NSA Failures and Terror Successes Drive the Dragnet

Ryan Lizza has a long review of the dragnet programs. As far as the phone dragnet, it’s a great overview. It’s weaker on NSA’s content collection (in a piece focusing on Ron Wyden, it doesn’t mention back door searches) and far weaker on the Internet dragnet, the technical and legal issues surrounding which he seems to misunderstand on several levels. It probably oversells Wyden’s role in bringing pressure on the programs and treats Matt Olsen’s claims about his own role uncritically (that may arise out of Lizza’s incomplete understanding of where the dragnet has gone). Nevertheless, it is well worth a read.

I think it most valuable for the depiction of Obama’s role in the dragnet and its description of the ties between the war on terror and perceptions about the dragnet. Take this account of Obama’s decision not to embrace transparency during the PATRIOT Act Reauthorization in 2009-10. Lizza describes Wyden pressuring Obama to make information on the dragnets available to Congress and the public (we know HJC members Jerry Nadler, John Conyers, and Bobby Scott were lobbying as well, and I’ve heard that Silvestre Reyes favored disclosure far more than anyone else in a Ranking Intelligence Committee position).

But then the UndieBomb attack happened.

The debate ended on Christmas Day, 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a twenty-three-year-old Nigerian man, on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, tried to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear as the plane landed. Although he burned the wall of the airplane’s cabin—and his genitals—he failed to set off the device, a nonmetallic bomb made by Yemeni terrorists. Many intelligence officials said that the underwear bomber was a turning point for Obama.

“The White House people felt it in their gut with a visceralness that they did not before,” Michael Leiter, who was then the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said. The center was sharply criticized for not detecting the attack. “It’s not that they thought terrorism was over and it was done with,” Leiter said, “but until you experience your first concrete attack on the homeland, not to mention one that becomes a huge political firestorm—that changes your outlook really quickly.” He added, “It encouraged them to be more aggressive with strikes”—drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan—“and even stronger supporters of maintaining things like the Patriot Act.”

Obama also became more determined to keep the programs secret. On January 5, 2010, Holder informed Wyden that the Administration wouldn’t reveal to the public details about the N.S.A.’s programs. He wrote, “The Intelligence Community has determined that information that would confirm or suggest that the United States engages in bulk records collection under Section 215, including that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (fisc) permits the collection of ‘large amounts of information’ that includes ‘significant amounts of information about U.S. Persons,’ must remain classified.” Wyden, in his reply to Holder a few weeks later, expressed his disappointment with the letter: “It did not mention the need to weigh national security interests against the public’s right to know, or acknowledge the privacy impact of relying on legal authorities that are being interpreted much more broadly than most Americans realize.” He said that “senior policymakers are generally deferring to intelligence officials on the handling of this issue.”

Curiously, Lizza makes no mention of Nidal Hasan who, unlike Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, actually succeeded in his attack, and like Abdulmutallab, had had communications with Anwar al-Awlaki intercepted by the NSA (and FBI) leading up to the attack. Weeks before the UndieBomb attack, Pete Hoekstra had already started criticizing the Obama Administration for not responding to Hasan’s emails to Awlaki, and Hasan’s attack led to more tracking of Awlaki (and, I suspect, Samir Khan’s) online interlocutors. I also suspect that, because of certain technical issues, the Hasan experience led to increased support for suspicionless back door searches.

But whether or not the UndieBomber alone or in conjunction with the Hasan attack was the catalyst, I absolutely agree Obama got spooked.

The question is whether Obama took the correct lesson from the UndieBomb, in particular. While the Hasan attack definitely led to real lessons about how to better use content collection (FISA and PRISM), the UndieBomb case should have elicited conclusions about having too much data to find the important messages, such as Abdulmutallab’s text to Awlaki proposing Jihad. (Note that Hoekstra’s blabbing about the Awlaki taps may have led AQAP to encrypt more of their data — as Awlaki was alleged to have done with Rajib Karim — which would have led to legitimate concerns about publicizing NSA techniques.) With the UndieBomb, NSA purportedly had advance warning of the attack that didn’t get read until after the attempt. Why not? And why wasn’t that Obama’s main takeaway?

And the National Security people still seem to be taking the wrong lessons. Here’s Matt Olsen and DiFi’s version of the National Security crowd’s latest fearmongering, that we need dragnets even more so now because the terrorist group has dispersed.

As core members of Al Qaeda were killed, the danger shifted to terrorists who were less organized and more difficult to detect, making the use of the N.S.A.’s powerful surveillance tools even more seductive. “That’s why the N.S.A. tools remain crucial,” Olsen told me. “Because the threat is evolving and becoming more diverse.”

Feinstein said, “It is very difficult to permeate the vast number of terrorist groups that now loosely associate themselves with Al Qaeda or Al Nusra or any other group. It is very difficult, because of language and culture and dialect, to really use human intelligence. This really leaves us with electronic intelligence.”

Olsen says the problem is, in part, that Al Qaeda is “less organized.” DiFi says one problem we have “permeating” terrorist groups is language and culture and dialect and her solution to that is to use “electronic intelligence.” While electronic intelligence — and specifically metadata — provides a way to compensate for linguistic failures (the NSA uses structure to identify which are the important conversations), in terrorist attack after terrorist attack (as well as CW attack) we turn out not to have been watching the right content feeds. And if we don’t have the linguistic skills, we’re likely not going to understand the messages correctly in any case.

And these are less organized groups! Are they really any more effective than crime gangs at this point, and crime gangs in countries far away with little means to access the US?

But rather than saving money on the dragnet and working instead on shoring up our cultural and linguistic failures, this failure is instead seen as another excuse to sustain the dragnet.

It’s clear that terror — whether NSA has failed or not — serves as a evergreen excuse for the dragnet. The real question is whether it should.

Researcher Exposes Government, Military Lies About Civilian Drone Deaths in Afghanistan

A tweet this morning by Daphne Eviatar alerted me to a very important article by Spencer Ackerman at his new home with the Guardian. Ackerman interviewed Dr. Larry Lewis, who is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses but is also described by National Defense University as a Current Field Representative to the Joint Staff J7, Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis Division. In speaking with Ackerman, Lewis referred to a study he conducted with access to classified data, where his work had a remarkable finding:

Larry Lewis, a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research group with close ties to the US military, studied air strikes in Afghanistan from mid-2010 to mid-2011, using classified military data on the strikes and the civilian casualties they caused. Lewis told the Guardian he found that the missile strikes conducted by remotely piloted aircraft, commonly known as drones, were 10 times more deadly to Afghan civilians than those performed by fighter jets.

Ackerman points out in the article that Lewis mentions some of this work in a recently published article in Prism, which is published by NDU (note: To make things clearer to folks reading Marcy’s work on Snowden, I will call the journal Prism and not PRISM, even though the Guardian is once again breaking the news and the journal uses all caps in its name). Although NDU doesn’t make it easy to find the most recent issue of Prism, I finally found a pdf of the entire latest issue here, where the article by Lewis and coauthor Sarah Holewinski (who is at the Center for Civilians in Conflict) can be found on pages 57 to 65.

Lewis and Holewinski open by framing the issue of protection of civilians as a lesson that the US military has to learn repeatedly:

Civilian casualties can risk the success of a combat mission. While not new, this is a lesson us defense forces have had to repeatedly relearn. Historically, civilian protection and efforts to address harm became priorities only when external pressures demanded attention. As the Pentagon reshapes its defenses and fighting force for the next decade, continuing this ad hoc pattern in the future is neither strategically smart nor ethically acceptable.

As Ackerman notes in the Guardian article, the Prism article makes mention of the finding regarding civilian drone casualties in Afghanistan outpacing those from conventional aerial attacks:

The assumption that UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) strikes are surgical in nature is also belied by research on recent combat operations in Afghanistan. There, UAS operations were statistically more likely to cause civilian casualties than were operations conducted by manned air platforms.

Lewis and Holewinski describe the impact of both failing to protect civilians and lying about operations in which civilians have died. After describing relatively well-known examples of drone strikes in Pakistan that included such horrors as a double-tap targeting rescuers, the strike on a jirga addressing mining issues that killed up to 40 civilians or deaths at a restaurant, Lewis and Holewinski move back to Afghanistan:

Independent investigations are not always correct in their assessment of civilian deaths; however, the inability of the U.S. to adequately investigate the outcome of its clandestine UAS strikes calls into question official denials of civilian harm. The U.S. has stated that these strikes kill only combatants; however, operations in Afghanistan are replete with examples where all the engaged individuals were believed to be combatants, but a later investigation found many or all were civilians misidentified as combatants.

The continued claims of lack of civilian deaths despite hard evidence to the contrary takes a huge toll both on US credibility and on what takes place in the war theater:

A growing body of research, including that conducted by this article’s authors, shows that civilian casualties (CIVCAS) and the mishandling of the aftermath can compel more people to work against U.S. interests. Indeed, America’s image has suffered for years under the weight of anger and dismay that a nation, which stands by the value of civilian protection in wartime, seemed indifferent to civilian suffering.

Sadly, this is a lesson that has not been learned by such luminaries as Barack Obama, Diane Feinstein and John Brennan. As Ackerman points out:

While the drone strikes remain classified, several senior Obama administration officials and their congressional allies have described them as notable for their precision. John Brennan, now the CIA director responsible for the agency’s drones, said in 2012 they provide “targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists”. While defending the strikes as legal and “targeted”, Obama conceded in May that “US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars”. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, said in February that drones kill only “single digits” worth of civilians annually.

It does not appear that we have even gotten to a “least untruthful” official US accounting of the civilian casualty rates due to drones. In the meantime, our credibility will continue to suffer and our enemies will continue to accumulate.

Sheldon Whitehouse’s Speech

Whitehouse used his time to accuse AG Mukasey and DNI McConnell of being disingenuous in their public statements on FISA. As Whitehouse points out, the key issue (for him, in that he is alright with immunity) is how the government will be permitted to spy on Americans. Here’s his speech.

Just recently, the Attorney General of the United States published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times on our ongoing work to improve the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). This follows closely on a similar opinion piece by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell in the New York Times. I ask unanimous consent that each of these be entered into the Record.

Both go on at some length about the importance of new legislation on foreign surveillance activities. They devote paragraph after paragraph to this. But the two leaders of America’s law enforcement and intelligence communities completely ignore – never once mention – the issue that is actually in dispute here: on what terms will we allow this administration to spy on Americans?

The heart of our debate today is the question of spying on Americans, 1. when they are outside the country, or 2. when they are incidentally intercepted by surveillance targeted at someone else.

This – wiretapping of Americans – has been the entire subject of our work on surveillance – and Judge Mukasey and Admiral McConnell never once even mention the topic.

There are really only two possibilities here, and each is regrettable. One is that these two gentlemen simply don’t know what is going on. That seems unlikely, because Director McConnell at least has participated in hearings on the subject, where we’ve discussed in detail our concerns about wiretapping Americans, and members of my staff are working through the details of the issue on a nearly daily basis with lawyers from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice. Read more