The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is calling for President Obama´s administration to release secret files that would shed light on the previous US government´s security and surveillance policies, including the now use of torture and warrantless surveillance. It´s a good move of course, but as I´ve previously remarked, the NSA and others have been doing this for almost 50 years, either directly or indirectly through UKUSA allies, warrants or no warrants, so what makes anyone think that they only started doing this under Bush or will stop if such information is released? As intelligence researcher, Loch K. Johnson, remarked about the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s, one thing they showed was that, when it came to illegal intelligence activities, the office of the President was an irrelevancy. Bush was probably even more irrelevant than most. Still, sunlight is the best disinfectant… but if Obama can change the internal culture of US intelligence, he will truly have performed a miracle.
One story I didn’t mention last week, but which still seems to be doing the rounds, is the saga of new US President Obama´s PDA. Obama is well-known as a Blackberry-addict, using it constantly during the campaign, but as CNET pointed out such wireless devices are known to be highly insecure and vulnerable to all kinds of illicit monitoring and capture. There is, however, one device approved by the US National Security Agency (NSA), which its own employees use, the Sectera Edge Secure Mobile Environment Portable Electronic Device (SME PED), made by defence contractor, General Dynamics C4 Systems of Scottsdale, Arizona. It looks pretty similar to athe Palm Treo series, apart from the strengthned chasis, ‘secure’ ports and special ‘trusted’ display… all this for just $3500! (I hope he´s better at not losing his phones than me…)
The rest of us, I guess will just have to put up with our insecure communications. The CNET article gives plenty of scary examples of just how insecure they are to simple hacking, even without the NSA’s rather more sophisticated programs. Of course even such NSA-approved ‘secure’ systems will undoubtedly have built-in backdoors that are accessible to the NSA, which is one of the main reasons they are even involved in the development of such technologies. And it is not just these unusual products of course – remember the Windows backdoor revelations from a few years back? Or further back, the Swedish government’s discovery that the NSA could access all their encrypted Lotus Notes documents – this later reverse engineering of the backdoor by Adam Back shows that the spooks are not without a (very bleak) sense of humour. Obama might now have secure communications, but there is always one agency whose evesdropping even he will not be able to avoid…
If the NSA can put this down to a period of bad leadership and bad policy, it might be allowed to get on with what it does relatively unhindered in the Obama era.
Boingboing has a link to a ten-miunte long MSNBC inerview with Russell Tice, an ex-National Security Agency (NSA) employee who is the latest in the long line of NSA whistleblowers after the likes of Wayne Madsen and Magaret Newsham. Tice’s revelations concern the NSA’s monitoring of internal communications in the USA after 9/11. According to Tice, the NSA both swept all US communications and also targeted specific groups, including journalists, for more comprehensive collection.
I have no idea how genuine Tice is and in many ways, despite the occasional choice phrase to describe SIGINT operations like the one with which I titled this post, he is a lot less interesting than Madsen or Newsham in that he’s not really telling us anything we didn’t know already. There is also a rather naive attitude from mainstream organisations like MSNBC that this is all down to the evil President Bush. This seems to suggest a lack of knowledge of history – do they really not remember the massive scandal over the very same use of watchlists by the NSA on behalf of the FBI in the 1960s? The huge inquiry led by Senator Frank Church in the 1970s? Can they continue to pretend that this is all totally new and that we can forget about ECHELON and the fact that this kind of surveillance is pervasive and systematic and becomes more so as technologies of collection, archiving and analysis improve? That is and always has been, what the NSA does in conjunction with its UKUSA network of largely subordinate allies and helpers (see this nice summary from Le Monde).
Of course this could be another explanation of Tice’s role, and the reason why he is being allowed to do the rounds of the newspapers and TV stations. Far from being simply a disaffected employee, he might be either a knowing or unknowing part of a media strategy by the NSA. If the NSA can put this down to a period of bad leadership and bad policy, it might be allowed to get on with what it does relatively unhindered in the Obama era. We shall see… or rather, we probably won’t!
NB: I wrote my PhD thesis on the networks of NSA-related bases around the world, including Menwith Hill, not far from where I live. It is worth checking out Cryptome’s Eyeball series of aerial views of NSA and other secret sites.