Laura Poitras Chips at the Terrorism Lie

Laura Poitras has another piece in Spiegel laying out NSA’s spying on diplomats — this time focusing on how NSA acquired blueprints of the new EU building in NYC to facilitate tapping it all.

To a significant degree, Poitras lays out how the NSA does what other countries at least try to do as well. While the US has certain advantages in conducting such spying (like having the UN headquartered in NYC and dominating telecom infrastructure), in principle it is assumed spy agents will spy on senior people from other countries.

But a key point of Poitras’ piece is that top officials — up to and including President Obama — have led the American people to believe all this spying focuses only terrorism. Indeed, she points to a line of the speech Obama gave a few weeks back that suggested terrorism was the only reason the government conducted this dragnet (this is the full quote — Poitras breaks up the quote into two; I think it is slightly more ambiguous but at the same time more assertive like this).

I think the main thing I want to emphasize is I don’t have an interest and the people at the NSA don’t have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that where we can prevent a terrorist attack, where we can get information ahead of time, that we’re able to carry out that critical task. We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that.

This was a response to a journalists’ question, not part of Obama’s prepared speech. Nevertheless, the President stood up publicly and claimed that the NSA does not “have an interest in doing anything other than … prevent[ing] a terrorist attack.”

That is a false statement.

Had Obama said preventing terrorism was one of several primary goal, the reported sole focus of the US person phone records dragnet, had he said that he and the NSA have other interests, it might be a fair comment. But it is not the case that the only interest of the NSA is to find advance intelligence on potential terrorist attacks.

And, as Poitras also points out, Obama made these comments in an effort to make people trust the dragnet. The comment came in direct response to a question about trust.

I wanted to ask you about your evolution on the surveillance issues. I mean, part of what you’re talking about today is restoring the public trust. And the public has seen you evolve from when you were in the U.S. Senate to now. And even as recently as June, you said that the process was such that people should be comfortable with it, and now you’re saying you’re making these reforms and people should be comfortable with those. So why should the public trust you on this issue, and why did you change your position multiple times?

And it came in a speech where Obama talked about trust a number of times, including offering his asinine dishwashing metaphor.

Q Can you understand, though, why some people might not trust what you’re saying right now about wanting to —

THE PRESIDENT: No, I can’t.

Q — that they should be comfortable with the process?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, the fact that I said that the programs are operating in a way that prevents abuse, that continues to be true, without the reforms. The question is how do I make the American people more comfortable.

If I tell Michelle that I did the dishes — now, granted, in the White House I don’t do the dishes that much — (laughter) — but back in the day — and she’s a little skeptical, well, I’d like her to trust me, but maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes and not just have her take my word for it.

And so the program is — I am comfortable that the program currently is not being abused. I’m comfortable that if the American people examined exactly what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, that they would say, you know what, these folks are following the law and doing what they say they’re doing.

But it is absolutely true that with the expansion of technology — this is an area that’s moving very quickly — with the revelations that have depleted public trust, that if there are some additional things that we can do to build that trust back up, then we should do them. [my emphasis]

Obama suggests Snowden’s revelations — and not his, James Clapper’s, and Keith Alexander’s lies about the programs — have chipped away at trust. In a press conference in which Obama falsely claimed this was solely about terrorism.

If Obama and everyone else want to start rebuilding credibility, they need to stop lying, and get rid of the more substantive liars like Clapper and Alexander. But they also need to square with the American people about what this dragnet is for. Congress has repeatedly rejected internet-based surveillance to protect Hollywood IP and to socialize the private cybersecurity risk of corporate owners of critical infrastructure. Even Congress doesn’t approve the use of this technology for some applications.

And until the government stops pretending this is exclusively about terrorism, and stops pretending that terrorism is an existential threat or even the country’s greatest one, it will continue to lose credibility.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    when it comes to electronic spying on the diplomats of nominal allies, i am completely unimpressed by any argument along the lines of “everybody else does it too”.

    there is such a thing as leadership and there is such a thing as trust. the u.s. and the u.k. vs the rest of the world does not seem like a wise long-term position.

  2. P J Evans says:

    @orionATL:
    Read Herbert O Yardley’s ‘The American Black Chamber’. Shut down in 1929, after considerable success, by Henry Stimson, because ‘gentlemen don’t read other people’s mail’.

  3. Jesus B Ochoa Jr. says:

    “Then again, for those who insist they’re not doing anything wrong, per se, perhaps they should be [worried]. Because if you’re not doing anything wrong, it just might mean that you’re not doing anything at all, which is how we got into this mess in the first place.” From a recent”Truthout” article.

    I once had a mother-in-law whose snooping proclivities were impossible to countenance. There was a remedy, though. To bring these rogue spies to heel will take a massive effort of will and action that I don’t believe the American public, dependent as it is on the electoral process, can pull off. There’s the pity.

  4. lefty665 says:

    @P J Evans: Nice reference. Don’t hear much about Yardley anymore, but that was sure a sensation when it was published. His Chinese Black Chamber, published around 50 years later, is an amazing tale.

    @orionatl: NSA turning their tools and skills inward is the issue. That both enables tyranny and destroys the BIll of Rights. Revealing that change, and its extent, is what Snowden is about and why we owe him.

    Foreign collection has played a significant role in keeping us free. I do not believe you really want to be in Stimson’s company.

  5. Peterr says:

    Obama suggests Snowden’s revelations — and not his, James Clapper’s, and Keith Alexander’s lies about the programs — have chipped away at trust. In a press conference in which Obama falsely claimed this was solely about terrorism.

    If Obama and everyone else want to start rebuilding credibility, they need to stop lying, and get rid of the more substantive liars like Clapper and Alexander. But they also need to square with the American people about what this dragnet is for. Congress has repeatedly rejected internet-based surveillance to protect Hollywood IP and to socialize the private cybersecurity risk of corporate owners of critical infrastructure. Even Congress doesn’t approve the use of this technology for some applications.

    And until the government stops pretending this is exclusively about terrorism, and stops pretending that terrorism is an existential threat or even the country’s greatest one, it will continue to lose credibility.

    With Bush as president, US credibility abroad took massive hit after massive hit around the world. From Colin Powell’s UN speech to the famous 16 Words in the SOTU to Abu G, trust in the US eroded continuously over Bush’s tenure.

    Obama was seen as a breath of fresh air, and a return to an America the rest of the world could trust, as his reception in Germany on his first trip there years ago demonstrate.

    Today, that’s gone. All the goodwill that he had on Day 1 is gone, and the opinions abroad are headed back into the tank.

    And he’s got no one to blame but himself.

  6. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    I have an ex-friend who lies continuously, he’s a real estate agent so it is accepted work practice, but those who are still his friends are less tolerant.

    That said, the issue I want to raise is the psychology of lying. Liars lie to themselves as much or more than to everyone else. They believe they are believed.

    Obama truly thinks he is trusted and his lies are accepted as truth.

    The problem is that without a life changing epiphany liars will not change their behavior. Obama is, has always been, and will always be a liar unless he has such an epiphany and then he will appear as a completely different person, almost unrecognizable to those who have watched him to date.

    Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” should be the only thing he reads, and rereads, until he sees how damaged he is and changes.

    Sadly, he is not unique. The entire WH Exec’s and NSA Leadership seem to be similarly self-deluded.

    Perhaps a campaign to “Educate the Unfortunates” by sending them a copy of the book would get the message across. It’s a free book after all. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2554/2554-h/2554-h.htm Send it to your favorite liar.

  7. posaune says:

    Re: “NSA acquired blueprints of the new EU building in NYC,”

    I’m curious as to which architecture firm did the design work and which Civil/M&E they used.
    Blueprints are long gone, of course. I’ll bet the folks at NSA were pulling the drawings right off the A&E server as the worker bees ground out the construction documents, change orders and all.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    It’s a particularly egregious lie. The US has, for example, bugged UN headquarters for decades. Presumably, the reasons are manifold, including fighting terrorism. They assuredly include seeking economic advantage and engaging in crass political gamesmanship, among other purposes. That would be true across the globe, since long before Alec Leamas tried to come in from the cold.

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