Help us, Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope! Or: No real interest in investigating, let alone ending, NSA mass surveillance

Had you noticed?

We are just under two weeks away from the first anniversary of the Snowden revelations.

It feels as if we are again moving further away from meaningful NSA-investigation and reform. A couple events this week enforce the impression.

 

Slaughtering reform: the USA Freedom Act

On Thursday, the USA Freedom Act passed in the House of Representatives with a majority of both Republicans and Democrats, 303 to 121, on Thursday.

Don’t get excited.

A bill, that is supposedly “aimed specifically at curbing U.S. surveillance abuses revealed by Edward Snowden,” and which was at first described by Edward Snowden as “the only act that really starts to address these concerns” has now been described as “so neutered” that it has lost sight of its initial goals of limiting NSA mass-surveillance. So, what happened?

The original version of the USA Freedom Act wasn’t half bad. Designed to end bulk data collection and secret laws, it would have meant greater transparency for tech companies, a privacy advocate in the FISA court and it would have got rid of several loopholes.

Since then it has passed, according to Trevor Timm, “from strong, to weak, to horrible.”

Timm is not wrong. Loopholes, for instance, are precisely what the new bill appears to be riddled with.

Mark Jaycox, a legislative analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said:

The bill is littered with loopholes. The problem right now, especially after multiple revisions, is that it doesn’t effectively end mass surveillance.

Rather,

the bill…only somewhat curtails intelligence agencies’ power, giving them extra leeway to collect vast amounts of emails, phone records and other personal communications based on broad criteria.

For example,

instead of letting the government home in on communications to and from a suspect, the NSA can collect, keep and use information that’s simply about a target. That could mean a conversation mentioning the target’s name.

To make it clearer what this means, an example: I quite frequently discuss the Snowden-revelations on the phone with people.

I am considering dubbing them the You-know-who-revelations, as obviously the name of a “target” (Snowden) would allow the NSA to record my entire conversation just because I keep mentioning Snow… You-know-who’s name.  

Full of other equally troubling shortcomings (such as the so-dubbed “backdoor search provision”), all the bill may do, in the end, Trevor Timm suggests, is to allow for the NSA’s supporters to pretend that they have introduced NSA mass surveillance reform when really they are “just leaving the door open for it to continue.”

It is no surprise, then, that

Many legislators and campaigners are unsatisfied with the “watered-down” version of the anti-surveillance bill.

For example, Justin Amash

who helped draft the original Freedom Act, said he would vote no on the bill because the version the House passed “doesn’t look much like the Freedom Act.

And Senator Ron Wyden, who has been fighting mass surveillance for years, rejected the bill as “too watered down” and too vague to be effective in restraining an executive branch that has a “long track record of secretly interpreting surveillance laws in incredibly broad ways”.

When it comes to the end of mass surveillance and meaningful oversight, it is debatable which is more telling: that “White House or Congressional leadership, who barred amendments that could have potentially strengthened the bill from being offered on the floor ahead of Thursday’s vote” or that “how all potential transparency now rests in the hands of the very person who Snowden’s leaks caught lying, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

What hope do we have? I suggest you read Trevor Timm’s column for some thoughts on that.

Or perhaps someone should just go fetch Obi-wan Kenobi.

 

Misinformation continued: The “grave threat”-claim

In a different NSA-related event, the Pentagon has finally published a report that “the NSA’s defenders — primarily Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and House Intelligence Committee boss Rep. Mike Rogers — have been waving around” for months.

The report, they claim, shows the “grave damage” that Edward Snowden’s leaks have done to US national security – in the report’s own words: “the scope of the compromised knowledge related to US intelligence capabilities is staggering”.

Before anyone panics: the claim isn’t new. It has been repeated ad nauseam over the past months (without any substantial evidence). It has even been echoed by the UK government in their witch-hunt for the Guardian.

The problem with the Pentagon report is, you may have guessed, that is actually (yet again) fails to give evidence for any such damage. I have previously commented on the “grave damage”-claim as well as the two other questionable claims that are often reported as facts: the “1.7 million document”-claim and the “all documents are now in the hands of adversaries” claim. All of which – need I say it again – have not yet been substantiated.

Julian Sanches alleges that the report is “gravely overblown” and notes a couple of things that a worth repeating.

The Pentagon report does not concern the putative harm of disclosures about the National Security Agency programs that have been the focus of almost all Snowden-inspired stories published to date. Rather, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s damage assessment deals only with the potential impact of “non-NSA Defense material” that the government believes Snowden may have obtained. Any harm resulting from the disclosure of NSA-related material – in other words, almost everything actually made public thus far – is not included in this assessment…

So, the damage referred to in the report does not even relate to anything that has been made public because it does not relate to the NSA disclosures at all. Rather, the report refers to the potentialdanger that may or may notbe caused by NSA-unrelated documents which the government thinks Mr Snowden took with him – the much-reported 1.7 million. Again, this is an unsubstantiated claim based on every document Mr Snowden accessed throughout his career, not on factual knowledge of what Mr Snowden actually took.

Julian Sanchez notes this as well. “The Pentagon,” he writes, “was assessing the significance of the information “compromised” by Snowden – all the documents they believe he copied, whether or not they ever see the light of day.”

While it may make sense

for the government to try to gauge the harm that could result if all that information was disclosed, … that’s very different from saying harm has occurred,” Sanches continues and goes on to note that, “[e]ven that estimate of possible harm, however, is almost certainly overblown…

In short: the Pentagon damage report concludes that the “staggering” cache of documents that Snowden might have taken (most of which he probably didn’t) could potentially cause grave harm if disclosed to a foreign power (which, as far as we know, they haven’t been), and assumed that only genuinely super-sensitive information gets classified (which top intelligence officials concede isn’t true).

How does this prove that serious investigation and reform do not seem to be something that everybody’s is interested in?

Simply thus:

[W]e can rest assured that Edward Snowden’s critics will make the most of it all the same – anything to distract from the grave impact NSA has already had on global privacy.

 

More witch-hunting

A substantial part of the media have been doing this from day one – and continue to do so. One example of this being Michael Kinsley’s much-scorned NY Times (yes, the paper that printed some of the Snowden-revelations) review of Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide.

Once again, the review squanders quite a few words on the alleged character flaws of Mr Greenwald (“a self-righteous sourpuss” – yes, Kinsley uses these exact words), and Julian Assange (narcissist).

I am not sure which produces the stronger gag reflex: Kinsley’s characterisation of Edward Snowden as a political romantic “with the sweet, innocently conspiratorial worldview of a precocious teenager” who “appears to yearn for martyrdom” or his evocation of the French revolution when he assesses Glenn Greenwald as someone who fancies himself “a ruthless revolutionary — Robespierre, or Trotsky”.

Whichever it is, the entire piece is an example of precisely the kind of pitiful obeisance of the media towards the government that Mr Greenwald frequently and rightfully bemoans. I have a mind to discuss the review and some of the responses in more detail but that is for a separate blog-post in the not-too-distant (post-EU election) future.

Returning to what this kind of media-complicity allows governments to accomplish, it should be obvious that distracting from the grave impact that NSA surveillance has had – and will continue to have unless someone does something about it – will make it easier to move further and further away from the substantial reform that was initially promised and further towards make-believe reforms that leave NSA surveillance largely as it is.

Someone go fetch Kenobi now.

 

Meanwhile in Germany: more nonsense from the NSA Inquiry Committee

Another related event occurred in Germany this week where the NSA Inquiry Committee, while holding its first official session, seems to be turning into even more of a farce than it was anyway.

As such, the Committee published a list of potential witnesses – making itself look more ridiculous than it did previously, if such a thing was even possible.

As such, der Spiegel reports (link in German) that the committee not only wants to call Facebook-Boss Mark Zuckerberg, Google-Manager Eric Schmidt and Twitter-CEO Dick Costolo but also – wait for it – former NSA chiefs Keith Alexander and Michael Hayden.

Now, it remains to be seen whether or not any tech giant CEOs can be bothered to make the journey to Berlin but it will be even more interesting to see whether or not Alexander or Hayden turn up.

A clue: probably not.

It seems doubtful that former officials of a government that has so far proven all but uncooperative where queries regarding the surveillance scandal were concerned should respond to the invitation. Then again, Alexander has been touring the US advertising the NSA at universities, he might enjoy the opportunity of lecturing German MPs.

What makes the matter even more ridiculous of course is that while the committee has published a list of over a hundred potential witnesses, no decision has been made yet on whether or not Edward Snowden will be able, allowed, invited (or whatever) to testify in Germany.

Mr Snowden’s German lawyer has suggested that both he and Mr Snowden’s American lawyers would probably advise their client against testifying via video-link (link in German) to prevent him jeopardizing his asylum in Russia.

At best, this will provide an additional incentive for the German committee to grant Snowden safe passage to Germany.

At worst, it will result in Snowden not being able to testify at all.

Considering the situation so far, the latter seems more likely, which once again proves that the German government (which has been boycotting any move to get Mr Snowden to Germany from day one) is as uninterested in a thorough NSA inquiry as the US government is in substantial reform.

Anyone managed to get hold of Kenobi yet?

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3 thoughts on “Help us, Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope! Or: No real interest in investigating, let alone ending, NSA mass surveillance

  1. Pingback: Had you noticed? Germany’s government is trying to curb parliamentary oversight | Notes from Self

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