Transcribing James Clapper

Hamid Karzai refused to meet with Obama during a surprise visit just after MYSTIC disclosures, so Obama called from Air Force One instead.

Hamid Karzai refused to meet with Obama during a surprise visit just after MYSTIC disclosures, so Obama called from Air Force One instead.

Yesterday, during the Q&A to his speech at INSA (which is where defense and intelligence contractors huddle with government paymasters), James Clapper conceded that Edward Snowden brought needed transparency but had also damaged operations. Rather than obliquely pointing to the exposure that Skype was no longer safe from surveillance, as he and his ilk normally do, Clapper pointed to what he claimed was a concrete example: what journalists have reported as revelations about full take cell phone content (SOMALGET or MYSTIC) leading to loss of access in Afghanistan.

After Clapper made the claim, a lot of reporters did what reporters do: they transcribed his comments uncritically. Lots of journalists did this, but here’s WaPo’s version from Ellen Nakashima:

One of the disclosures based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, prompted the shutdown of a key intelligence program in Afghanistan, the nation’s top spy said Wednesday.

“It was the single most important source of force protection and warning for our people in Afghanistan,” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said at an intelligence conference.

He was addressing a question about the impact of revelations by Snowden, whose leaks led to a global debate about the proper scope of U.S. surveillance at home and abroad.

Nakashima and other reporters assumed Clapper meant the MYSTIC/SOMALGET program, which Nakashima noted the WaPo first described (on March 18, 2014), followed by The Intercept two months later (on May 19, 2014), followed by WikiLeaks revealing Afghanistan as the target country several days later (on May 23, 2014). [Update: Note Cryptome correctly determined Afghanistan was the country on May 19, the day the Intercept published.]

Having laid all that out, however, Nakashima doesn’t quote the part of Clapper’s answer that would either discredit his description or reveal it’s something else. Here’s Ars Technica’s transcription of that part of it.

And programs that had a real impact on the security of American forces overseas, including one program in Afghanistan, “which he exposed and Glenn Greenwald wrote about, and the day after he wrote about it, the program was shut down by the government of Afghanistan,” Clapper noted.

If it’s the MYSTIC/SOMALGET program Clapper was really talking about, then his claim is self-refuting. Because either folks in Afghanistan recognized the program themselves back when WaPo wrote about it in March 2014, or probably didn’t until WikiLeaks confirmed they were the target. It wouldn’t have been Greenwald’s story, in which he withheld the information the government requested in any case.

For the moment, I’m going to assume that was the program, but let’s remember it might not be.

If so, consider what Clapper has done. As I mentioned, normally when people want to beat up Snowden, they point to his disclosure NSA had compromised Skype. But they never confirm that — they just mention it obliquely. Here, Clapper has confirmed the thing (actually just one of the things) that NSA had asked Greenwald to withhold. Given how vague WikiLeaks was about how they knew (after all, they’re not known to have the Snowden documents themselves), if this is MYSTIC/SOMALGET it seems that Clapper has definitively confirmed something that was at least of unknown provenance before.

Although, for reasons of source protection we cannot disclose how, WikiLeaks has confirmed that the identity of victim state is Afghanistan.

In other words, Clapper has confirmed something that hadn’t been confirmed before, precisely because the journalists involved had deferred to the government’s request not to publish it.

Or did he?

Clapper claimed “the program was shut down by the government of Afghanistan.”

Admittedly, the MYSTIC/SOMALGET disclosures came at an awkward time for US-Afghan relations. Hamid Karzai had been pushing back against night raids, prisoner transfers, and CIA militias. In part because the US wouldn’t cede Afghan sovereignty on such issues, Karzai was refusing to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (raising the same kind of SOFA negotiation problems that forced us to withdraw troops from Iraq). Throughout this two month period, the election and run-off were going on.

So the disclosure that the US had compromised Afghanistan’s entire cell phone system — and implicitly, had copies of every cell call that Karzai and his potential replacements might make — would surely anger the Afghans, especially Karzai. Notably, two days after the WikiLeaks disclosure, Karzai refused to meet when President Obama made a surprise visit to the country on May 25, so (as shown by the White House image above) Obama called him from Air Force One instead.

But if that’s the case — if Afghanistan forced the US to shut down the full-take collection of cell phone content even as Obama was making surprise last minute visits (which may even have been an attempt to convince Karzai to reverse that decision) — then the fault lies not just, or even primarily, with Snowden. It lies with a long history of US refusal to cede to Afghanistan’s demands for some kind of functional sovereignty. This telecom disclosure may have been one more in a series of aggravations, but it was by no means the only one. Moreover, given that President Ghani’s relationship with the US is, thus far at least, far better than Karzai’s was at the time, it’s quite possible he has permitted the US to resume full-take collection.

James Clapper would be a lot more likely to confirm that Afghanistan had shut down NSA’s full-take collection if it had been resumed again under Karzai’s successor. Not least, because it would provide adversaries with false confidence the NSA didn’t have full take coverage.

Now consider this description of the Bahamian fallout from the equivalent disclosure. It shows that two parties were involved — the country’s telecom as well as the government. Indeed, all stories on this make it clear telecom providers are centrally involved in the collection program.

Moreover, the Intercept version of the story makes it quite clear they withheld not just the target country, but also the provider at the center of it.

The NSA documents don’t specify who is providing access in the Bahamas. But they do describe SOMALGET as an “umbrella term” for systems provided by a private firm, which is described elsewhere in the documents as a “MYSTIC access provider.” (The documents don’t name the firm, but rather refer to a cover name that The Intercept has agreed not to publish in response to a specific, credible concern that doing so could lead to violence.) Communications experts consulted by The Intercept say the descriptions in the documents suggest a company able to install lawful intercept equipment on phone networks.

And they withheld it for the same reason, because revealing it would lead to violence. That provider name has not been made public (though for a variety of reasons I think that’s the key secret here). Shutting down the system would have to involve, at a minimum, the Afghan government, this provider, plus Afghanistan’s multiple cell providers.

There are more reasons to believe Clapper’s story is bullshit. From the 2005 STELLAR WIND disclosures, which revealed the US was collecting all US-Afghanistan calls, to reports as early as 2008 that the Taliban were targeting cell providers because they recognized the security risk the networks posed, there is zero chance our adversaries in Afghanistan were unaware that the US had close to full dominance over the communications lines. There were also earlier Snowden disclosures — including Tempora, XKeyscore, and what sounded like transcripts obtained using a Stingray from a Afghan raid — that would have confirmed that view. The US is collecting close to everything from most countries where it remains at war, via a variety of overlapping means. There’s little about this disclosure in particular that added to the risk — but then, our adversaries had long been learning of our tactics and adjusting accordingly.

There is, then, the possibility it was one of these other disclosures Clapper was whining about — such as the potential Stingray one.

But if Clapper was talking about SOMALGET, and if it is true that the full-take collection got shut down, it means he and the government are blaming Snowden for long-term mismanagement of the Afghan relationship. It also may well mean that Ghani has let the US resume collection and Clapper’s public “confirmation” was designed — in addition to launching some unwarranted shots at Edward Snowden — to create the false impression the collection remains inactive.

James Clapper is a confirmed liar. Even setting aside his lies to Congress, it is his job to lie to adversaries. While that doesn’t mean journalists shouldn’t report what he says, there’s a great deal of context that should accompany such transcriptions.

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.

10 replies
  1. Don Bacon says:

    “US refusal to cede to Afghanistan’s demands for some kind of functional sovereignty”
    Yes — this has been an ongoing problem for the US in Afghanistan, but in the larger picture it is a natural function of the US exercising its self-appointed role as #1 in the world — everyone else (domestic and foreign) is #2 (in both senses).

  2. seedeevee says:

    “And they withheld it for the same reason, because revealing it would lead to violence.”

    They said it “could”, which is bullshit.

    “doing so could lead to violence”

  3. wallace says:

    quote”James Clapper is a confirmed liar. Even setting aside his lies to Congress, it is his job to lie to adversaries. “unquote

    I can just see his job description now….”must be a certifiable, world class liar, able to look anyone in the eye, and with a straight face, lie through his teeth with impunity and keep the lies going forever, regardless of rigorous proof of the contrary. ”

    quote”While that doesn’t mean journalists shouldn’t report what he says, there’s a great deal of context that should accompany such transcriptions.”unquote

    Why? We already know he’s a full blown liar’s liar. Having no such context only proves the other thing we know. Some journalists are paid stenographers who suck the USG’s ass just for access.

  4. What Constitution? says:

    It is far from surprising that Clapper would spin a worldview that essentially blames every inconvenience to the US government in general upon Two Degrees of Separation: Snowden (and/or three degrees, Greenwald). Look for car crashes in South Dakota loosely tied to Snowden disclosures; the next ebola outbreak loosely tied to Snowden disclosures. Certainly we’d be ahead of ISIS but for Snowden disclosures. Clapper lies when his lips move, and his lips are constantly moving in justification of the illegal and secret machinery he ran then and he services today. It’s too easy to do when “it’s all secret”, so the fact it has potentially become knowable means nothing less than that everything bad now is to be loosely attributable to the fact it’s no longer unknowable, let alone unknown. Thanks for tracing back through this particular point, EW.

  5. Don Bacon says:

    There is so much lying going on, it’s difficult to pick a winner.
    .
    Most “news reports” are lies, because they consist of government statements from unnamed sources who can’t be identified because they are not authorized to speak (except when they are).

    • bloopie2 says:

      Is this another example of the total incompetence with which our esteemed government takes care of our stuff? OPM leaving millions of background check files exposed. TSA leaving millions of bags unlocked. Honestly, how can they even think of taking yet more of our information, subjecting it to a “golden key”, and then claiming it’s SAFE? I suggest this deal: If Comey will get up in front of Congress and swear it will be safe, they will approve it – so long as if it ever turns out to be not safe, then he and his entire extended family are publicly tortured and then executed. Deal, Jim? Are you willing to put that up as collateral for your promise? Why not? What are you afraid of?

  6. Garrett says:

    Vanity Fair, back in 2011, had a story about the tangled web behind the origins of Afghan Wireless, the current Afghan cell phone provider.

    The story starts with some rank bullshit about Mullah Mohammed Omar telling Osama bin Laden stuff we would really like Mullah Omar to have said.

    But it then goes back to the Taliban era, and an Afghan-American named Ehsanollah Bayat, who knew Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, and how the U.S. had set Bayat up with British Lords and such, to try to install compromised cell phone service in Afghanistan. Leading, after factional disputes among the spies, and attempts to evade sanctions, and a court battle over money which was quashed on state secrets grounds, to the current Afghan Wireless.

    It’s another instance of how anyone would have known the US had compromised Afghanistan’s entire cell phone system.

Comments are closed.