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Matt Olsen Admits He Didn’t Bargain on a President Trump

Something predictable, but infuriating, happened at least week’s Cato conference on surveillance.

A bunch of spook lawyers did a panel, at which they considered the state of surveillance under Trump. Former White House Director of Privacy and Civil Liberties Tim Edgar asked whether adhering to basic norms, which he suggested would otherwise be an adequate on surveillance, works in a Trump Administration.

In response, former NSA General Counsel Matt Olsen provided an innocuous description of the things he had done to expand the dragnet.

I fought hard … in the last 10 [years] when I worked in national security, for increasing information sharing, breaking down barriers for sharing information, foreign-domestic, within domestic agencies, and for the modernization of FISA, so we could have a better approach to surveillance.

Then, Olsen admitted that he (who for three years after he left NSA headed up the National Counterterrorism Center managing a ton of analysts paid to imagine the unimaginable) did not imagine someone like Trump might come along.

As I fought for these changes, I did not bargain on a President Trump. That was beyond my ability to imagine as a leader of the country in thinking about how these policies would actually be implemented by the Chief Executive.

It was beyond his ability [breathe, Marcy, breathe] to imagine someone who might abuse power to come along!!!

What makes Olsen’s comment even more infuriating that I called out Olsen’s problematic efforts to “modernize” FISA and sustain the phone dragnet even in spite of abuse in September, in arguing that Hillary could not, in fact, be supporting a balanced approach on intelligence if she planned on hiring him, as seemed likely.

Olsen was the DOJ lawyer who oversaw the Yahoo challenge to PRISM in 2007 and 2008. He did two things of note. First, he withheld information from the FISC until forced to turn it over, not even offering up details about how the government had completely restructured PRISM during the course of Yahoo’s challenge, and underplaying details of how US person metadata is used to select foreign targets. He’s also the guy who threatened Yahoo with $250,000 a day fines for appealing the FISC decision.

Olsen was a key player in filings on the NSA violations in early 2009, presiding over what I believe to be grossly misleading claims about the intent and knowledge NSA had about the phone and Internet dragnets. Basically, working closely with Keith Alexander, he hid the fact that NSA had basically willfully treated FISA-collected data under the more lenient protection regime of EO 12333.

These comments were used, in this post by former NSA Compliance chief John DeLong and former NSA lawyer Susan Hennessey (the latter of whom was on this panel) to unbelievably dishonestly suggest that surveillance skeptics, embodied by me and EFF’s Nate Cardozo (who has been litigating some of these issues for years), took our understanding of NSA excesses from one footnote in a FISA Court opinion, rather than from years of reading underlying documents.

Readers are likely aware of the incident, which has become a persistent reference point for NSA’s most ardent critics. One such critic recently pointed to a FISC memorandum referencing the episode as evidence that “NSA lawyers routinely lie, even to the secret rubber stamp FISA court”; another cited it in claiming DOJ’s attorneys made “misleading claims about the intent and knowledge NSA had about the phone and Internet dragnets” and that “NSA had basically willfully treated FISA-collected data under the more lenient protection regime of EO 12333.”

These allegations are false. And by insisting that government officials routinely mislead and lie, these critics are missing one of the most important stories in the history of modern intelligence oversight.

Never mind that I actually hadn’t cited the footnote. Never mind that then FISA Judge Reggie Walton was the first to espouse my “false” view, even before seven more months of evidence came out providing further support for it.

The underlying point is that these two NSA people were so angry that I called out Matt Olsen for documented actions he had taken that they used it as a foil to make some pretty problematic claims about the oversight over NSA spying. But before they did so, they assured us of the integrity of the people involved (that is, Olsen and others).

It’s tempting to respond to these accusations by defending the integrity of the individuals involved. After all, we know from firsthand experience that our former colleagues—both within the NSA and across the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Department of Defense—serve the public with a high degree of integrity. But we think it is important to move beyond the focus on who is good and who is bad, and instead explore the history behind that footnote and the many lessons learned and incorporated into practice. After all, we are ultimately a “government of laws,” not of people.

 

 

We are a government of laws, not people, they said in October, before laying out oversight that (they don’t tell you, but I will once I finally get back to responding to this post) has already proven to be inadequate. I mean, I agree with their intent — that we need(ed) to build a bureaucracy that could withstand the craziest of Executives. But contrary to what they claim in their piece and the presumably best intent of DeLong, they didn’t do that.

They now seem to realize that.

In the wake of the Trump victory, a number of these people are now admitting that maybe their reassurances about the bureaucracy they contributed to — which were in reality based on faith in the good intentions and honesty and competence of their colleagues — were overstated. Maybe these tools are too dangerous for an unhinged man to wield.

And, it turns out, one of the people largely responsible for expanding the dragnet that its former defenders now worry might be dangerous for Donald Trump to control never even imagined that someone like Trump might come along.

Hillary Claims to Support Targeted Spying But Advisor Matt Olsen Was Champion of Bulk Spying

Spencer Ackerman has a story on what Hillary Clinton meant when she said she supports an “intelligence surge” to defeat terrorism. Amid a lot of vague language hinting at spying expansions (including at fusion centers and back doors), her staffers told Ackerman she supported the approach used in USA Freedom Act.

Domestically, the “principles” of Clinton’s intelligence surge, according to senior campaign advisers, indicate a preference for targeted spying over bulk data collection, expanding local law enforcement’s access to intelligence and enlisting tech companies to aid in thwarting extremism.

The campaign speaks of “balancing acts” between civil liberties and security, a departure from both liberaland conservative arguments that tend to diminish conflict between the two priorities. Asked to illustrate what Clinton means by “appropriate safeguards” that need to apply to intelligence collection in the US, the campaign holds out a 2015 reform that split the civil liberties community as a model for any new constraints on intelligence authorities.

The USA Freedom Act, a compromise that constrained but did not entirely end bulk phone records collection, “strikes the right balance”, said [former NSC and State Department staffer and current senior foreign policy advisor Laura] Rosenberger. “So those kinds of principles and protections offer something of a guideline for where any new proposals she put forth would be likely to fall.”

It then goes on to list a bunch of advisors who have been contributing advice on the “intelligence surge.”

The campaign did not identify the architects of the intelligence surge, but it pointed to prominent counter-terrorism advisers who have been contributing ideas.

They include former acting CIA director Michael Morell – who has come under recent criticism for his attacks on the Senate torture report – ex-National Counterterrorism Center director Matt Olsen; Clinton’s state department counter-terrorism chief Dan Benjamin; former National Security Council legal adviser Mary DeRosa; ex-acting Homeland Security secretary Rand Beers; Mike Vickers, a retired CIA operative who became Pentagon undersecretary for intelligence; and Jeremy Bash, Leon Panetta’s chief of staff at the CIA and Pentagon.

It appalls me that Hillary is getting advice from Mike Morell, who has clearly engaged in stupid propaganda both for her and the CIA (though he also participated in the Presidents Review Group that advocated far more reform than Obama has adopted). I take more comfort knowing Mary DeRosa is in the mix.

But I do wonder how you can take advice from Matt Olsen — who was instrumental in a lot of our current spying programs — and claim to adopt a balanced approach.

Olsen was the DOJ lawyer who oversaw the Yahoo challenge to PRISM in 2007 and 2008. He did two things of note. First, he withheld information from the FISC until forced to turn it over, not even offering up details about how the government had completely restructured PRISM during the course of Yahoo’s challenge, and underplaying details of how US person metadata is used to select foreign targets. He’s also the guy who threatened Yahoo with $250,000 a day fines for appealing the FISC decision.

Olsen was a key player in filings on the NSA violations in early 2009, presiding over what I believe to be grossly misleading claims about the intent and knowledge NSA had about the phone and Internet dragnets. Basically, working closely with Keith Alexander, he hid the fact that NSA had basically willfully treated FISA-collected data under the more lenient protection regime of EO 12333.

Charlie Savage provided two more details about Olsen’s fondness for bulk spying in Power Wars. As head of NCTC, Olsen was unsurprisingly the guy in charge of arranging, in 2012, for the NCTC to have access to any federal database it claimed might have terrorist information in it (thereby deeming all of us terrorists). Savage describes how, in response to his own reporting that NCTC was considering doing so — at a time when the plan was to have a further discussion about the privacy implications of the move — ODNI pushed through the change without that additional privacy consideration. That strikes me as the same kind of disdain for due process as Olsen exhibited during the Yahoo challenge.

Finally, Savage described how, when Obama was considering reforms to the phone dragnet in 2014, Olsen opposed having the FISC approve query terms before querying the database as legally unnecessary. It’s hard to imagine how Olsen would really be in favor of USAF type reforms, which codify that change.

In short, among Hillary’s named advisors, the one with the most direct past involvement in such decisions (and also the one likely to be appointed to a position of authority in the future) has advocated for more bulk spying, not less.

Benghazi: A Poster Child for Covert Ops Blowback

You’ve no doubt heard that, last Friday (a pre-holiday Friday, as some people are already on their way to Thanksgiving), the Benghazi scandal ended with a fizzle.

The House Intelligence Committee released its report on the Benghazi attack, which basically says all the scandal mongering has been wrong, that Susan Rice’s talking points came from the CIA, that no one held up any rescue attempts, and so on and so on. This post will attempt to lay out why that might have happened. The short version, however, is that the report reveals (but does not dwell on) a number of failures on the part of the CIA that should raise real concerns about Syria.

Note that not all Republicans were as polite as the ultimate report. Mike Rogers, Jeff Miller, Jack Conaway, and Peter King released an additional views report, making precisely the points you’d expect them to — though it takes them until the 4th summary bullet to claim that Administration officials “perpetuated an inaccurate story that matched the Administration’s misguided view that the United States was nearing victory over al-Qa’ida.” Democrats released their own report noting that “there was no AQ mastermind” and that “extremists who were already well-armed and well-trained took advantage of regional violence” to launch the attack. Among the Republicans who presumably supported the middle ground were firebrands like Michele Bachmann and Mike Pompeo, as well as rising Chair Devin Nunes (as you’ll see, Nunes was a lot more interested in what the hell CIA was doing in Benghazi than Rogers). The day after the initial release Rogers released a second statement defending — and pointing to the limits of and Additional Views on — his report.

Now consider what this report is and is not.

The report boasts about the 1000s of hours of work and 1000s of pages of intelligence review, as well as 20 committee events, interviews with “senior intelligence officials” and 8 security personnel (whom elsewhere the report calls “the eight surviving U.S. personnel”) who were among the eyewitnesses in Benghazi. But the bulk of the report is sourced to 10 interviews (the 8 security guys, plus the Benghazi and Tripoli CIA Chiefs), and a November 15, 2012 presentation by James Clapper, Mike Morell, Matt Olsen, and Patrick Kennedy. (Here are  the slides from that briefing: part onepart two.) As I’ll show, this means some of the claims in this report are not sourced to the people who directly witnessed the events. And the reports sources almost nothing to David Petraeus, who was CIA Director at the time.

The FBI analyzed the intelligence better than CIA did

One of the best explanations for why this is such a tempered report may be that FBI performed better analysis of the cause of the attack than CIA did. This is somewhat clear from the summary (though buried as the 4th bullet):

There was no protest. The CIA only changed its initial assessment about a protest on September 24, 2012, when closed caption television footage became available on September 18, 2012 (two days after Ambassador Susan Rice spoke), and after the FBI began publishing its interviews with U.S. officials on the ground on September 22, 2012.

That is, one reason Susan Rice’s talking points said what they did is because CIA’s analytical reports still backed the claim there had been a protest outside State’s Temporary Mission Facility.

Moreover, in sustaining its judgment there had been a protest as long as it did, CIA was actually ignoring both a report from Tripoli dated September 14, and the assessment of the Chief of Station in Tripoli, who wrote the following to Mike Morell on September 15.

We lack any ground-truth information that protest actually occurred, specifically in the vicinity of the consulate and leading up to the attack. We therefore judge events unfolded in a much different manner than in Tunis, Cairo, Khartoum, and Sanaa, which appear to the the result of escalating mob violence.

In a statement for the record issued in April 2014, Mike Morell explained that Chiefs of Station “do not/not make analytic calls for the Agency.” But it’s not clear whether Morell explained why CIA appears to have ignored their own officer.

While the report doesn’t dwell on this fact, the implication is that the FBI was more successful at interviewing people on the ground — including CIA officers!! — to rebut a common assumption arising from public reporting. That’s a condemnation of CIA’s analytical process, not to mention a suggestion FBI is better at collecting information from humans than CIA is. But HPSCI doesn’t seem all that worried about these CIA failures in its core missions.

Or maybe CIA failed for some other reason. Read more

Internet Dragnet Materials, Working Thread 1

I Con the Record just released some ridiculously overclassified Internet dragnet documents it claims shows oversight but which actually shows how they evaded oversight. I’ve added letters to ID each document (I’ll do a post rearranging them into a timeline tomorrow or soon thereafter).

For a timeline I did earlier of the Internet dragnet program see this post.

This will be the first of several working threads, starting with descriptions of what we’ve got.

8/12: Note I will be updating this as I can clarify dates and content.

So-called Judicial oversight

A. FISC Opinion and Order: This is the Kollar-Kotelly order that initially approved the dragnet on July 14, 2004. A searchable version is here.

B. FISC Primary Order: This is an Internet dragnet order signed by Reggie Walton, probably in 2008 or very early 2009. It shows that the Internet dragnet program, which was almost certainly illegal in any case, had less oversight than the phone dragnet program (though at this point also collected fewer records). It was turned over pursuant to FAA requirements on March 13, 2009.

C. FISC Primary Order: This is an Internet dragnet order probably from May 29, 2009 (as identified in document D), signed by Reggie Walton. It shows the beginning of his efforts to work through the Internet violations. It appears to have been provided to Congress on August 31, 2009.

D. FISC Order and Supplemental Order: This is a version of the joint June 22, 2009 order released on several occasions before. It shows Reggie Walton’s efforts to work through the Internet dragnet violations. Here’s one version.

E. FISC Supplemental Order: This appears to be the dragnet order shutting down dragnet production. It would date to fall 2009 (production was likely shut down in October 2009, though this might reflect the initial shut-down).

F. FISC Primary Order: I’m fairly sure this is an order from after Bates turned the Internet dragnet back on in 2010 (and is signed by him), though I will need to verify that. It does require reports on how the NSA will segregate previously violative records, which is consistent with it dating to 2011 sometime (as is the requirement that the data be XML tagged).

G. FISC Memorandum Opinion Granting in Part and Denying in Part Application to Reinitiate, in Expanded Form, Pen Register/Trap and Trace Authorization: This is the order, from sometime between July and October 2010, where John Bates turned back on and expanded the Internet dragnet. Here’s the earlier released version (though I think it is identical).

H. Declaration of NSA Chief, Special FISA Oversight and Processing, Oversight and Compliance, Signals Intelligence Directorate, the National Security Agency: This was a report Walton required in document C, above, and so would be in the May-June 2009 timeframe. Update: Likely date June 18, 2009.

I. Government’s Response to the FISC’s Supplemental Order: This is the government’s response to an order from Walton, probably in his May 29, 2009 opinion (see this order for background), or even earlier in May.Update: This response dates to June 18, 2009 or slightly before.

J. Declaration of NSA Chief, Special FISA Oversight and Processing, Oversight and Compliance, Signals Intelligence Directorate, the National Security Agency: This appears to be the declaration submitted in support of Response I and cited in several places. Update: likely date June 18, 2009.

K. Supplemental Declaration of Chief, Special FISA Oversight and Processing, Oversight and Compliance, Signals Intelligence Directorate, the National Security Agency: This appears to be the declaration that led to document C above.

L. Government’s Response to the FISC’s Supplemental Order Requesting a Corrective Declaration: This is a declaration admitting dissemination outside the rules responding to 5/29 order.

M. Government’s Response to a FISC Order: This is the government’s notice that it was using automatic queries on Internet metadata, just as it also was with the phone dragnet. This notice was provided to Congress in March 2009.

N. Declaration of Lieutenant General Keith B. Alexander, U.S. Army, Director, NSA, Concerning NSA’s Compliance with a FISC Order: After Walton demanded declarations in response to the initial phone dragnet violation, he ordered NSA to tell him whether the Internet dragnet also had the same problems. This is Keith Alexander’s declaration describing the auto scan for that program too. It was provided to Congress in March 2009.

O. Preliminary Notice of Potential Compliance Incident: This is the first notice of the categorical violations that ultimately led to the temporary shutdown of the dragnet, in advance of order E.

P. Notice of Filing: This is notice of a filing in response to inquiry from Judge Walton. It could be from any time during David Kris’ 2009 to early 2011 tenure.

Q: Government’s Application for Use of Pen Register/Trap and Trace Devices for Foreign Intelligence Purposes: This appears to be the application following Order E, above. I don’t think it’s the 2010 application that led to the reauthorization of the dragnet, because it refers to facilities whereas the 2010 order authorized even broader collection. (Remember Bates’ 2010 order said the government applied, but then withdrew, an application.) Update and correction: this application must post-date December 2009, because that’s when NSA changed retention dates from 4.5 years to 5. Also note reference to change in program and request to access illegally collected data from before 10/09.

R. Memorandum of Law and Fact in Support of Application for Pen Registers and Trap and Trace Devices for Foreign Intelligence Purposes: This appears to be the memorandum of law accompanying application Q.

S. Declaration of General Keith B. Alexander, U.S. Army, Director, NSA, in Support of Pen Register/Trap and Trace Application: This is Alexander’s declaration accompanying Q.

T. Exhibit D in Support of Pen Register/Trap and Trace Application: This is a cover letter. I’m not sure whether it references prior communications or new ones.

U. First Letter in Response to FISC Questions Concerning NSA bulk Metadata Collection Using Pen Register/Trap and Trace Devices: This is the first of several letters in support of reinitiation of the program. The tone has changed dramatically here. For that reason, and because so much of it is redacted, I think this was part of the lead-up to the 2010 reauthorization.

V. Second Letter in Response to FISC Questions concerning NSA bulk Metadata Collection Using Pen Register/Trap and Trace Devices: This second letter is entirely redacted except for the sucking up to Bates stuff.

W. Third Letter in Response to FISC Questions Concerning NSA Bulk Metadata Collection Using Pen Register/Trap and Trace Devices: More sucking up. Some language about trying to keep access to the existing illegally collected data. 

X. Application for Pen Register/Trap and Trace Devices for Foreign Intelligence Purposes: This is the first application for the Internet dragnet, from 2004. Very interesting. Note it wasn’t turned over until July 2009, after Congress was already learning of the new problems with it.

Y. Memorandum of Law and Fact in Support of Application for Pen Registers and Trap and Trace Devices for Foreign Intelligence Purposes: The memorandum of law accompanying X. Also turned over to Congress in 2009.

Z. Declaration of General Michael V. Hayden, U.S Air Force, Director, NSA, in Support of Pen Register/Trap and Trace Application: This goes with the initial application. NSA has left stuff unredacted that suggests they were access less bandwith than they, in the end, were. Also remember NSA violated this from the very beginning.

AA. Application for Use of Pen Register/Trap and Trace Devices for Foreign Intelligence PurposesThis appears to be the application for the second PRTT order. I’ll return to this tomorrow, but I don’t think it reflects the violation notice it should.

BB. Declaration of NSA Chief, Special FISA Oversight and Processing, Oversight and Compliance, Signals Intelligence Directorate: This is NSA’s declaration in conjunction with the first reapplication for the dragnet. This should have declared violations. It was turned over to Congress in March 2009. [update: these appear to be early 2009 application]

CC. Declaration Lieutenant General Keith B. Alexander, U.S. Army, Director, NSA, Concerning NSA’s Implementation of Authority to Collect Certain Metadata: This is Alexander’s declaration accompanying the End-to-End report, from sometime in fall 2009.

DD: NSA’s Pen Register Trap and Trace FISA Review Report: The end-to-end report itself. it was provided to Congress in January 2010.

EE: DOJ Report to the FISC NSA’s Program to Collect Metadata: DOJ’s accompaniment to the end-to-end report.

FF: Government’s First Letter to Judge Bates to Confirm Understanding of Issues Relating to the FISC’s Authorization to Collect Metadata: After Bates raauthorized the Internet dragnet, DOJ realized they might not be on the same page as him. Not sure if this was in the 2009 attempt or the 2010 reauthorization.

GG: Government’s Second Letter to Judge Bates to Confirm Understanding of Issues Relating to the FISC’s Authorization to Collect Metadata: A follow-up to FF.

HH: Tab 1 Declaration of NSA Chief, Special Oversight and Processing, Oversight and Compliance, Signals Intelligence: This appears to be the 90-day report referenced in document C. Update: Actually it is referenced in Document A: note the paragraphs describing the chaining that were discontinued before the dragnet approval.

II: Verified Memorandum of Law in Response to FISC Supplemental Order: This is one of the most fascinating documents of all. It’s a 2009-2011 (I think August 17, 2009, though the date stamp is unclear) document pertaining to 3 PRTT targets, relying on criminal PRTT law and a 2006 memo that might be NSA’s RAS memo (though the order itself is FBI, which makes me wonder whether it seeds the FBI program). It may have been what they used to claim that Internet content counted as metadata.

JJ: Memorandum of Law in Response to FISC Order: A September 25, 2006 response to questions from the FISC, apparently regarding whether rules from criminal pen registers apply to PATRIOT PRTT. While I think this addresses the application to Internet, I also think this language may be being used for location.

So-called Congressional oversight

KK: Government’s Motion to Unseal FISC Documents in Order to Brief Congressional Intelligence and Judiciary Committees: This is a request to unseal an order — I suspect document E — so it could be briefed to Congress.

LL:  Order Granting the Government’s Motion to Unseal FISC Documents in Order to Brief Congressional Intelligence and Judiciary Committees: Walton’s order to unseal KK for briefing purposes. 

MM: April 27, 2005 Testimony of the Attorney General and Director, FBI Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: This is the 2005 testimony in which — I pointed out before — Alberto Gonzales did not brief Congress about the Internet dragnet.

So-called Internal oversight

NN: NSA IG Memo Announcing its Audit of NSA’s Controls to Comply with the FISA Court’s Order Regarding Pen Register/Trap and Trace Devices: This lays out an audit with PRTT compliance, noting that the audit also pertains to BR FISA (phone dragnet). It admits the audit was shut down when the order was not renewed. It’s unclear whether this was the 2009 or the 2011 shutdown, but the implication is it got shut down because it would not pass audit. 

OO: NSA IG Memo Suspending its Audit of NSA after the NSA’s PRTT Metadata Program Expired: the formal announcement they were shutting down the IG report. Again, it’s not clear whether this was the 2009 or the 2011 shutdown.

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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.

Fat Al Gore Menaces the Homeland and Homeland Security Experts Don’t Care

Six days ago, Fat Al Gore (my shorthand for climate change) attacked the Philippines, killing as many 10,000 and leaving 250,000 homeless.

It was Fat Al Gore’s most successful attack thus far.

With Fat Al Gore’s growing success in mind, consider these data points.

Senate Homeland Security Committee doesn’t recognize Fat Al Gore as a threat

The Senate Homeland Security Committee is holding a hearing on “Threats to the Homeland.” It is focused almost entirely on what witnesses describe a dispersed Al Qaeda threat (which doesn’t have the ability to attack in the US), self-radicalized extremists who don’t have the ability to conduct large-scale attacks, and cybersecurity (though Carl Levin did bring up corporate anonymity as a threat, and Republicans brought up Benghazi, which isn’t the “Homeland” at all; also, Ron Johnson leaked that Secret Service officers have proven unable to keep their dick in their pants in 17 countries).

None of the three witnesses even mentioned climate change in their testimony.

Obama’s Chief of Staff threatened to “kill” Steven Chu for admitting islands would disappear because of climate change

Meanwhile, the lead anecdote of this mostly interesting (but in parts obviously bullshit) profile of how Obama disempowered his cabinet ministers tells how Rahm went ballistic because Steven Chu (whose energy initiative created a bunch of jobs) publicly admitted that some islands will disappear because of climate change.

In April 2009, Chu joined Obama’s entourage for one of the administration’s first overseas trips, to Trinidad and Tobago for a Summit of the Americas focused on economic development. Chu was not scheduled to address the media, but reporters kept bugging Josh Earnest, a young staffer, who sheepishly approached his boss, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, with the ask. “No way,” Gibbs told him.

“Come on,” Earnest said. “The guy came all the way down here. Why don’t we just have him talk about all the stuff he’s doing?”

Gibbs reluctantly assented. Then Chu took the podium to tell the tiny island nation that it might soon, sorry to say, be underwater—which not only insulted the good people of Trinidad and Tobago but also raised the climate issue at a time when the White House wanted the economy, and the economy only, on the front burner. “I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans, and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes,” Chu said. “This is something that is very, very scary to all of us. … The island states … some of them will disappear.”

Earnest slunk backstage. “OK, we’ll never do that again,” he said as Gibbs glared. A phone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calling Messina to snarl, “If you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”

Much later the story notes that Heather Zichal is on her way out too.

Even blue-chip West Wingers such as economic adviser Gene Sperling and climate czar Heather Zichal are heading for the exits.

Washington insiders applaud fracking while ignoring climate change

Meanwhile, also as part of its big new magazine spread, Politico has two related pieces on DC insiders views.

There’s this “Real Game Changers” piece capturing the “big forces they see shaking up U.S. politics.” David Petraeus talks about “the ongoing energy revolution in the U.S.” Jeb Bush promises, “With natural gas as an exponentially growing source, we can re-industrialize.” And while several thinkers describe the problem of economic inequality, only Al Gore talks about Fat Al Gore.

Carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels is changing our climate and transforming our world. From more destructive and more frequent climate-related extreme weather events, floods and droughts, melting ice and rising sea levels, to climate refugees, crop failure, higher asthma rates and water scarcity, the consequences are profound. As citizens, we’re already paying the high costs. Billions of dollars to clean up after extreme weather events. Rising insurance bills. Lives lost.

Meanwhile, former respectable energy historian turned shill Daniel Yergin congratulates America on being almost energy independent.

Here’s his only mention of the word “climate.”

In a major climate speech this past June, he declared, “We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.”

Yes, we’re going to fight climate change by burning carbon (gas) instead of carbon (coal).

To be fair to the DC elite, the reason we’re embracing fracking is to give ourselves space to ditch the terrorist funding Saudis. So there is a real national security purpose to it.

But of course, it’s a purpose that addresses a far less urgent threat than that terrorist Fat Al Gore, who just killed 10,000 people.

The Global War on Wayward Knuckleheads

103 minutes into todays Global Threat Hearing in the Senate Intelligence Committee, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen got asked his first question, about what his agency is seeing as rising threats. As part of the discussion that ensued, he noted that homegrown Islamic terrorists continued to be a threat though, he admitted, such attacks would be “unsophisticated.”

He then admitted that those who get inspired by Al Qaeda propaganda are “wayward knuckleheads.”

The comment sure seems to confirm a key premise of Trevor Aaronson’s book, The Terror Factory. Our domestic war on terror — complete with FBI-concocted plots — really consists of getting wayward knuckleheads to respond to FBI incitment. “FBI’s trawling in Muslim communities has resulted largely in sting operations that target easily susceptible men on the margins of society.”

Meanwhile, Robert Mueller had a curious comment in his discussion about the ongoing al Qaeda threat. He said that airplane plots remain a threat. The individuals responsible for previous airline attempts still out there, he said.

Um, I thought we had killed at least one individual responsible for previous airline attempts in September 2011. You mean Anwar al-Awlaki wasn’t the mastermind of the UndieBomb threat?

Of course not: Ibrahim al-Asiri was the operational mastermind of it (or maybe Abu Tarak!). Which is why we had another purported attempt last year, more than six months after Awlaki died.

In any case, Mueller’s comment seems to be an at least implicit admission that the Administration oversold Awlaki’s single centrality to the first UndieBomb plot.