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NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander during 60 Minutes’ look at the agency
One of the most difficult questions facing journalists is how one stays objective when given deep access. When a subject opens his or her doors and rolls out the full hospitality routine, it’s easy to feel sympathetic or even beholden to a source, which can color reporting. It’s human nature, but it’s easily countered: You make sure you’ve talked to a variety of outside sources, and you ask questions that don’t simply take a subject’s claims at face value, which doesn’t necessarily mean being combative. It’s just the job.
Last night, while trumpeting its unprecedented access to the NSA, 60 Minutes did none of those things. In a segment that discussed the NSA’s activities without interviewing a single outside source, 60 Minutes largely defaulted to lobbing softball questions to NSA Director Keith Alexander—who naturally denied the veracity of the wealth of reporting from this year on documents leaked by Edward Snowden—while taking a breathless tour of the NSA’s facilities, watching an NSA whiz kid solve a Rubik’s cube, and calling Snowden a weirdo who could help China blow up the US economy.
The correspondent for the segment, John Miller, was touted by CBS as being the “ultimate insider,” likely due to the fact that he was formerly the FBI’s national spokesman, after which he worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. While that surely means he’s well-informed and well-connected, it also means he’s more likely to be sympathetic to Alexander’s side of the story, which led to exchanges where Miller asked questions designed to allow Alexander to refute previous reporting from the likes of the Guardian, Washington Post, and New York Times, without any follow up.
60 Minutes indeed did get incredible access to the NSA, which was cool to see, but which made its empty questioning all the more disappointing. It’s also worrisome: 60 Minutes has huge reach, and for any viewer who hasn’t been following the NSA saga obsessively, last night’s segment made it sound like some sketchy guy named Snowden ran off to Russia with a bunch of documents that will now hamper the NSA’s mission to fight terrorism and China, while privacy and legal concerns were swept under the rug. So, in the interest of setting the record straight, here are seven questions that 60 Minutes should have asked:
How are FISA restrictions interpreted by the NSA?
Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the NSA may collect phone call metadata in bulk as long as it’s proven relevant to a specific investigation and “adequate minimization procedures” are taken. These requirements, and the resulting approval of metadata collection, is overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court that, after being accused of being a rubber stamp, has called out the NSA for willfully misleading the court about the scope of the agency’s activities. The end result? The NSA collects millions upon millions of phone records every year.
How does the NSA reconcile this descrepancy? Miller tried to ask:
John Miller: A judge in the FISA court, which is the court that secretly hears the NSA cases and approves or disapproves your requests. Said the NSA systematically transgressed both its own court-appointed limits in bulk Internet data collection programs.
Gen. Keith Alexander: There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law.
That’s a pretty weak denial, one which Miller didn’t follow up on. It’s also not true: The NSA has knowingly disciplined employees for illegally spying on Americans. More importantly, how does the NSA argue that collecting bulk metadata fits under “minimization” procedures? Aside from saying data has to be stored in bulk to be effective—which is hardly an argument that anything is minimized—Alexander didn’t have to say.
The first half of the segment
What can the agency actually do with metadata?
Alexander justified bulk data collection by saying it’s just anonymous data on phone numbers, call duration, and time; in other words, he says it should be of no concern to regular Americans because it doesn’t really say much. But the NSA stores five years worth of call data, which would be a strange choice if it was worthless. What can the agency actually do with it?
Miller didn’t really ask, but thankfully the incredible value of metadata has been explained before. On its own, it can reveal a lot about a person’s personal life, and combined with the billions of social interactions the NSA collects every day, can paint a pretty clear portrait of who a person interacts with and what their interests are. But Alexander played metadata off like it’s essentially worthless, an argument Miller was too ready to accept.
What do privacy advocates say about the NSA?
It’s pretty clear that 60 Minutes traded access to the NSA’s facilities for a puff piece on what it does, much as it did with Amazon’s drone announcement last week. But as much as the Amazon segment reeked of straight-up PR, doing a soft segment is far worse when it concerns the most important politics story of the year. Not only did 60 Minutes manage to avoid interviewing a single outside source in the segment, Miller never once mentions the series of lawsuits from big-time advocacy groups that have been levied against the NSA. Ignoring those makes it even harder for viewers to understand that the NSA is even doing anything controversial, which is a fundamental failure of the piece.
Why did Snowden have such incredible access?
In the piece, Snowden’s trove of some 1.7 million documents is mentioned as having severe national security ramifications, especially with regards to the NSA’s capabilites and interests in sensitive countries, like China or Iran. That’s not a particularly surprising claim, but how did one man get such access?
The 60 Minutes segment doesn’t fully address that point. According to Rick Ledgett, the man doing damage assessment on the leaks, “the people who control that, the access to those machines, are called system administrators and they have passwords that give them the ability to go around those–security measures and that’s what Snowden did.”
The segment also tries to paint Snowden as a weirdo, such as this curious exchange:
At home, they discovered Snowden had some strange habits.
Rick Ledgett: He would work on the computer with a hood that covered the computer screen and covered his head and shoulders, so that he could work and his girlfriend couldn’t see what he was doing.
John Miller: That’s pretty strange, sitting at your computer kind of covered by a sheet over your head and the screen?
Rick Ledgett: Agreed.
That 60 Minutes is investigating Snowden’s personality is fine—he’s an important figure, after all—but makes you wonder. How does Snowden—an outside contractor who had been working with the NSA for mere months, and one who apparently acted strangely enough to comment on—get access to so many documents? Is the NSA changing procedures? The answer isn’t clear.
What is the NSA’s relationship with the US tech industry?
From the beginning of the Snowden-NSA saga, US tech companies have been implicated, knowingly or not. But whether or not the companies had any involvement, the revelation that the NSA has incredible access to US tech companies, by court order or not, has huge ramifications for the US tech sector.
The 60 Minutes segment notes that replacing all the computers Snowden touched cost tens of millions of dollars, but makes no mention of reports suggesting the NSA’s activities will cost the US tech sector tens of billions. While Miller notes that the CEOs of eight major tech companies called for new limits on the NSA, he doesn’t ask Alexander about it. Instead, Miller sets up Alexander to refute prior media reports.
For example, there was this exchange regarding the Post’s blockbuster report about the NSA accessing Google and Yahoo data centers, which caused uproar from both companies:
John Miller: One of the Snowden leaks involved the concept that NSA had tunneled into the foreign data centers of major U.S. Internet providers. Did the leak describe it the right way?
Gen. Keith Alexander: No, that’s not correct. We do target terrorist communications. And terrorists use communications from Google, from Yahoo, and from other service providers. So our objective is to collect those communications no matter where they are.
But we’re not going into a facility or targeting Google as an entity or Yahoo as an entity. But we will collect those communications of terrorists that flow on that network.
And that was that. If Miller asked any follow-up questions, it never made the final cut.
Part two of the segment
What is the US’s approach to cyberwar?
At one point, the segment veered off into a discussion of state-sponsored cyberattacks, and 60 Minutes repeats claims from the NSA that it stopped an attack from China called the BIOS Plot. Debora Plunkett, the NSA’s director of cyber defense, explained that by bricking computers, China could have hacked its way into economic destruction:
Debora Plunkett: That’s right. Think about the impact of that across the entire globe. It could literally take down the U.S. economy.
John Miller: I don’t mean to be flip about this. But it has a kind of a little Dr. Evil quality– to it that, “I’m going to develop a program that can destroy every computer in the world.” It sounds almost unbelievable.
Debora Plunkett: Don’t be fooled. There are absolutely nation states who have the capability and the intentions to do just that.
China is indeed building a hacker army, but what about the US? The section about China’s hacking capabilities seems designed to help defend the NSA’s activities, but it’s also important to note that the US has offensive capabilites as well. Have we already forgotten about Stuxnet? Asking about the NSA’s own approaches, rather than scare-mongering, would have been far more valuable.
What’s the future look like?
Alexander is expected to retire soon, which Miller doesn’t ask about. Miller does ask whether or not Alexander tried to resign, which the Wall Street Journal previously reported. Alexander confirmed that he tried, saying that “Well, I offered to resign. And they said, ‘We don’t see a reason that you should resign. We haven’t found anybody there doing anything wrong. In fact, this could have happened to anybody in the community.'”
It’s fairly shocking in its own right that the Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of Defense, to whom Alexander presumably sent his resignation, said that such a massive leak could have happened to anyone. Is the sanctity of secret intelligence documents so fragile?
The 60 Minutes segment goes on to explain that the NSA regularly gives Top Secret clearances to high school kids, which seems a strange choice at the very least. But beyond that, what will the NSA change? Miller doesn’t ask, instead asking about Alexander’s potential loss of power (which wouldn’t matter if he retires), and to which Alexander responds with an aside about terrorism:
John Miller: After all of this controversy, you could come out of this with less authority than you went into it. What does that say?
Gen. Keith Alexander: Well, my concern on that is specially what’s going on in the Middle East, what you see going on in Syria, what we see going on– Egypt, Libya, Iraq, it’s much more unstable, the probability that a terrorist attack will occur is going up. And this is precisely the time that we should not step back from the tools that we’ve given our analysts to detect these types of attacks.
There are plenty of other questions the 60 Minutes segment could have asked. Two big ones are whether or not the PRISM program can collect as much as Snowden’s docs say it does, as well as following up on Alexander’s claim that the NSA didn’t have metadata collection capabilities before 9/11, which whistleblowers say is false. (Feel free to add more in the comments.)
But I think the above seven are the most damning to 60 Minutes’ report, because by not asking them, the segment glosses over the key aspects of the NSA controversy. For an average viewer watching last night, what was the takeaway? That some computer weirdo named Snowden stole documents that could help China destroy the US with computers, and that everything you may have heard about the NSA’s spying in newspapers isn’t exactly true.
It’s no surprise that a guy who was once the FBI’s PR man would be sympathetic towards the national security world, but by presenting such a soft and one-sided report—literally one-sided, as there wasn’t a single outside source, which is appallingly shoddy journalism for such a contentious story—60 Minutes did its viewers a disservice.
Federal Judge Strikes Down NSA’s Bulk Metadata Program: “I Cannot Imagine a More ‘Indiscriminate’ and ‘Arbitrary Invasion’ Than This Systematic and High-Tech Collection and Retention of Personal Data On Virtually Every Single Citizen” Washington’s Blog
Federal Judge Strikes Down NSA’s Bulk Metadata Program: “I Cannot Imagine a More ‘Indiscriminate’ and ‘Arbitrary Invasion’ Than This Systematic and High-Tech Collection and Retention of Personal Data On Virtually Every Single Citizen” Washington’s Blog.
“The Government Does Not Cite A Single Instance In Which Analysis Of The NSA’s Bulk Metadata Collection Actually Stopped An Imminent Attack”
A federal court has just struck down the NSA’s bulk metadata spying program today.
The court notes:
The Government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.
There is no indication that these revelations were immediately useful or that they prevented an impending attack.
I have serious doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism.
The Fourth Amendment typically requires “a neutral and detached authority be interposed between the police and the public,” and it is offended by “general warrants” and laws that allow searches to be conducted “indiscriminately and without regard to their connection with [a] crime under investigation.”
I cannot imagine a more “indiscriminate” and “arbitrary invasion” than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval. Surely, such a program infringes on “that degree of privacy” that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. Indeed, I have little doubt that the author of our Constitution, James Madison, who cautioned us to beware “the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power,” would be aghast.
The judge is right:
- Mass surveillance has not stopped a single terrorist attack
- Top counter-terror experts say that the government’s mass spying doesn’t keep us safe; moreover, they say that mass spying actually hurts U.S. counter-terror efforts (more here and here), andweakens digital security
- Experts say (including congress members) say that the spying program is illegal, and is exactly the kind of thing which King George imposed on the American colonists … which led to the Revolutionary War
- Two American presidents and a vice president say that NSA spying is turning the U.S. into a dictatorship
- Indeed, most Congress members had no idea what the NSA is doing. Even staunch defenders of the NSA – and congress members on the intelligence oversight committees – now say they’ve been kept in the dark
- The FISA court provides no real oversight. Even the current judges on the secret spying court now admit that they’re out of the loop and powerless to exercise real oversight
On December 23, 2013, the U.S. Federal Reserve (the Fed) will celebrate its 100th birthday, so we thought it was time to take a look at the Fed’s real accomplishment, and the practices and policies it has employed during this time to rob the public of its wealth. The criticism is directed not only at the world’s most powerful central bank – the Fed – but also at the concept of central banks in general, because they are the antithesis of fiscal responsibility and financial constraint as represented by gold and a gold standard. The Fed was sold to the public in much the same way as the Patriot Act was sold after 9/11 – as a sacrifice of personal freedom for the promise of greater government protection. Instead of providing protection, the Fed has robbed the public through the hidden tax of inflation brought about by currency devaluation.
The Fed is, unlike any other federal agency, owned by private and public shareholders – mainly large banks and influential banking families. It operates with as much opacity as possible, and only in the past two decades has the public become aware of this deception, thanks in large part to former Congressman Dr. Ron Paul, and the advent of the Internet.
The build-up of massive amounts of debt will result in the end of the U.S. dollar as the world’s de facto reserve currency. This should come as no surprise: Previous world reserve currencies, starting with Portuguese real in 1450 and continuing through five reserve currencies to the British pound, which capitulated its position in 1920, have had a lifespan of between eighty and 110 years. The U.S. dollar succeeded the British pound, but its peg to gold was broken domestically in 1933, and internationally in 1971, when President Nixon closed the gold window. This resulted in unrestricted and exponential debt creation that will likely see the U.S. dollar’s reserve currency status end sooner rather than later.
Why the Fed Hates Gold
The Fed has many reasons for being at war with gold:
1. Gold restricts a country’s ability to create unlimited amounts of fiat currency.
2. The gold held by the Fed and the United States has not been officially audited since 1953; there are several credible indications that this gold has been leased or swapped, and probably has several claims of ownership. Germany’s Bundesbank was told in January 2013 that it would have to wait seven years to repatriate 300 tonnes of its gold currently held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The only plausible explanation for this delay is that the gold is not available.
3. Gold is the only money that exists outside the control of politicians and bankers. The Fed would like to control all aspects of the global economy, and gold is the last defense of the individual who wishes to protect his or her wealth.
4. Historically, gold serves as the most stable measure of purchasing power. Gold owners begin to measure risk in terms of ounces of gold, and this provides a broader perspective — the “gold perspective.” It takes into account factors that are considered unquantifiable through the narrower “fiat perspective” that banks and financial media prefer to use. It also shows up real inflation.
Two Policies the Fed Uses to Rob Savers and Taxpayers
Under the gold standard, governments are more transparent in raising funds through direct taxation. Under a fiat system and a central bank, they have to be much more secretive. There are two policies or practices currently being used to transfer wealth from the public to the government. These are:
1. Financial Repression
Financial repression is a hidden form of wealth confiscation that employs three tactics:
(i) indirect taxation through inflation;
(ii) the involuntary assumption of government debt by the taxpayer (like the Fed’s purchase of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac CDOs);
(iii) debasement or inflation brought about through unbridled currency creation and capital controls; and
2. Government’s Position on Bail-ins and the Illusion of FDIC Insurance
Many believe their bank deposits are insured against bank failure, as this is the Fed’s main argument for its existence. This is far from the truth, since the FDIC could only cover .008 percent of the banks’ derivative losses in the event of major bank failures. Banks legally see depositors as “unsecured creditors,” as proven by the Cyprus bail-in.
The Fed’s Real Accomplishment
When measured against gold, the U.S. dollar has lost 96 percent of its purchasing power since the Fed’s inception in 1913. This is mainly through currency debasement, which leads to inflation. Real inflation, if measured using the original basket of goods used until the Boskin Commission in 1995 changed the rules, is running about 6 percent higher than is officially acknowledged, according to John Williams of ShadowStats.com. The CPI used to measure a “fixed standard of living” with a fixed basket of goods. Today, it measures the cost of living with a constantly changing basket of goods, measured with metrics that are themselves constantly changing.
History shows countries following the gold standard have a higher standard of living, stronger morals, and an aversion to costly wars.
Thanks to the Fed’s irresponsibility, foreign governments and investors are exiting the dollar and U.S. Treasuries, leaving the Fed as the buyer of last resort. This has painted the Fed into a corner, because it will be difficult, if not impossible, to curtail its bond and CDO purchases through its QE program, or to raise interest rates without crashing the markets.
When economists and historians can objectively look back at this past century, they will likely find the Fed, as well as the world’s other central banks, indirectly or directly responsible for:
• Personal income tax (introduced the same year as the Federal Reserve Act)
• Two world wars
• Several smaller unproductive wars
• The expropriation of U.S. gold in 1934
• The Great Depression
• Loss of morality in money and government
• Expansion of government to unprecedented levels
• The many economic bubbles that left countless investors ruined
• The decimation of the U.S. dollar’s purchasing power
• The spread of moral hazard throughout the global financial community
• Destruction of the middle class
• Migration of gold from West to East
The main thesis is that gold will continue rising because several exponential, long-term and irreversible trends will continue forcing the need for greater and greater government debt, and government debt is the main driver of the price of gold, as we can see in Figure 1. For the past decade, debt and the gold price have shared a conspicuously close relationship.
These trends—the rising and aging population, dwindling natural resources, outsourcing and movement away from the U.S. dollar—continue to develop.
As the following in-depth presentation notes, this has been going on since the Fed’s inception:
PRISM is driving the uptake of privacy services, but there’s no simple solution to beating the NSA|Washington’s Blog
Washington’s Blog. (source)
While Edward Snowden’s PRISM revelations failed to spark much widespread outrage among the general public, an apparent spike in the uptake of Virtual Private Networks suggests the online privacy market could be entering a golden period. But when commerce is driven by fear there is plenty of opportunity for exploitation and many privacy-concerned citizens may be lulled into a false sense of security over services that won’t protect their data.
In the two months after the NSA’s spying programme was uncovered by the Guardian, IVPN – the Virtual Private Network platform I work for – saw a 56% increase in sign-ups to our platform. Following this spike we decided to run a survey, asking our subscribers what motivated them to sign-up to a VPN. Out of the eight anti-online privacy programmes we listed (ranging from SOPA to the Patriot Act) PRISM came top by a clear margin, with a 28% share of the vote. These findings werebacked-up from a number of other VPNs, who said they’ve also seen an increase in interest since the revelations. Not to mention the much publicized numbers released by privacy-orientated search engine DuckDuckGo, which reported a 50% traffic increase in the wake of PRISM.
The fact internet users are becoming more privacy-conscious is certainly encouraging, but readers who are technically minded may have already spotted a slight problem with the above findings: VPNs won’t protect you from the type of surveillance detailed in Snowden’s leaked documents.
PRISM involved creating backdoors into major online services, allowing the NSA to monitor the content of emails and other communications. VPNs will prevent evesdroppers from knowing where you’re located and the contents of your traffic. But they won’t prevent someone accessing Google’s or Facebook’s servers, where your personal information is stored.
But the problem goes deeper than this. Some VPNs have been disingenuously cashing in on privacy fears before the emergence of PRISM – and are continuing to do so. To understand how, you need to understand how VPNs protect your privacy beyond that of an ISP. The vast majority of ISPs operate a data retention policy of some kind. This means they store information on users, such as your IP address (which uniquely identifies you) and web logs (which record every website you’ve visited). In Europedata retention is mandated and there are some in Washington who want to take the same route. But even though it’s not written into law, we know US ISPs retain data anyway, in order to cooperate with law enforcement investigations.
VPN privacy-services supposedly offer protection from this data retention, by keeping logs for no more than a few days (or in some cases a few minutes). If there’s no data stored then it’s impossible for a VPN to cooperate with law enforcement requests to access it. Many VPN customers sign-up because they assume this is the case. But it’s frequently not. In fact, some VPNs have even worse data retention policies than ISPs. For instance HideMyAss, which is perhaps the most popular VPN on the market,retains data for two years, and this was only acknowledged after the company handed a hacker over to the FBI.
Despite PRISM being met with some cynicism by the population, the rising interest in privacy tools suggests the wider community is not quite as apathetic toward privacy as we may think. But at the same time we should not fall into the trap of believing there is a magic bullet to solve the problem of overzealous government surveillance. Even widely used, open source, tools such as TOR have their vulnerabilities. The best tools in the fight to reclaim our online freedoms are education and the support of activist organisations – such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation – in order to continue to pressure our political system and keep the issue on its agenda.
- PRISM is the biggest influence on VPN sign-ups (ivpn.net)
- Protesters march in Washington against NSA spying (reuters.com)
- It’s time for Silicon Valley to ask: Is it worth it? (pandodaily.com)
- Four Ways To Escape The NSA Dragnet (ramyabdeljabbar.wordpress.com)
Rather than go to exhaustive lengths identifying the “terrorists,” we identify (based on every piece of data you have ever touched in your life) the ‘patriots’ and thus, by process of elimination find the real terrorists…
- ZeroHedge: Patriot Act Author Calls For Clapper’s Prosecution And Reign In NSA Abuses (silveristhenew.com)
- NSA lies? Agency lacks evidence it thwarted 54 terrorist attacks (rinf.com)
- Patriot Act author prepares bill to put NSA bulk collection ‘out of business’ | World news | theguardian.com (theguardian.com)