Fast and Furious

Faster and Furiouser Domestic Spying: Why Would the NSA Review Group Talk to the ATF?

Because I’m working on a post on John Bates’ response to the NSA Review Group recommendations, I happened to re-review the list of people the Review Group spoke with today (see page 277; Bates was the only one from the FISA Court they spoke with),

See if you find anything odd with this list of entities the Review Group spoke with from the Executive Branch (here’s a handy list of intelligence agencies to compare it to):

Assistant to the President for Homeland Security & Counterterrorism

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Central Intelligence Agency

Defense Intelligence Agency

Department of Commerce

Department of Defense

Department of Homeland Security

Department of Justice

Department of State

Drug Enforcement Agency

Federal Bureau of Investigations

National Archives and Records Administration

National Counterterrorism Center

National Institute for Standards and Technology

National Reconnaissance Office

National Security Advisor

National Security Agency

Office of the Director of National Intelligence

President’s Intelligence Advisory Board

Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE)

Special Assistant to the President for Cyber Security

Treasury Department

Much of the list makes sense. You’ve got the people largely in charge of terrorism (NCTC, Lisa Monaco, FBI, Treasury), you’ve got some of the people in charge of cyber and/or corrupting encryption standards (DHS, Michael Daniel, NIST), you’ve got the people who have to deal with angry foreign leaders (State), you’ve got people in charge of data sharing and storage (PM-ISE and NARA), and you’ve got Commerce (which serves to boost, but also coerce, the tech companies on these issues).

There are some absences. I’m surprised Department of Energy, which plays a key role in counterproliferation, isn’t on here. It’s light on counterintelligence functions, both at DNI and things like AFOSI (which I believe has some nifty cybertools). I’m also a little surprised DOD was represented as a whole, but not some of the branch intelligence organizations. Similarly, DHS was represented as a whole, but not some of its relevant branches (TSA, CBP, and Secret Service).

And then there’s the Drug Enforcement Agency, which is on the list.

And even more alarmingly, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Don’t get me wrong, neither is all that surprising. We know some of the tools covered by the Review Group — notably National Security Letters — have actually been (mis)used in drug investigations as well as in terrorism ones. Given the logic of the certifications we know exist — not to mention the Administration’s fear-mongering and increasing focus on Transnational Crime Organizations not run by Jamie Dimon — I wouldn’t be surprised if Section 702 were used to fight the war on drugs, if it hasn’t already been. And the drug war certainly is a foreign intelligence priority for EO 12333 collection. Given NSA’s increasing inclusion of drug cartels in the boilerplate comments it releases about Snowden stories, I expect we’ll hear some nifty things about the war on drugs before this is out.

Similarly, one of the first things we learned the government was using Section 215 and/or NSLs to collect was purchase records for beauty supplies, otherwise known as explosives precursors. Since then, Members of Congress have talked about tracking fertilizer purchases. And I’d be shocked if there weren’t at least a half-hearted attempt to track pressure cooker purchases. I guess, from ATF’s inclusion among the Review Group’s interlocutors, we know a little bit about where this data resides: in probably the most fucked up law enforcement agency in government (though maybe that’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which thankfully was not considered central enough to talk to the Review Group).

Still, given the increasing number of signals that these authorities have been used to track gun purchases, and ATF’s notorious failures at tracking gun purchases in the past, I wonder whether they’re involved not just to talk about explosives purchases, but also gun records?

The Review Group warned that,

Like other agencies, there are situations in which NSA does and should provide support to the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and other law enforcement entities. But it should not assume the lead for programs that are primarily domestic in nature.

For a variety of reasons (both reasonable and unreasonable), it is much harder to claim that tracking gun purchases pertains to counterterrorism or another foreign intelligence purpose than tracking acetone purchases.

Is this one of the domestic security functions the Review Group worried about?

National Security Tools and Gun Violence

Within days after Nidal Hasan killed 13 people in Fort Hood, TX, Crazy Pete Hoekstra leaked FBI intercepts to the press to suggest Anwar al-Awlaki had pushed Hasan to attack, with the underlying implication that the Obama Administration had failed to prevent terrorism.

And while a number of Democrats have come forward to say that this time we have to do something to prevent massacres like the one in Sandy Hook, no one has yet suggested that it was a failure not to.

It may not have been a failure; thus far, the evidence suggests Adam Lanza’s attack might have been a failure of our mental health system, but there’s no indication he came on the  law enforcement radar outside a failed attempt to buy a gun.

All that said, there’s a shocking underlying assumption there, that the President and the National Security bureaucracy has more responsibility to protect the soldiers in Fort Hood than the 6-year olds in Newtown’s elementary schools from crazed gunmen.

Which is where this Charlie Savage story comes in. It explains how, in the wake of the Gabbie Giffords shooting (by a guy whose profile may be similar to Lanza’s), DOJ moved to ramp up the background checks on gun buyers.

Instead, it focused on ways to bolster the database the F.B.I. uses for background checks on gun purchasers, including using information on file at other federal agencies. Certain people are barred from buying guns, including felons, drug users, those adjudicated mentally “defective,” illegal immigrants and people convicted of misdemeanor offenses related to domestic violence.

For example, the study recommended that all agencies that give out benefits, like the Social Security Administration, tell the F.B.I. background-check system whenever they have made arrangements to send a check to a trustee for a person deemed mentally incompetent to handle his own finances, or when federal employees or job applicants fail a drug test. It also proposed setting up a system to appeal such determinations.

Although advocates for gun rights and privacy protection would probably object to the sharing of such information among agencies, the Justice Department concluded such activity would be lawful and appropriate.

Savage explains that the effort was shelved because of increasing pressure on DOJ because of Fast and Furious. I don’t find that explanation remotely adequate (it may be true, but if so, it’s a measure of the Administration’s failure to defend its own rather than a real political measure). DOJ could have said Border Patrol Brian Terry’s death demonstrated that gun-walking–one intelligence response to the urgent problem of drug gangs using US-purchased guns–had failed, and that this data-driven focus represented DOJ’s new approach to deal with the still urgent problem. (Note, Savage says DOJ also called for increased penalties for straw buyers, which would have fit with that explanation.)

Whatever the excuse, the Administration backed off this plan, even as it rolled out its effort to do something similar, but even more intrusive–to make some of the same databases available for NCTC’s counterterrorist data mining. Once again, the NatSec bureaucracy uses far more intrusive methods against terrorists–who have killed fewer people since 9/11 than the number that died at Sandy Hook Friday–than against gun violence generally.

Mind you, while the scrapped plan sounds fairly reasonable, I’d want to learn more before I agreed this is the right solution. And it would amount to a half measure if it didn’t come with increased accessibility for mental health care.

Though if it happened, I suspect it would trigger the kind of debate about privacy that we should be having over the counterterrorist measures, and we might see the same kind of privacy protections, such as DOJ’s plan to set up an appeal process, in those CT efforts.

As we go forward with this debate, we need to do something about gun violence. But we also need to make it clear that the government has every bit as much–more–responsibility to protect children from crazed gunmen as it has to protect military bases from terrorism. It’s time to stop treating unarmed radicalized Muslims as a bigger threat than mentally ill or imbalanced young men bearing Bushmasters, because far more people are being killed by the latter.

Michael Hayden’s Risky and Edgy Schadenfreude

I’ve long suspected the reason Republicans have pursued Fast and Furious so relentlessly–and more importantly, have tried to implicate Eric Holder in it personally–is to exact revenge on the Attorney General because he deigned to investigate torture.

This disgusting bit of dick-wagging from Michael Hayden only reinforces that suspicion.

Schadenfreude — joy at the misfortune of others — is a bad thing.

So I’ve been trying to resist temptation these past months as I watch Attorney General Eric Holder deal with public and congressional reaction to the “Fast and Furious” scheme, the failed attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to seed and then track U.S. firearms to Mexican drug cartels.

[snip]

But any personal instinct toward some common “executive branch” empathy for Holder is muted not only by the dubious character of Fast and Furious, but by some of the attorney general’s other actions, as well. While out of office, for example, he famously called for a “reckoning” for CIA officers and other officials who authorized and conducted operations that were edgy and risky and intended to deal with difficult circumstances.

Once in office, he launched a “reckoning” of CIA renditions, detentions and interrogations of terrorists by directing the Justice Department to reopen investigations closed years before by career prosecutors. This decision was opposed by then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and seven of his predecessors, and Holder reportedly made the decision without reading detailed memos prepared by those career prosecutors declining to pursue further proceedings.

[snip]

As I said, schadenfreude is a bad thing. But it is sometimes hard to avoid, especially when life seems to come full circle.

Attorney General Eric Holder has made it clear that he thinks he has been subjected to a heavily politicized process over Fast and Furious.

If he has — and that’s still an if — I suspect that some folks at CIA know exactly how he feels.

Hayden ought to be grateful that DOJ has helped cover up the Bush Administration’s illegal wiretap program, not to mention their unsuccessful efforts to prosecute Thomas Drake for exposing that when implementing that program, Hayden deliberately chose more expensive plans that offered less privacy.

But instead he seems to be suggesting that it would be right to retaliate politically against the Attorney General for doing his job–prosecuting crime.

Ah well, in his spiteful glee, Hayden finally admits that the torture program was unsuccessful.

After the congressional elections of 2006, the CIA was forced to defend edgy (often controversial and sometimes unsuccessful) actions in a tough political environment.

But I guess we citizens have to put up with such unsuccessful and illegal programs otherwise, or risk political retribution?

If Gun Walking Is Wrong, Why Isn’t Nuclear Blueprint Walking?

In his statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, Attorney General Holder tried to stave off questions about Fast and Furious by asserting that “gun walking” is wrong.

I want to be clear: any instance of so-called “gun walking” is unacceptable.   Regrettably, this tactic was used as part of Fast and Furious, which was launched to combat gun trafficking and violence on our Southwest Border.   This operation was flawed in concept, as well as in execution.   And, unfortunately, we will feel its effects for years to come as guns that were lost during this operation continue to show up at crimes scenes both here and in Mexico.   This should never have happened.   And it must never happen again.

It’s a statement he repeated a number of times during the hearing.

The emphasis on the problems with the technique of letting illegal guns pass into Mexico to allow the ATF to trace straw buyers represents a shift in the way Democrats are dealing with the Fast and Furious scandal by looking at similar efforts made under Attorney General Mukasey.

For example, to undercut Darrell Issa’s efforts on Oversight, Elijah Cummings has asked him to include the earlier instances under Mukasey.

A briefing paper prepared for Attorney General Michael Mukasey during the Bush administration in 2007 outlined failed attempts by federal agents to track illicitly purchased guns across the border into Mexico and stressed the need for U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials to work together on such efforts using a tactic that now is generating controversy.The information contained in one paragraph of a lengthy Nov. 16, 2007, document marks the first known instance of an attorney general being given information about the tactic known as “gun-walking.” It since has become controversial amid a probe by congressional Republicans criticizing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for using it during the Obama administration in an arms-trafficking investigation called Operation Fast and Furious that focused on several Phoenix-area gun shop

[snip]

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to the panel’s Republican chairman, Darrell Issa of California, asking that he call Mukasey to testify about his knowledge of the program.

“Given the significant questions raised by the disclosures in these documents, our committee’s investigation will not be viewed as credible, even-handed, or complete unless we hear directly from Attorney General Mukasey,” Cummings wrote.

It’s nice our elected officials are coming to the conclusion that it’s not a good idea to intentionally deal guns directly to people with ties to drug cartels.

But then why is Eric Holder’s DOJ prosecuting Jeff Sterling for allegedly exposing CIA’s practice of dealing nuclear blueprints to Iran (while, at the same time, alerting them to the flaws in those blueprints designed to sabotage their nuclear program)?

After all, if selling guns to cartel members presents unacceptably high possibility for unintended consequences, doesn’t passing on nuclear blueprints to Iran present an even greater risk?

And if that’s true, and if DOJ agrees that the ATF officers who exposed this program are whistleblowers, then doesn’t it follow that Sterling allegedly was, too?

If, as the Attorney General himself maintains, Fast and Furious was “flawed in concept, as well as in execution,” then what distinguishes it from Merlin?

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