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Spying Blind

The National Security Agency has an intelligence problem: It won’t admit how dumb it is.

AUGUST 16, 2013
BY SHANE HARRIS

The Obama administration’s claim that the NSA is not spying on Americans rests on a fundamental assertion: That the intelligence agency is so good at distinguishing between innocent people and evildoers, and is so tightly overseen by Congress and the courts, that it doesn’t routinely collect the communications of Americans en masse.

We now know that’s not true. And we shouldn’t be surprised. The question is, why won’t the NSA admit it?

On Thursday night, the Washington Post released a classified audit of NSA’s intelligence-gathering systems, showing they are beset by human error, fooled by moving targets, and rely on so many different servers and databases that NSA employees can’t keep tabs on all of them.

It had been previously reported that the NSA had unintentionally collected the communications of Americans, in violation of court orders, as it swept up electronic signals in foreign countries. But officials had sought to portray those mistakes as limited, swiftly corrected, and not affecting that many people.

Wrong again.

One of the reasons that the NSA has been able to gather so much power is that the agency has built a reputation over the years for super-smarts and hyper-competence. The NSA’s analysts weren’t just the brainiest guys in the room, the myth went; they were the brightest bulbs in the building. The NSA’s hackers could penetrate any network. Their mathematicians could unravel any equation. Their cryptologists could crack any cipher. That reputation has survived blown assignments and billion-dollar boondoggles. Whether it can outlast these latest revelations is an open question.

The Post found that the NSA “has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authorities thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008…” That’s the year when NSA’s global surveillance system went into hyperdrive. The agency was granted unprecedented authority to monitor communications without individual warrants and to surveil whole categories of people and communications.

Most of the violations affecting Americans’ information were the result what the agency calls “incidental collection.” So how many Americans were caught up in the NSA’s surveillance nets as they were dragged across supposedly foreign targets? The exact number is unclear. But the short answer is: lots and lots of them.

In one instance, a programming glitch collected a “large number” of calls from Washington, D.C, instead of the intended targets in Egypt, according to the audit. Somehow, the area code 202 (for Washington) was keyed instead of 20 (the country code for Egypt.) The NSA’s supposedly discriminating surveillance architecture was undone by a typo.

The audit reveals a recurring problem with human error in the day-to-day operations of global surveillance and shows what a messy and imprecise business it can be. In the first quarter of 2012, 123 incidents of non-compliance with the rules, or 63 percent of those examined, were attributed to human or operator error. These included typographical errors, inaccurate or overbroad search queries, and what the report calls “inaccurate or insufficient research information and/or workload issues.”

Analysts needed more “complete and consistent” information about their targets to avoid errors, the audit found. This suggests that while the NSA’s collection systems are dipping into data streams, the analysts aren’t always equipped to determine who is and isn’t a legitimate target.

The NSA’s systems also have problems knowing when a target is on the move, and possibly has entered the United States. (When he does, different regulations come into play about how the surveillance is authorized and what can be monitored without approval from the court.)

As recently as 2012, NSA was not always able to know when targets using a mobile phone had crossed a U.S. border. These so-called “roamers” accounted for the largest number of technological errors in the violations that were examined.

A problem discovered last year, which appears in the report under the heading “Significant Incidents of Non-Compliance,” helps illustrate how NSA is collecting so much information that it can actually lose track of it and store it in places where it shouldn’t be.

In February 2012, the NSA found 3,032 “files containing call detail records” on a server. A call detail record, or CDR, is analogous to a phone bill. It shows whom was called, when, and for how long. This is metadata, like what’s collected today on all phone calls in the United States.

It’s not clear how many CDRs (each representing an individual) were in each of those files. But they were stored on the server for more than five years, past the cut off point at which the information is supposed to be destroyed, pursuant to NSA rules that are meant to protect the privacy of Americans.

How the records got there is a mystery. The report says they were “potentially collected” under business records orders, which are authorized by the Patriot Act. But that’s not certain.

What is known, however, is that the records were stored with information that shouldn’t have been anywhere near them. It came from the agency’s highly classified Stellar Wind program, which covered the warrantless interception of phone calls and emails (not just their metadata) that was secretly authorized by President George W. Bush in 2001. Joining the CDRs and the Stellar Wind records was data from yet another program that was unrelated to the two.

Mixing or “co-mingling” information obtained from different programs, and under different laws or authorizations, is a dangerous practice in the intelligence profession. Information is segregated to restrict and monitor the number of people who have access to it. An analyst cleared to look at CDRs might not be authorized to listen to phone calls intercepted under Stellar Wind. But if it’s all on the same server, he might be able to do just that.

That may have happened in 2011, according to the audit. Some personnel may have been granted access to a cache of information that was recently modified so that they were no longer allowed to look at it. But not all the employees were informed about the change.

Storing different intelligence streams in one place also increases the risk of revealing valuable sources and methods for how it was obtained–a basic violation of intelligence tradecraft. It also it makes it easier to steal. (Just ask Edward Snowden.)

And segregation creates a bulwark against privacy violations. Information about Americans is generally kept clear of foreign intelligence because the rules on how the former can be used and disseminated are stricter.

But infractions and mistakes weren’t always reported to the NSA’s overseers, either in Congress or at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Partly that’s because the NSA doesn’t view unintentional or “incidental” collection of Americans’ communications as a violation of the rules. It was an accident, the result of what the agency called in a previously declassified document “problems [that] generally involved the implementation of highly sophisticated technology in a complex and ever-changing communications environment…” Translation: Surveillance is hard. Our computers aren’t perfect. We acted in good faith.

Not that the court can verify if that’s true. In a candid admission to the Post, the chief judge, Reggie Walton, said he and his colleagues must “rely upon the accuracy of the information” the government provides, and that the court “does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance…”

In one case where the court did curtail a new kind of surveillance, it was only months after learning that it was put in place. The court deemed the still-undisclosed activities unconstitutional, and the NSA had to make changes before it could restart them.

The NSA is also instructing its employees not to provide full information about infractions to Congress, which is supposed to oversee intelligence collection efforts and ensure they comply with the law.

The newly released documents affirm something we’ve long known: the NSA gathers up large amounts of information on foreigners and U.S. citizens and then tries to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, with imperfect results. That’s alarming, but from a technological standpoint, understandable.

What members of Congress and the public may find more troubling is that the NSA wasn’t honest about these shortcomings. Officials hid them from the same judges and lawmakers that President Obama recently said were engaged in a rigorous process of checks and balances that keeps electronic spying within the bounds of the law.

Perhaps that system, like the NSA’s data vacuums, could use a tune up.

Source

More on NSA

ARABIC MEDIA: Secret $8 billion deal between Obama and the Muslim Brotherhood

Summary:
• SECRET agreement between the Obama administration and the Muslim Brotherhood (not the Egyptian government) to give 40% of the Sinai and the annexation of that part of Egyptian territory in Gaza. The objective is to facilitate the conclusion of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians
• This agreement was signed by Khairat el Shater (number 2 of the Brotherhood) by Morsi and the Supreme Guide FM. (FM stands for Muslim Brotherhood)
• A sum of U.S. $ 8 billion was paid in exchange for FM.
• The document was seized by the army following the deposition of Morsi. This is the army that has leaked the news.
• An investigation is ongoing Morsi and El Shater. An arrest warrant was filed against the Guide to FM and other members of his office.
• FM signatories to the agreement are liable to the death penalty for treason.
• The Obama administration would try to reach an agreement with el Sissi (chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces): recognition of the legitimacy of the “coup” in exchange for his silence about the secret agreement. But el Sissi would be more interested in the conviction of FM and discredit their organization which is Egypt’s main source of danger.
• The Republican members of Congress are seriously looking into the case. If proven, the process of Obama impeachment could be triggered.

Source and Video: Here

Analysis: Some Gulf rulers wary of U.S. shifts on Islamists, Iran

By Andrew Hammond and Rania El Gamal
DUBAI | Wed Sep 5, 2012 10:35am EDT

(Reuters) – The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological affiliates in the Arab Spring uprisings has stoked fears among Gulf Arab governments that the United States may one day abandon its traditional allies as it warms up to Islamists.

While the ruling families in the Gulf are currently vital U.S. allies who buy large amounts of American military hardware and facilitate a significant U.S. military presence, some are apprehensive Washington may apply pressure on them to accommodate Islamists who could end up challenging their exclusive rule.

In a number of colorful online outbursts, Dubai’s outspoken police chief Dhahi Khalfan has warned of an “international plot” to overthrow Gulf systems of government with Western complicity. The Brotherhood, manipulated by the United States, is working to take over the Gulf by 2016, he said.

“Today the Americans are mobilizing the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab nation, for the benefit of America, not the Arabs,” he wrote on his Twitter account on Sunday. “There is an American plan that has been drawn up for the region.”

Though Khalfan insists his tweets are his personal views, analysts and diplomats say they reflect largely unspoken concerns among the United Arab Emirates’ ruling elite about the regional popularity of the Islamists and the possibility that the West will sympathize with them as political underdogs.

They also reflect fears among the region’s Sunni Muslim rulers that, despite being Sunni itself, the Brotherhood is soft on their arch enemy Shi’ite Iran. Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Mursi tried to dissipate such fears at a Tehran conference last week by condemning Iran’s ally Syria and urging attendees to back rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite pockets of Western-style liberalism in cities like Dubai, most Gulf ruling elites seek to project an image of Islamic conservatism.

So the threat they see is not religious or social but political: the Brotherhood advocates playing by the rules of parliamentary politics as a path to government, threatening inherited rights to rule and state-backed clerical establishments.

An opposition movement that gains ground in Gulf states could perhaps find the U.S. administration newly disposed to speak out in its favor.

Such an opposition has already emerged in the UAE, where more than 50 Islamists linked to Brotherhood thinking have been arrested since late last year. So far Washington has kept mum.

“While the U.S. security umbrella protects the UAE against threats from Iran, Washington would be much more reluctant to support a widespread crackdown against a local opposition movement,” said analyst Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group.

“This is making the political leadership in the UAE much more nervous about domestic threats,” he said.

The Brotherhood also has potential to draw support from Gulf Arabs who may see their countries’ foreign policies as overly pro-Western and are concerned about the social influence of their large Asian and Western expatriate communities.

SEEKING U.S. REASSURANCE

Washington was initially hesitant to openly support the uprisings that toppled Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, partly because of concerns they could bring Islamists to power.

President Barack Obama’s administration has since overcome its reluctance, and has made extensive efforts to engage Egypt’s Brotherhood over the past year.

Analysts say Washington is simply pursuing realpolitik given the new power centers in the region.

“I don’t think the West is keen on having a bunch of Islamists coming to power in the Gulf anytime soon,” said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute based in Doha. “It’s more the case that Washington is working with who they can work with, because Islamists are in power and they have to be dealt with.”

U.S. officials said privately that they addressed the Gulf’s concerns last year after Mubarak fell and that subsequent conversations have not focused on the issue. They declined to go into specifics.

“Gulf governments realize both the United States and Iran will want to have relations with the new regimes,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, senior analyst with Cornerstone Global. They just needed to be reassured that those regimes’ gain was not their loss, he said.

Diplomats said they were confident that building good ties with the Brotherhood was unlikely to strain the long-term strategic relationship between the U.S. and Gulf states.

“They (the Gulf states) need the Americans to protect them against Iran. Iran is the biggest worry for them in the whole region right now,” one Gulf-based Western diplomat said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

YES, BUT …

Still, rumblings persist.

Saudi Arabia, which has long seen itself as insulated from political Islam because of its promotion of more conservative Salafi Islam, is feeling less secure these days, said Abdulaziz Alkhamis, a London-based Saudi analyst.

“After the Arab Spring they (the Islamists) are rising again. They start to use Islamist political rhetoric to gain publicity in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Prominent clerics such as Awadh al-Garni and Salman al-Odah, viewed as sympathetic to the Brotherhood, have become more outspoken, cheering Islamist gains in social media.

Brotherhood-linked Islamists are well-established in Kuwait, where parliamentary politics is most advanced in the Gulf. And in Bahrain the government has drawn closer to the Minbar party, another group inspired by the Brotherhood, as it shores itself up against a protest movement dominated by Shi’ite Islamists.

The angst over what the United States plans for the region is at its most public and visceral in Bahrain, whose government Obama has urged to enter dialogue with leading Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq, citing the group by name.

Sunni clerics and commentators in official media regularly raise the fear that Washington, currently at odds with Tehran over its nuclear program, is plotting to create a Wefaq-led government in a regional reordering of power that would open a new page of cozy ties with Iran.

TV presenter Sawsan al-Shaer denounced a “Satanic alliance” between Tehran and Washington in an article in the al-Watan daily last month, claiming Wefaq was a “Trojan horse, used by the U.S. administration and Iranian regime to redraw the region.”

The wild card in the region is Qatar. It has actively promoted the Brotherhood and its affiliates, giving them coverage widely seen as positive on its satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera.

At an early stage in the uprisings Doha stuck its neck out much further than other Gulf states in its support for protests in Egypt and Tunisia, and then rebel movements in Libya and Syria, supporting those among them close the Brotherhood.

Earlier this year the Dubai police chief railed against Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, a popular Brotherhood-linked Egyptian cleric based in Doha who criticized UAE policy towards Islamists on Al Jazeera. Khalfan threatened to arrest the cleric if he ever entered the country.

Alkhamis said opinion in Saudi Arabia was split over whether Qatar’s close links to the Islamists was a smart move to keep a close eye on a rising movement whose historical time has come, or a ruse to sow discord for its neighbor and sometime rival.

“The Qataris say that if we don’t have the Brotherhood (operating) openly then they will go underground and that it’s not against Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis are not happy with this,” Alkhamis said pointing to Qatar-backed Islamist seminars. “Some think the Qataris are not an honest friend, but have an agenda.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington and Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Sonya Hepinstall)

Reuters

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