On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, where is America in the "balance" of protecting our country from potential terrorist threats and protecting civil liberties?
Dr. James Russell, an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, wrote about the Terrorism Boogeyman on LobeLog. "The 9/11 attacks provided us with the pretext needed after the end of the Cold War to prop up another boogeyman - international terrorism - to replace the dreaded 'red menace'." Russell added, "Like the exaggerated claims of an impending Soviet takeover of the world in the 1980s, we need to view this issue for what it really is and reign in the urge to see terrorists lurking behind every corner."
Yet now, a dozen years after 9/11, there are endless "you might be a terrorist if" lists that are peppered with a mixture of innocuous behaviors and a few truly alarming "suspicious" behaviors. The surveillance revelations courtesy of Edward Snowden have shown us that the NSA doesn't just deal with foreign threats and intelligence. Recent news reports, such as those from The Guardian, indicate that the NSA seems to regard the public as the enemy. The report about the NSA's secret campaign to undermine internet encryption stated:
Among other things, the program is designed to "insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems". These would be known to the NSA, but to no one else, including ordinary customers, who are tellingly referred to in the document as "adversaries".
Also reporting on the NSA's work with backdoors and encryption, ProPublica added that only a few top "Five Eyes" analysts from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand know the full extent of the NSA's decoding capabilities under its "Bullrun program, the successor to one called Manassas," as well as the GCHQ's Edgehill program.
Emptywheel highlighted the fact that Manassas, Bullrun, and Edgehill were all civil war battles. "Even rhetorically, our governments have declared civil war on us and our privacy."
Despite President Obama and the intelligence community working to reassure American citizens that surveillance programs strike a "balance" between national security and privacy, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration worked to remove safeguards to keep the NSA from spying on American citizens.
The Obama administration secretly won permission from a surveillance court in 2011 to reverse restrictions on the National Security Agency's use of intercepted phone calls and e-mails, permitting the agency to search deliberately for Americans' communications in its massive databases, according to interviews with government officials." Furthermore, "the court extended the length of time that the NSA is allowed to retain intercepted U.S. communications from five years to six years - and more under special circumstances.
While it's understandable that our country wouldn't want other countries to know our national security secrets, the lack of transparency after continued reports of domestic spying do not encourage more blind trust to believe that all surveillance and data collections are for the greater good to prevent any possible terrorist attacks. The fact that government officials play clever word games when talking about NSA domestic spying should no longer be a surprise; instead it is an unpleasant reality. So lastly, on the 12th anniversary of 9/11, let's look at a master of word games who may not have "nefarious" intentions, but is running the NSA and its vast domestic and international spy machine.
Americans are often referred to as "cowboys" in other countries, but it's not always complimentary. Foreign Policy magazine wrote an incredibly interesting profile of NSA Chief General Keith Alexander, "the cowboy of the NSA."
Gen. Michael Hayden, who ran the NSA during President Bush's infamous illegal warrantless wiretapping program, was worried that Alexander didn't comprehend what could and could not be done legally. Now, that should say something. "Alexander tended to be a bit of a cowboy: 'Let's not worry about the law. Let's just figure out how to get the job done,' says a former intelligence official who has worked with both men."
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Alexander "wanted his hands on the raw data. And he bridled at the fact that NSA didn't want to release the information until it was properly reviewed and in a report."
By law, the NSA had to scrub intercepted communications of most references to U.S. citizens before those communications can be shared with other agencies. But Alexander wanted the NSA "to bend the pipe towards him," says one of the former officials, so that he could siphon off metadata, the digital records of phone calls and email traffic that can be used to map out a terrorist organization based on its members' communications patterns.
A former military intelligence officer, who served under Alexander at the Army's Intelligence and Security Command, stated, "He said at one point that a lot of things aren't clearly legal, but that doesn't make them illegal."
At another point, he was described as having "become blinded by the power of technology." He believes the "technical safeguards in place at the NSA to protect civil liberties and perform their mission," but "he doesn't get that this power can still be abused."
The Cowboy of the NSA is eight pages long and well worth your time to login on Foreign Policy magazine to read in full.
9/11 always makes me a little bit sad, but so does the continuing erosion of liberty and privacy in America.
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