Drowning in Haystacks

The NYT and Guardian have similar stories out today describing the sheer breadth of NSA’s spying. The Guardian describes how NSA gleefully embraced change because it presented more opportunities for SIGINT collection.

n one of the leaked ‘State of the Enterprise’ documents from 2007, an NSA staff member says: “The constant change in the world provides fertile ground for discovering new targets, technologies and networks that enable production of Sigint.”

The official happily embraces this: “It’s becoming a cliché that a permanent state of change is the new standard. It is the world we live in – navigating through continuous whitewater.”

It’s an environment in which the NSA thrives, the official says. And adds: “Lucky for us.”

And both present the plight of someone analyzing Lashkar-e-Taiba who couldn’t read the intelligence because it was all Farsi and Arabic.

One N.S.A. officer on the Lashkar-e-Taiba beat let slip that some of his eavesdropping turned out to be largely pointless, perhaps because of the agency’s chronic shortage of skilled linguists. He “ran some queries” to read intercepted communications of certain Lashkar-e-Taiba members, he wrote in the wiki, but added: “Most of it is in Arabic or Farsi, so I can’t make much of it.”

Both, too, present how detailed our intelligence from Afghanistan has been — though the NYT noted, it doesn’t seem to have brought us success.

We are collecting enormous amounts of data, but it’s not clear what good it’s doing us.

Meanwhile, remember this. The intelligence community keeps missing Congress’ mandated deadlines to install insider detection software — including in the Hawaii location from which Snowden took his files. Given Snowden’s success, it’s safe to assume paid assets of foreign governments have gotten some of it as well. The reason we’re not protecting all this intelligence is because we don’t have the bandwidth to run the software.

Collecting all this data — particularly if we can’t even analyze much of it — has costs. One cost is in the tradeoff we’ve made in keeping it secure.

Our haystacks our drowning us.

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.

17 replies
  1. Arbusto says:

    The Administration, with water carriers like Feinstein and moribund chairs such as Leahy, are winning the propaganda war, with the help of Psych/Ops, that safety is more important and a trade off for freedom. That the programs are ineffective in cost and results make no difference.

  2. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    One of the conclusions I came to in reading the Guardian article you refer to (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/02/nsa-portrait-total-surveillance ) is that all western world Governments are largely colluding in this spying gig.

    Now maybe that is not news to some but to me it paints an entirely different picture of the issue than what I had previously understood.

    The entire western World has become a surveillance state akin to East Germany. Yes they spy on non-western world countries, and a range of bad-guys, but they also spy on the entire western world population.

    From the article: “The NSA operates in close co-operation with four other English-speaking countries – the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – sharing raw intelligence, funding, technical systems and personnel. Their top level collective is known as the ‘5-Eyes’.

    Beyond that, the NSA has other coalitions, although intelligence-sharing is more restricted for the additional partners: the 9-Eyes, which adds Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway; the 14-Eyes, including Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden; and 41-Eyes, adding in others in the allied coalition in Afghanistan.”

    I now wonder how this can ever be turned around.

    Feinstein’s latest bill may be proof that there will be no real pressure from foreign governments, they’re all complicit, so she can expand surveillance as she wishes.

    The congressional and parliamentary reviews may be just whitewashes that go no where.

    Unless citizens dissent there is likely to be little that changes, and sadly, the masses seem largely blind to this issue.

  3. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    It’s an overdone analogy by now I suppose, but this makes me see Our Friendly NSA as malevolent Underpants Gnomes:

    1) Collect data.
    2) ????? (especially the data in Farsi).
    3) Profit/win War on Terror/mostly profit.

  4. pdaly says:

    Given all the fires NSA has been putting out (figurative and literal), I thought these words of advice about haystacks were topical.

    Helpful hints to ascertain if your haystack is at risk of fire and how to proceed cautiously in case it is.

    “Check your hay regularly. If you detect a slight caramel odor or distinct musty smell, chances are your hay is heating. At this point, checking the moisture is too late; you’ll need to keep monitoring the hay’s temperature.

    If you suspect your hay is heating, insert a simple probe into the haystack to monitor the temperature. You can make a probe from a 10-foot piece of pipe or electrical tubing. Sharpen one end of the pipe or screw a pointed dowel to one end, then drill several 1/4-inch-diameter holes in the tube just above the dowel. Drive the probe into the haystack and lower a thermometer on a string into the probe. Insert the probe in several parts of the stack and leave the thermometer in place for 10 minutes at each site.

    Before surveying the tops of stacks, place long planks on top of the hay. Do not walk on the hay mass. Always attach a safety line to yourself and have another person on the other end in a safe location to pull you out should the hay surface collapse into what likely is a fire pocket.

    Hay treated with preservatives containing ethoxyquin and butylated hydroxytoluene produce hydrogen cyanide gas at about 240 F (115 C). This gas is deadly, so use extreme caution when fighting a fire in this hay.”

    Excerpted from http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/news/newsreleases/2011/july-25-2011/don2019t-risk-hay-fires/

  5. phred says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): The most depressing part of that Guardian article was the claim that what Merkel is really after is an upgrade to join the 5 Eyes club.

    We are all well and truly screwed.

    Even if we do get the shiny new reform bill that the Judiciary committees are advocating, I have zero confidence that anything will actually change. Amazing that the 4th amendment was so easily repealed, without the formalities one is told are required for such a thing. But I digress… the point is that what the NSA has been up to has clearly been unconstitutional and illegal, but it didn’t stop them. I doubt a shiny new reform bill will stop them. I have no idea what possibly could stop them.

  6. orionATL says:

    @pdaly:

    great cite. only farm folk would know this stuff.

    bottom line: wet, moldy hay can, and does, spontaneously combust – same general category as oily rags.

    go, eddie, go!

  7. lefty665 says:

    Hi EW, Think your last line was probably intended to be “Our haystacks are drowning us.”

    Amazing isn’t it that time and again the utility of our intercepts has been limited by our limited language resources. Sneaky locals, speaking in their native tongues. WWII Navajo code talkers redux.

  8. pdaly says:

    @orionATL:

    Yes, collect too much, under inappropriate conditions, and thereby go down in flames.

    (and what’s this about cyanide gas in a hay fire? Are those chemicals sprayed on the hay fed to cows? and then passed on to us as “grass fed” beef?)

  9. What Constitution? says:

    “Our haystacks are drowning us”??? That all depends on who “us” is, right? I mean, if you’re NSA, “our” haystacks are job security and huge ego boosts; if you’re Booz Allen and the like, “our” haystacks are golden tickets, caviar and, well, huge ego boosts. Only if, by “us”, one means “Us the People” is anyone drowning under haystacks. That, I guess, is the point. Unless by some interpretation those haystacks are really insulation, thus making “us” all safer instead of drowned. Personally, “I” don’t seem to find myself feeling much safer. Who are the members of “us” who do? And so I don’t think DiFi should be allowed latitude to suggest she’s protecting “us” when the only subset of “Us the People” benefiting from this costly exercise is the direct participants in the costliness. Put another way, “their” haystacks are drowning “us” — not “ours”.

  10. quixote says:

    @BADrunk and @pdaly

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    I love it! Evil Gnomes Roasted In Own Uncontrollable Haystack! (Sadly, taking the rest of us with them.)

  11. Nathanael says:

    Forget the paid assets of foreign governments who are working at the NSA.

    It is inevitable that there are numerous paid CORPORATE spies working at the NSA extracting commercially valuable espionage.

    The business world cannot tolerate this. Companies like Google need to stop the NSA.

  12. Nathanael says:

    @Bitter Angry Drunk:

    “It’s an overdone analogy by now I suppose, but this makes me see Our Friendly NSA as malevolent Underpants Gnomes:

    1) Collect data.
    2) ????? (especially the data in Farsi).
    3) Profit/win War on Terror/mostly profit. ”

    Yep. This is the main thing about this. The NSA’s unconstitutional, illegal, malicious spying has no actual function other than “increase our taxpayer-funded vacation fund please”.

  13. thatvisionthing says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): I know, I was surprised to read who the 5 Eyes were because I had seen this deleted Guardian exerpt posted by Craig Murray earlier. I was focused on the first paragraph and missed the other ones:

    http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/10/30/nsa-returns-to-stealing-from-yahoo-and-google/#comment-649263

    Wayne Madsen, a former US navy lieutenant who first worked for the NSA in 1985 and over the next 12 years held several sensitive positions within the agency, names Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain and Italy as having secret deals with the US.

    Madsen said the countries had “formal second and third party status” under signal intelligence (sigint) agreements that compels them to hand over data, including mobile phone and internet information to the NSA if requested.

    Under international intelligence agreements, confirmed by declassified documents, nations are categorised by the US according to their trust level. The US is first party while the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand enjoy second party relationships. Germany and France have third party relationships.

    But wait, the levels don’t match exactly:

    Per the Guardian:

    5 Eyes: US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
    9 Eyes: adds Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway
    14 Eyes, including Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden
    41 Eyes, adding in others in the allied coalition in Afghanistan.

    Per Madsen:

    (5 Eyes level = actually 1 first class + 4 second class) The US is first party while the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand enjoy second party relationships
    (~9 Eyes level, but not = 9 Eyes) Germany and France have third party relationships
    (the rest) names Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain and Italy as having secret deals with the US

    (Can see Madsen leaves out Norway, Belgium and Sweden at any level.)

    Murray: “I can give, and I would give on oath, an eye witness guarantee that from my direct personal experience of twenty years as a British diplomat the deleted information from Wayne Madsen was true.”

    Hmmm.

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