Intelligence Gathering 101: Ask the Right Questions

NSA-PRISM

A long time ago, before 9/11, analysts working for the NSA used to quip that the letters stood for “No Such Agency.” Their veil of secrecy was the counterpoint to what they did for years which was to lift the veil of secrecy on everybody else. The aborted program that John Poindexter put forward shortly after 9/11 was slapped down, probably for being too honest about its premise, as honest as the NSA ever is. They called the program ‘Total Information Awareness’ and the image that represented it on the PowerPoint that hit the web was the Masonic Pyramid with the single all-seeing eye. Although rejected, the NSA pretty much went ahead with the program under a new name: PRISM. In CNN’s latest “thought” piece, a leading question frames Edward Snowden’s release of information regarding the NSA’s PRISM program. It asks whether Snowden is a Traitor or a Hero?

But it’s the wrong question. And Snowden, I feel relatively confident, would be the first to tell you that it’s the wrong question.

Less than a year ago at a Senate hearing, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, nominal director of the hydra-headed National Intelligence Service, another question. “Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” To which Clapper replied: “No, sir.” After a head scratching pause (one helluva tell, I must say) he also added, “Not wittingly.”

At another hearing, General Keith Alexander, the director of the N.S.A., denied fourteen times that the agency had the technical capability to intercept e-mails and other online communications in the United States.
Of course, they were both lying.

Here’s another question. At what point do constraints of secrecy become lies in spy bureaucracies like the NSA or in our government in general?

Let me explain. At least one way the PATRIOT Act can subvert your average American is by forcing them to lie. The Act allows the FBI to not only request your records without a warrant but to forbid the provider of the records from ever revealing that the request was even made. This is 1984 territory: you must tell the truth to us, but you must never tell the truth to anyone else about us. Put less abstractly, it turns librarians and internet company officials into liars and stool pigeons under a legal seal of silence; a kind of legal blackmail. The threat to democracy lies not only in the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process, the rights against self-incrimination and coerced confessions, and other rights that form the backbone of the criminal justice system, but also in eroding freedom of the press, seeing journalists and reporters as “aiding and abetting” the criminal telling of government secrets. Secrets, by the way, that shouldn’t even be secret. Steven King’s assertion that Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian should be jailed for his article on Snowden is but a crude manifestation of the ultimate logic of such ‘rules’.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has known about PRISM for some time and been appalled, but could not speak openly about it because it is classified, and his pleas to fellow senators to do something about it were shamefully deep-sixed by his colleagues.

Here’s yet another question. Who actually benefits from all this ‘intelligence’? The Boston Bomber plot appears to have come off without a hitch, despite multiple emails, Facebook posts, tracking of Jihadi websites and the like. They left a trail your average Cheetos huffing hacker could have tracked with his eyes closed. Yet we have amputees and at least three dead. Hello, NSA? Seems we have a problem. You might make the argument that Osama bin Laden was successfully assassinated thanks to our super surveillance state, only that’s a lie too. His compound was a digital black hole, no internet access from there at all. Why? Because they knew all about electronic intercepts and wisely didn’t believe a word of James Clapper’s testimony. In some ways, the PRISM program is an exercise in intellectual masturbation. One ex-intelligence official, Coleen Rowley, put it succinctly, “it does not make it easier to find a needle in a haystack if you continue to add hay.”

Programs like PRISM and the tautologically named Novel Intelligence from Massive Data (NIMD) don’t work because the hard work of analysis to figure what information is relevant and what is dross becomes continuously more difficult and longer with each new scoop of excess data. According to Rowley, “Researchers long ago concluded that the NIMD-type promise of detecting and accurately stopping terrorists through massive data collection was simply not possible.”

So why continue? Because there’s another answer to the question of who benefits from this intelligence.

Consider the following: Roughly 9-10 billion dollars a year are spent on the NSA’s electronic surveillance capabilities. That money doesn’t go to Federal employees however, or at least not the lion’s share. No, the vast majority, about 70% of that kingly sum goes to private firms, like, for example, Booz Allen Hamilton for whom Snowden worked. James Clapper, that magnificently lousy poker player, just happens to be the pioneer who helped Michael Hayden oversee this amazing privatization campaign.

Here’s a little history. According to the Nation, in the late 1990s, faced with a telecommunications and technological revolution that threatened to make the NSA’s telephone and radar-based surveillance skills obsolete, the agency decided to turn to private corporations for many of its technical needs.

The outsourcing plan was finalized in 2000 by a special NSA Advisory Board set up to determine the agency’s future and was codified in a secret report written by a then-obscure intelligence officer named James Clapper.

“Clapper did a one-man study for the NSA Advisory Board,” recalls Ed Loomis, a 40-year NSA veteran who, along with William Binney, Thomas Drake, and J. Kirk Wiebe, blew the whistle on corporate corruption at the NSA.

(By the way, they too are being prosecuted by Eric Holder and the Attorney General’s office.)

“His recommendation was that the NSA acquire its Internet capabilities from the private sector. The idea was, the private sector had the capability and we at NSA didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
Hayden, who was the NSA director at the time, “put a lot of trust in the private sector, and a lot of trust in Clapper, because Clapper was his mentor,” added Loomis. And once he got approval, “he was hell-bent on privatization and nothing was going to derail that.”

Clapper, of course, has denounced Snowden’s Guardian leaks as “reprehensible.” He called the disclosures, “literally gut-wrenching” and said they had caused “huge, grave damage” to US intelligence capabilities. But this is dubious at best: Al Qaeda was well aware US intelligence service intercepts. Really, even the extent of domestic spying isn’t a surprise to those of us who have been paying attention.

As the inimitable Charles Pierce has noted, “All Snowden did was tell us what we’d been paying for, and (maybe) remind “our adversaries” to use disposable cellphones, which they could have picked up from any episode of Law And Order after 1995. Maybe we should indict Jack McCoy for treason.”

None of this has to do with ‘effectiveness’ of responding to ‘threats’ or gathering information against those threats. It has to do with the appearance of effectiveness, and, naturally, money. Privatization is an ideology which is also a path to riches for pliant officials–one reason they have such a fervent faith in the free market. And, as with Wall Street, the officials feeding at the trough are entirely bipartisan.

According to the New York Times: “As evidence of the company’s close relationship with government, the Obama administration’s chief intelligence official, James R. Clapper Jr., is a former Booz Allen executive. The official who held that post in the Bush administration, John M. McConnell, now works for Booz Allen.”

That’s the revolving door in its purest form, flipping between private and public troughs, depending on the party in power. And there’s a lot of money to be made. Last February Booz Allen Hamilton announced two new contracts with Homeland Security, worth a total of $11 billion, for “program management, engineering, technology, business and financial management, and audit support services.”

Yet Booz Allen is only eighth on the list of the top 100 government contractors. Think about that.

Dana Priest and William Arkin conducted an intensive two-year investigation of national security for the Washington Post. They identified 1,931 private companies working in “about 10,000 locations” around the country, with 854,000 of their employees holding top-secret clearances.

They also found enormous redundancy and waste, along with an inability for human beings to effectively absorb and use all the information produced. Analysts were then publishing some 50,000 intelligence reports each year. And since this report was completed nearly three years ago, things can only have grown worse.

The huge drain on public coffers is only one of the downsides of this intelligence behemoth. Another is the lack of accountability when private employees do government work. According to the New York Times:

“The national security apparatus has been more and more privatized and turned over to contractors,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that studies federal government contracting. “This is something the public is largely unaware of, how more than a million private contractors are cleared to handle highly sensitive matters.” Even the process of granting security clearances is often handled by contractors, allowing companies to grant government security clearances to private sector employees.

All this is significant and should raise concerns, but it’s not the important question. The important question came from a writer named David Foster Wallace who in 2007 began to see the shape of things to come and asked this:

Is it worth it?

“What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?”

Wallace goes on to argue that we willingly accept 40,000+ domestic highway deaths each year as the price of a mobility in our society. In terms of concrete deaths for abstract ‘rights’, we appear to love the Second Amendment to such a degree that we’ll accept 30,000+ deaths by guns and still not demand a simple universal process for background checks, much less a gun registry.

Wallace continues: “Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?”

There was no debate because no one asked permission. Because the relevant agencies kept their program shrouded in secrecy (No Such Agency!), even when their first efforts were soundly rejected. But now we have an opportunity to have this discussion. To answer this last question:

Are we willing to sacrifice our constitution on the altar of a dubious national security state in a pyrrhic effort to feel safe?

The question isn’t whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor. The correct question is, what are we?

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