Posts Tagged ‘Top Secret America’

Big Brother scene: Links & comments 10/23/13

October 23, 2013

The United States is not a totalitarian country, but there are all-too-many Americans with a totalitarian mentality.

The US government’s secrecy problem just got worse by Elizabeth Goiten for Al Jazeera America.

A federal judge ruled that the U.S. government is justified in keeping information secret when its disclosure could be used as propaganda by terrorist organizations.  In other words, the worse the crime committed by the government, the more reason to keep it secret from the public.

In the long run, the best defense against anti-American propaganda is not to commit crimes and abuses of power.  This decision goes the other way.  It gives the government the legal right to enforce coverups.

We already know that the government classifies information as secret in order to cover up mistakes and wrongdoing.  This court decision says that the government has a legal right to do this.

Why I Will Never, Ever, Go Back to the United States by Niels Gerson Lohman.

A Dutch novelist describes his experience trying to cross from Canada into the United States—hours of questioning about his life followed by a determination that he should be barred from the USA because he had visited too many majority-Muslim countries.

Many foreigners report that the experience of entering the United States is much like entering the old Soviet Union before it fell.  Aside from the wrongness of giving low-level government employees such arbitrary power, is this the face that we Americans want to present to the world?

Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China by Andrew Jacobs for the New York Times.

The Chinese government demands the right to censor and alter books by Americans before it will allow them to be translated and published in China.  Many (but not all) American authors go along with this for the sake of royalties in the huge Chinese market.

Support for Legalizing Marijuana Grows to Highest Point Ever in Gallup Poll by Ariel Edwards-Levy for the Huffington Post.

Gallup reported that 58 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana.  The war on drugs does great harm, especially to young black men in U.S. cities.  But there is a vested interest for continuing in the prison industry and especially among police departments that get income from property seizures in drug cases.

 

A hidden world, still growing beyond control

June 8, 2013

Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William R. Arkin wrote a fine series three years ago about the out-of-control growth of secret national security and intelligence agencies.   The recent PRISM disclosures make it more relevant than ever.  Here’s their lede, following by some of my miscellaneous thoughts:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

top.secretAfter nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

via washingtonpost.com.

The fact that an enormous amount of money is being spent, and nobody knows quite how to account for it, has a corollary:  Some people are making a lot of money, and have a vested interest in keeping their income stream.

The PRISM program is not a new concept, although its scope is unprecedented.  As early at 1997, before the 9/11 attacks, the FBI was using a software program called Carnivore to monitor and process electronic and e-mail communication.

The Total Information Awareness program supposedly was abolished in 2003.  Click to view.

The Total Information Awareness program supposedly was abolished in 2003.  Click to view.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created what it called the Total Information Awareness program, which gathered and correlated information on everyone in the United States, including phone calls, social networks, credit card records, phone calls and medical records.   When it became known, there was a great public outcry, and Congress de-funded the program in 2003.  But evidently the essential part of the program continued to exist.

I remember J. Edgar Hoover and the enormous power he wielded because of the Federal Bureau of Investigations files.  If you were a politician or public official and you displeased J. Edgar Hoover, chances are that the FBI had a file on you, and that any sexual, political or financial indiscretion would be leaked to favored members of the press.   He gathered and leaked information on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he regarded as a Communist.  No President dared interfere with him.

Now maybe there isn’t anybody in the National Security Agency who is exactly like J. Edgar Hoover.   Maybe the NSA is completely focused on its mission to learn about potential threats to the United States, and never abuses its power.  Behind the NSA cloak of secrecy, there’s no way to tell.  Knowledge is power.  When a secret government agency potentially can know everything there is to know about citizens, but citizens have no right to know anything about the secret agency, that is a power imbalance that is not compatible with American freedom and democracy as I was brought up to believe in them.

I remember that the government did have all the information it needed to stop the 9/11 attacks, including reports of suspicious characters taking pilot lessons, but not bothering to learn how to land the planes.  The problem was not a lack of information, but lack of ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff.   I don’t think that indiscriminately collecting more chaff necessarily makes the country safer.

Another aspect of the PRISM program is what it does to the ability of companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple to compete overseas.  No foreign company will want to buy a product that contains a trapdoor for the National Security Agency.   As somebody remarked, it would be as if every Japanese car contained a tracking device so that Japanese intelligence could know your location at all times.   You probably would not be reassured if the Japanese government said that they only tracked foreigners and not Japanese citizens.

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Speaking of wasteful government spending…

July 18, 2011

Double click to enlarge

Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin wrote a series of articles last year reporting on secret intelligence agencies, whose very existence is a secret and which are growing out of control.  It was great journalism.

Aside from the implications for basic Constitutional liberties of unaccountable secret surveillance agencies, aside from the implications for democracy of secret agencies accountable to nobody, maintaining this secret world costs a great deal of money.

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

The Washington Post … discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight.   After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine. …

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001.  Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

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Thoughts about Top Secret America

July 20, 2010

Some thoughts about the Washington Post’s great series, Top Secret America, which came out this week, about the uncontrolled proliferation of secret intelligence and surveillance agencies.

1.  The series shows the value of traditional newspapers dedicated to journalism as a public service, and of the Washington Post specifically.  There is good journalism on Internet web logs, but none of them have the resources to conduct a two-year effort such as this.  At the same time the Post’s web site provides information that its print edition could not include.

I don’t know whether printing this series contributed to the newspaper’s profitability, compared to alternative uses of its resources.  I suspect that it did not, and I feel sure this was not a consideration going forward.  I don’t know whether you can have good journalism on a pure business model.

2. Back in 2004, there was concern about duplication and lack of coordination in intelligence activities, and Congress created the office of Director of National Intelligence under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.  But because of objections of existing intelligence agencies, the DNI was not given any actual authority to hire and fire or give orders – just to coordinate.  This is another example of how not quite doing the job is equivalent to not doing the job.

On the other hand, a certain amount of redundancy and duplication is a good thing.  Otherwise there is no margin for error and no exploration of alternatives.  It is a question of “how much” and not “whether.”

3.  The question of civil liberties is more important than the question of waste and inefficiency.  Would it be better if intelligence agencies really could keep track of the phone calls and e-mails of every American citizen? The government has virtually unlimited powers of surveillance, plus powers to imprison people without criminal charges, to torture, to assassinate and to silence whistle-blowers to reveal abuses of power.  It is a leap of faith to think that such powers were never be abused either by President Obama or by any President ever to hold office in the future.

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