law.)
To repeat: The government is arguing that even if agencies “rely” on an OLC memo and act “in a manner consistent” with its advice, it isn’t law. Instead, it’s private legal advice, which just so happens to be something the government can keep secret from the public.
Act Two: Limitless Surveillance
In April 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released parts of a November 2015 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinion about how the FBI, NSA, and CIA use information collected pursuant to Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. (The FISA Amendments Act, signed into law in 2008, put congress’ stamp of approval on the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.) Section 702 of that statute allows the intelligence agencies to warrantlessly wiretap Americans’ international communications, as long as Americans or people within the United States are not “targeted.” Part of that statute requires that the Attorney General and ODNI prepare annual reports, called “certifications,” to be reviewed by FISC judges. These certifications include information about how, why, and under what circumstances intelligence agencies “minimize” information about non-targets or US persons caught up in its dragnets.
The recently released November 2015 FISC opinion describes some of these minimization procedures in detail. Among them are procedures related to the capture, dissemination, and use of attorney-client privileged communications. The opinion reveals that the FBI can disseminate attorney-client privileged communications as long as the FBI’s lawyers approve it. The rules require the FBI to “advise recipients that the dissemination contains information subject to attorney-client privilege, that the information is being disseminated ‘solely for intelligence or lead purposes,’ and that it may not be further disseminated or used in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding without the approval of the AG or the Assistant AG for National Security.”
In other words: The US government allows itself to warrantlessly wiretap our international communications and even use our attorney-client privileged communications for intelligence purposes, as long as it doesn’t disclose to criminal defendants or courts that it has done so.
Act Three: Upside Down World
The US government refuses to disclose a legal memo that likely describes how intelligence agencies spy on our communications, claiming that the memo isn’t “working law” but instead constitutes “private” legal advice. Secret law is thereby justified by attorney-client privilege. In this case, the attorney and the client are one in the same: the executive branch.
At the same time, the government gives itself the power to warrantlessly wiretap, retain, disseminate, and use for intelligence purposes our attorney-client privileged communications—so long as the fact of agencies doing so never becomes public. Surveillance of attorney-client privileged communications is justified, as long as it remains secret.
Secret law, secret surveillance. Attorney-client privilege for government lawyers advising government agencies about government policy. No attorney-client privilege for ordinary people, who will likely never learn that the FBI or NSA has warrantlessly obtained their confidential communications.
Only in an upside down world could this administration choose this path, having called itself the “most transparent administration” in history.
With the war in Syria raging in its fifth year, and the Islamic State wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East and North Africa, it’s clear that the entire region has been made into one large theater of conflict. But the battlefield must not be understood solely as a physical place located on a map; it is equally a social and cultural space where the forces of the US-UK-NATO Empire employ a variety of tactics to influence the course of events and create an outcome amenable to their agenda. And none to greater effect than propaganda.
Indeed, if the ongoing war in Syria, and the conflicts of the post-Arab Spring period generally, have taught us anything, it is the power of propaganda and public relations to shape narratives which in turn impact political events. Given the awesome power of information in the postmodern political landscape, it should come as no surprise that both the US and UK have become world leaders in government-sponsored propaganda masquerading as legitimate, grassroots political and social expression.
London, Washington, and the Power of Manipulation
The Guardian recently revealed how the UK Government’s Research, Information, and Communications Unit (RICU) is involved in surveillance, information dissemination, and promotion of individuals and groups as part of what it describes as an attempt at “attitudinal and behavioral change” among its Muslim youth population. This sort of counter-messaging is nothing new, and has been much discussed for years. However, the Guardian piece actually exposed the much deeper connections between RICU and various grassroots organizations, online campaigns, and social media penetration.
The article outlined the relationship between the UK Government’s RICU and a London-based communications company called Breakthrough Media Network which “has produced dozens of websites, leaflets, videos, films, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and online radio content, with titles such as The Truth about Isis and Help for Syria.” Considering the nature of social media, and the manner in which information (or disinformation) is spread online, it should come as no surprise that a number of the viral videos, popular twitter feeds, and other materials that seemingly align with the anti-Assad line of London and Washington are, in fact, the direct products of a government-sponsored propaganda campaign.
In fact, as the authors of the story noted:
One Ricu initiative, which advertises itself as a campaign providing advice on how to raise funds for Syrian refugees, has had face-to-face conversations with thousands of students at university freshers’ fairs without any students realising they were engaging with a government programme. That campaign, called Help for Syria, has distributed leaflets to 760,000 homes without the recipients realising they were government communications.
It’s not hard to see what the British Government is trying to do with such efforts; they are an attempt to control the messaging of the war on Syria, and to redirect grassroots anti-war activism to channels deemed acceptable to the political establishment. Imagine for a moment the impact on an 18-year-old college freshman just stepping into the political arena, and immediately encountering seasoned veteran activists who influence his/her thinking on the nature of the war, who the good guys and bad guys are, and what should be done. Now multiply that by thousands and thousands of students. The impact of such efforts is profound.
But it is much more than simply interactions with prospective activists and the creation of propaganda materials; it is also about surveillance and social media penetration. According to the article, “One of Ricu’s primary tasks is to monitor online conversations among what it describes as vulnerable communities. After products are released, Ricu staff monitor ‘key forums’ for online conversations to ‘track shifting narratives,’ one of the documents [obtained by The Guardian ] shows.” It is clear that such efforts are really about online penetration, especially via social media.
By monitoring and manipulating in this way, the British Government is able to influence, in a precise and highly targeted way, the narrative about the war on Syria, ISIS, and a host of issues relevant to both its domestic politics and the geopolitical and strategic interests of the British state. Herein lies the nexus between surveillance, propaganda, and politics.
But of course the UK is not alone in this effort, as the US has a similar program with its Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) which describes its mission as being:
…[to] coordinate, orient, and inform government-wide foreign communications activities targeted against terrorism and violent extremism… CSCC is comprised of three interactive components. The integrated analysis component leverages the Intelligence Community and other substantive experts to ensure CSCC communicators benefit from the best information and analysis available. The plans and operations component draws on this input to devise effective ways to counter the terrorist narrative. The Digital Outreach Team actively and openly engages in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, and Somali.
Notice that the CSCC is, in effect, an intelligence hub acting to coordinate propaganda for CIA, DIA, DHS, and NSA, among others. This mission, of course, is shrouded in terminology like “integrated analysis” and “plans and operations” – terms used to designate the various components of the overall CSCC mission. Like RICU, the CSCC is focused on shaping narratives online under the pretext of counter-radicalization.
It should be noted too that CSCC becomes a propaganda clearinghouse of sorts not just for the US Government, but also for its key foreign allies (think Israel, Saudi Arabia, Britain), as well as perhaps favored NGOs like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, or Doctors Without Borders (MSF). As the New York Times noted:
[The CSCC will] harness all the existing attempts at countermessaging by much larger federal departments, including the Pentagon, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies. The center would also coordinate and amplify similar messaging by foreign allies and nongovernment agencies, as well as by prominent Muslim academics, community leaders and religious scholars who oppose the Islamic State.
But taking this information one step further, it calls into question yet again the veracity of much of the dominant narrative about Syria, Libya, ISIS, and related topics. With social media and “citizen journalism” having become so influential in how ordinary people think about these issues, one is yet again forced to consider the degree of manipulation of these phenomena.
Manufacturing Social Media Narratives
It is by now well documented the myriad ways in which Western governments have been investing heavily in tools for manipulating social media in order to shape narratives. In fact, the US CIA alone has invested millions in literally dozens of social media-related startups via its investment arm known as In-Q-Tel. The CIA is spending the tens of millions of dollars providing seed money to these companies in order to have the ability to do everything from data mining to real-time surveillance.
The truth is that we’ve known about the government’s desire to manipulate social media for years. Back in February 2011, just as the wars on Libya and Syria were beginning, an interesting story was published by PC World under the title Army of Fake Social Media Friends to Promote Propaganda which explained in very mundane language that:
… the U.S. government contracted HBGary Federal for the development of software which could create multiple fake social media profiles to manipulate and sway public opinion on controversial issues by promoting propaganda. It could also be used as surveillance to find public opinions with points of view the powers-that-be didn’t like. It could then potentially have their “fake” people run smear campaigns against those “real” people.
Close observers of the US-NATO war on Libya will recall just how many twitter accounts miraculously surfaced, with tens of thousands of followers each, to “report” on the “atrocities” carried out by Muammar Gaddafi’s armed forces, and call for a No Fly Zone and regime change. Certainly one is left to wonder now, as many of us did at the time, whether those accounts weren’t simply fakes created by either a Pentagon computer program, or by paid trolls.
A recent example of the sort of social media disinformation that has been (and will continue to be) employed in the war on Syria/ISIS came in December 2014 when a prominent “ISIS twitter propagandist” known as Shami Witness (@ShamiWitness) was exposed as a man named “Mehdi,” (later confirmed as Mehdi Biswas) described as “an advertising executive” based in Bangalore, India. @ShamiWitness had been cited as an authoritative source – a veritable “wealth of information” – about ISIS and Syria by corporate media outfits, as well as ostensibly “reliable and independent” bloggers such as the ubiquitous Eliot Higgins (aka Brown Moses) who cited Shami repeatedly. This former “expert” on ISIS has now been charged in India with crimes including “supporting a terrorist organisation, waging war against the State, unlawful activities, conspiracy, sedition and promoting enmity.”
In another example of online media manipulation, in early 2011, as the war on Syria was just beginning, a blogger then known only as the “Gay Girl in Damascus” rose to prominence as a key source of information and analysis about the situation in Syria. The Guardian, among other media outlets, lauded her as “an unlikely hero of revolt” who “is capturing the imagination of the Syrian opposition with a blog that has shot to prominence as the protest movement struggles in the face of a brutal government crackdown.” However, by June of 2011, the “brutally honest Gay Girl” was exposed as a hoax, a complete fabrication concocted by one Tom MacMaster. Naturally, the same outlets that had been touting the “Gay Girl” as a legitimate source of information on Syria immediately backtracked and disavowed the blog. However, the one-sided narrative of brutal and criminal repression of peace-loving activists in Syria stuck. While the source was discredited, the narrative remained entrenched.
And this last point is perhaps the key: online manipulation is designed to control narratives. While the war may be fought on the battlefield, it is equally fought for the hearts and minds of activists, news consumers, and ordinary citizens in the West. The UK and US both have extensive information war capabilities, and they’re not afraid to use them. And so, we should not be afraid to expose them.