Saturday, June 29, 2013

America's Edward Snowden problem

[This piece originally appeared at Asia Times Online on June 28, 2013.  It can be reposted if ATOl is acknowledged and a link provided.]

 The main problem for Edward Snowden is that he ran away. That's not Edward Snowden's problem; it's America's problem. The idea that Edward Snowden decided to flee overseas in order to deliver his revelations of massive US government surveillance is awkward for the United States politically, and difficult for a lot of Americans on the emotional level.

Some complain that Snowden did not do what might be characterized as "the full Ellsberg", bravely and patriotically staying in the United States to face the legal music as did Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, did in 1971. Tim Weiner, a former national security reporter for the New York Times, made the case in a Bloomberg op-ed:
Snowden should have the courage to come home, to fight in court, under the law. He has damaged his cause by fleeing to China, then to Russia. Why seek refuge in bastions of repression? Why contemplate asylum in Ecuador, a country with one of the worst records on free speech and free press in the Western Hemisphere? Why does he act like a spy on the run from a country he betrayed?

He does his cause no good by hiding. If he stood trial, as Daniel Ellsberg did after leaking the Pentagon Papers, he could try to justify his disclosure of national-security secrets. He conceivably might even win, if only a moral victory. [1]
This is apparently not an opinion that Daniel Ellsberg himself shares.

Speaking on the Scott Horton show on June 20, Ellsberg said:
But meanwhile, the treatment of him, and the pronouncements by everybody here, like - I'm talking about Snowden now - have convinced Snowden, and I think very realistically, that if he wanted to be able to tell the public what he had done and why he had done it and what his motives were and what the patterns of criminality were in the material that he was releasing, it had to be outside the United States. Otherwise he would be in perhaps the same cell that Bradley Manning was, and that's a military cell.

The NDAA, National Defense Authorization Act, permits military custody indefinitely of an American citizen who's a civilian, and Snowden could very well find himself at Quantico, naked perhaps like Bradley was for a while, and be really incommunicado, as Bradley has been for three years with the single exception of being allowed to make a statement when he pled guilty to 10 charges. And that's the only chance he had to speak out. So I think Snowden has learned from that example. [2]
It might be pointed out that it is still not too late for Snowden to win the grudging respect of the nation's national security pundits with some post-revelation self-immolation. After all, Daniel Ellsberg did not fling himself into the fire of US justice at the first opportunity.

Ellsberg, a distinguished member of the national security establishment who routinely hobnobbed with senators, Henry Kissinger, and a sympathetic cohort of reporters who shared his first-hand experience and revulsion with the Vietnam War, at first declined to identify himself as the source of the leak. Instead, he went into hiding for 13 days after the New York Times broke the Pentagon Papers story in order to evade "the largest FBI manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping", avoid questioning, achieve the maximum publicity for his disclosures, and circulate the Papers to as many media outlets as possible.

After the Justice Department finally collected enough evidence (from Ellsberg's ex-wife) to justify issuing an arrest warrant, Ellsberg held off surrendering for another two days to make sure he could finish distributing the last of the Pentagon Papers copies in his possession.

So Edward Snowden still might have a chance to redeem himself in Tim Weiner's eyes - after he's milked his laptops for all they are worth.

Weiner also makes the argument that Snowden is discrediting "his cause" by "seeking refuge in bastions of repression".

This argument was echoed by Ken Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, who did his organization no favors by peppering Snowden's travels with a series of dismissive tweets and retweets:

ian bremmer @ianbremmer 23 Jun:
Edward Snowden, martyr for online freedom and privacy, now passing thru Moscow? Say hi to Alexei @Navalny while you're there.
Retweeted by Kenneth Roth
@KenRoth, 23 Jun: If Snowden's reported itinerary is true, China-Russia-Cuba-Venezuela is hardly an archipelago of free expression.

Kenneth Roth @KenRoth 23 Jun: Snowden's @Ecuador is limiting asylum rights and criminalizing journalists who harm security

Kenneth Roth @KenRoth 5h: As Snowden proceeds on his itinerary of govt censorship, it's an opportunity to blow the whistle on their repression.

Weiner also went the extra mile and called Snowden a coward - "maybe".
[Snowden] had a fight-or-flight moment. He fled. I don't think he is a traitor. But I do think he may be a coward.
It seems rather perverse to demand that Snowden, in addition to the difficulties he has already experienced, eschew any potential haven and offer himself up as a human sacrifice in an attempt to demonstrate the worthiness of himself and his cause to his most determined critics.

Some people also have a problem with Snowden's statement that he took employment with the consulting firm Booz Allen for the purpose of collecting more documents. It appears that for some observers Snowden's whistleblowing are understandable and forgivable only as ungovernable moral outrage, a spasm of uncontrollable insanity, and not a calculated effort to document for the US public the almost unimaginable reach of the US surveillance apparatus.

The most interesting expression of the "impulsive dingbat" meme is the one that accuses Snowden of almost criminal naivete in carrying his four laptops of US government secrets into the lair of America's enemies (of course, we are not at war with China or Russia, but that is a complication that the press has largely chosen not to address).

As the China newsletter Sinocism reported, identical language was deployed in two backgrounders designed to place the onus on Snowden to prove he was not a spy:
Regardless of how Snowden came to land in Hong Kong and then Moscow, US intelligence agencies must assume that China and Russia have debriefed Snowden and now have all the digital information he brought with him, said one of the officials. Such a debriefing could have been direct or through intermediaries that Snowden may not have known were giving what they learned to a foreign intelligence agency, the official said. [3]
Considering that the US government does not even know where Snowden is, let alone to whom he is talking, this exercise in pre-emptive accusation achieves Bush-in-Iraq levels of factless innuendo that must be a source of perverse pride to the Obama administration.

In its invocation of "all the digital information" (as opposed to "all the documents"), the White House talking points also slide over the interesting issue of encryption, something that Snowden, as a former NSA employee, is presumably well-aware of, but does not fit in with the public framing of Snowden as an impulsive, destructive, and self-destructive naif.

The successful 1990s battle against US attempts to curb the export and extensive use of encryption technology is one of the few instances in which, depending on your point of view, the public was able to fight the surveillance state to a draw-or the bad guys won. Today, 256-bit encryption is good enough for US government Top Secret classification data. It's also probably good enough for Snowden's laptop.

Breaking encryption is one of the NSA's holy grails. Currently, there is reportedly no computer fast enough to handle brute force decryption - though the NSA is working on that, too, thanks to several billion of America's tax dollars. NSA decryption gets help from "side-channel" attacks that pick up information leakage from the encryption process and use it to assist the massive NSA computers.

In the area of dirty pool, there is keylogging, surreptitious entry, and even rumors that the US government has corrupted the open source software commonly used to generate the random numbers used in the encryption process, thereby reducing the universe of used numbers to make cracking more feasible. If one has access to the physical person of the encrypter, there is also the less elegant "rubber hose cryptanalysis" - using coercion to obtain the encryption key from somebody who knows it.

Long story short, if Snowden has encrypted his laptops, even if the Russian and Chinese security services were able to copy the hard drives (access "all the digital information") and get to work on them (and there is no evidence as yet that this has occurred), it is unlikely that they would be able to decrypt them (retrieve "all the documents") unless they have sustained access to, and active cooperation from, Snowden.

If the United States is really concerned about this happening, that might be a good reason to make some deal with Snowden to bring him home, not to let him continue to hang around Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow under the interested eyes of Russia's FSB.

The good news is, Snowden has encrypted the data on the insurance files he has salted around the Internet, and it is a safe assumption that he has done the same for his hard drives.

Per the Daily Beast:
The former NSA systems administrator has already given encoded files containing an archive of the secrets he lifted from his old employer to several people. If anything happens to Snowden, the files will be unlocked... [Glenn] Greenwald [the journalist with Britain's Guardian newspaper who broke the news of Snowden's flight with secret information] added that the people in possession of these files "cannot access them yet because they are highly encrypted and they do not have the passwords." But, Greenwald said, "if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden, he told me he has arranged for them to get access to the full archives." [4]
This information provides an interesting perspective on Snowden's travails in Hong Kong. Apparently, he left Hong Kong because it appeared he would be detained for a prolonged period of time while his extradition and/or asylum case wound its way through the courts, and he could not be assured of access to his laptops during this period.
According to [Hong Kong lawyer Albert] Ho, Snowden was upset to learn that he may have to spend years in prison during litigation over whether he would be granted asylum in Hong Kong or be sent to the United States. He was particularly scared that he could lose access to his computer.

"He didn't go out, he spent all his time inside a tiny space, but he said it was OK because he had his computer," Ho said. "If you were to deprive him of his computer, that would be totally intolerable." [5]
One of Snowden's critics on the liberal side of the blogosphere sneered at Snowden's anxieties: going offline - it's the new waterboarding. 

If Snowden were separated from his laptops, he would not be able to control the pace and content of the document releases. He would have to provide the decryption key to a partner, thereby putting his fate in the hands of Greenwald or, if Greenwald got hit by a truck or whatever, whoever was left to pick up the pieces.

Again, drawing on the case of Ellsberg, it is interesting that, according to his own account, Ellsberg hesitated so much about giving the New York Times control over the Pentagon Papers story that, after weeks of dithering, he never gave them the papers. After Ellsberg tipped off fabled NYT Vietnam correspondent Neil Sheehan to the papers, Sheehan and his wife surreptitiously entered the apartment in Boston where the papers were stored, copied them all, and prepared the Times series without telling Ellsberg what was going on (I will admit this smells like a nod-and-wink stratagem concocted between Ellsberg and his close friend Sheehan to relieve Ellsberg of the legal onus of having actively passed the classified documents to the New York Times; nevertheless, that is the story he chose to tell 35 years after the fact - see p375 of Ellsberg's memoir Secrets - and his hesitation over handing the Papers over to the New York Times seems to have been genuine).

In considering the security issues involved, consider these remarks that Greenwald made to the Daily Beast (including the possibility that Greenwald's laptop got stolen because somebody thought it contained Snowden's trove, an item that has gotten remarkably little play):
For now, Greenwald said he is taking extra precautions against the prospect that he is a target of US surveillance. He said he began using encrypted email when he began communicating with Snowden in February after Snowden sent him a YouTube video walking him through the procedure to encrypt his email.

"When I was in Hong Kong, I spoke to my partner in Rio via Skype and told him I would send an electronic encrypted copy of the documents," Greenwald said. "I did not end up doing it. Two days later his laptop was stolen from our house and nothing else was taken. Nothing like that has happened before. I am not saying it's connected to this, but obviously the possibility exists."

When asked if Greenwald believed his computer was being monitored by the US government. "I would be shocked if the US government were not trying to access the information on my computer. I carry my computers and data with me everywhere I go." [6]
And, rest assured, Snowden also wishes to have access to his computers wherever he goes.

Beyond the need to keep control over the laptops, the story, and his future, one can also speculate that Snowden has to send out a safe message periodically, perhaps from his laptops, to prevent release of the decryption key that would allow the contents of the insurance files to be read.

The Obama administration has been less than sure-footed in its response to the Snowden shock.

Certainly, after 16 months of painstaking and systematic preparation of the Chinese cyber-espionage dossier, orchestration of a six-month campaign of public hysterics about the Chinese cyber-threat, and, just as he was about to present a lovingly prepared hit list of Chinese cyber villains to President Xi Jinping at Sunnylands in California this month, President Obama's campaign received a nasty and unexpected jolt courtesy of Edward Snowden.

President Obama had the opportunity to shrug off the Snowden revelations - or handle them as an element in the US domestic debate over intensive/extensive NSA surveillance - and manage America's cyber issues with the People's Republic of China as a separate matter.

Instead, the United States at first decided to make a big deal out of the patent disinterest of the PRC, Hong Kong, and Russia in detaining Snowden for return to the United States, and embarked on a whispering campaign apparently designed to use Snowden's Hong Kong/Moscow/? itinerary to push him out of the embarrassing whistleblower category and into the despised spy/traitor camp.

General Keith Alexander, the NSA troll who lives under your bridge in order to extract your metadata, your data, your audio, and who knows what else, appeared before a congressional committee to assert that Snowden had done "irreversible and significant damage" to the United States. Peter King called Snowden a defector. Dick Cheney called him a traitor.

The Obama White House apparatchiks (and Hillary Clinton) expressed the highest of dudgeon at China, Hong Kong, and Russia for not cooperating with the United States, in an effort to shift the framing from "US persecution of whistleblower" to "creepy tyrannies flouting the international rule of law".

Beating on China and Russia to relieve the Obama administration's Snowden-related embarrassment may be an understandable public relations strategy; however, for the PRC it merely affirms that the Obama administration's China policy is hostage to its confrontational policies and ostentatious moralizing, even on the sordid matter - in which President Obama might enjoy Xi Jinping's instinctive sympathy - of seeking the return of a whistleblower so his embarrassing revelations can be suppressed.

Greenwald tried to cut through the fool/defector/spy/traitor chaff being thrown around by the government and its supporters to distract attention from the content of Snowden's leaks and steer the narrative back to what Edward Snowden is: a whistleblower carefully revealing embarrassing secrets - but not vital operational details - in order to force a public debate on surveillance practices that the US government is desperate to keep private.

As Greenwald told the Daily Beast (while offering the interesting observation that he, like legendary NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, believes that Snowden "wandered off the res" a little too far with his revelations to the South China Morning Post about the details of US hacks against China):
Greenwald said he would not have published some of the stories that ran in the South China Morning Post. "Whether I would have disclosed the specific IP addresses in China and Hong Kong the NSA is hacking, I don't think I would have," Greenwald said. "What motivated that leak though was a need to ingratiate himself to the people of Hong Kong and China."

However, Greenwald said that in his dealings with Snowden the 30-year-old systems administrator was adamant that he and his newspaper go through the document and only publish what served the public's right to know. "Snowden himself was vehement from the start that we do engage in that journalistic process and we not gratuitously publish things," Greenwald said. "I do know he was vehement about that. He was not trying to harm the US government; he was trying to shine light on it."

Greenwald said Snowden for example did not wish to publicize information that gave the technical specifications or blueprints for how the NSA constructed its eavesdropping network. "He is worried that would enable other states to enhance their security systems and monitor their own citizens." Greenwald also said Snowden did not wish to repeat the kinds of disclosures made famous a generation ago by former CIA spy, Philip Agee - who published information after defecting to Cuba that outed undercover CIA officers. "He was very insistent he does not want to publish documents to harm individuals or blow anyone's undercover status," Greenwald said.

He added that Snowden told him, "Leaking CIA documents can actually harm people, whereas leaking NSA documents can harm systems."

Greenwald also said his newspaper had no plans to publish the technical specifications of NSA systems. "I do not want to help other states get better at surveillance," Greenwald said. He added, "We won't publish things that might ruin ongoing operations from the US government that very few people would object to the United States doing."
As to the issue of Snowden seeking a haven in nations that are more interested in embarrassing the United States than cooperating with it, I find myself on the same page with these passages from author Alex Berenson, who took to the New York Times op-ed pages to remark:
We have treated a whistle-blower like a traitor - and thus made him a traitor. Great job. Did anyone in the White House or the NSA or the C.I.A. consider flying to Hong Kong and treating Mr Snowden like a human being, offering him a chance to testify before Congress and a fair trial? ... If the masters of the apparatus were really ready to have an honest discussion about their powers, Mr Snowden might have wound up not in Moscow, but back in Washington, his girl by his side on the Capitol steps, headed for a few years in prison and then a job with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. [7]
The ironic thing is, there is probably still time for the United States to acknowledge Snowden as a whistleblower and perhaps even negotiate with him for his return to the United States.

But it doesn't look like that is going to happen. The Obama administration has apparently learned from the backlash to its scolding of China and Russia and widespread international indifference (or active hostility from the foreign subjects of US surveillance) to the US government's extravagant claims of grievance over the cyber-violation it has allegedly experienced at the hands of Snowden.

During a press availability in Senegal, Obama pooh-poohed the idea that he would be "scrambling fighters" to pursue a "29-year-old hacker" (in the process implying that, despite the anguished vaporings in the popular press about the contents of Snowden's laptops, the US government is confident, perhaps on the basis of information provided by Snowden himself, of the level of encryption protecting the data).

Meanwhile, quiet pressure on Ecuador has apparently elicited a repudiation of the provisional travel document that was somehow extracted from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Current predictions are that Snowden may rusticate at the airport in Moscow for months, raising the possibility that Putin will eventually offer Snowden asylum, thereby giving the United States the perfect excuse to forget about Snowden and his awkward information.

Considering the steady drip of damaging revelations that Snowden and the Guardian seem prepared to provide (today, NSA collection of the e-mail metadata of US persons under Bush and Obama was added to the sizable list of questionable surveillance activities), for the next few weeks the Obama administration's best hope - and evolving strategy - is to get the American people, against their most visceral instincts, to stop caring about Edward Snowden.

1. Come Home, Edward Snowden. Stand Up and Fight., Bloomberg, June 24, 2013.
2. See here.
3. The Sinocism China Newsletter, June 25, 2013.
4. Greenwald: Snowden's Files Are Out There if 'Anything Happens' to Him, The Daily Beast, June 25, 2013.
5. See here.
6. See note 4.
7. Snowden, Through the Eyes of a Spy Novelist, The New York Times, June 25, 2013.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Edward Snowden and the NSA's Three Wise Whistleblowers

[This piece originally appeared at Asia Times Online on June 21, 2013.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.  Thanks to some missed connections during the editing process, in one passage in the ATOl piece, the Daily Caller is misidentified as the Daily Beast...and in another passage the Daily Caller is mischaracterized as the online successor to Newsweek, no doubt causing both Tina Brown and Tucker Carlson to weep bitter tears.  I've corrected it here and ATOl will presumably correct their version in the next day or two.]

Whistleblowing is a risky business.

I expect that, as they planned their course of action over the four months, Edward Snowden and his main media minder, Glenn Greenwald, paid very close attention to what happened to three past whistleblowers who crossed the NSA. And looking at these three men gives an idea of the interests, principles and powers that are being contested beneath the superficially simple tale of a young analyst who fled to Hong Kong to tell the world about runaway US government surveillance.

There is no evidence to suggest that the three whistleblowers, who convincingly say that they live under the closest US government surveillance, had any prior knowledge of Snowden's exploit; but there are considerable indications that his situation and the information he holds are the focus of their concern and, in turn, Snowden was guided by their example and experiences.

There are three well-known NSA whistleblowers: Bill Binney, J Kirk Wiebe, and Tom Drake. They were whistleblowers in the legal sense - they reported to the Inspector General of the Department of Defense and, subsequently, oversight committees of the US Congress that a multi-billion dollar NSA data collection program known as Trailblazer was ineffective and wasteful and another one, Stellar Wind, had been programmed to strip out procedures that prevented acquisition of the data of US citizens (and assured the constitutionality of the program).

These three gentlemen were not, with all due respect to Edward Snowden, pimply-faced junior techs with pole-dancer girlfriends.

Drake had spent 12 years at NSA and, before that, 10 years in the Air Force specializing in intelligence.

Bill Binney had worked for the NSA for 30 years and had risen to the position of Technical Director of the World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group.

Wiebe had worked for the NSA for 30 years, was awarded the NSA's Meritorious Civilian Service Award, and finished out his career as senior analyst.

Pure organization men, Binney, Wiebe, and Drake followed the chain of command and the procedures for whistleblowing - and passed no classified information to the press. Yet they were undone by the hostility of the NSA.

The NSA, under Michael Hayden, is generally considered to have blown it by not picking up the 9/11 conspiracy. Binney and Wiebe rubbed salt into the wound by telling Congress that the NSA's decision to go with Trailblazer was responsible.

Hayden, fulminating, sent out a memo declaring that "individuals, in a session with our congressional overseers, took a position in direct opposition to one that we had corporately decided to follow ... Actions contrary to our decisions will have a serious adverse effect on our efforts to transform NSA, and I cannot tolerate them."

Binney, Wiebe, and Drake's complaints became public knowledge in 2007, after the Bush administration searched for the sources of an unrelated leak to the New York Times' James Risen for his expose of illegal NSA surveillance of US citizens.

The FBI decided to talk to Binney. He described his experience to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!:
Well, they came in, and there were like 12 FBI agents with their guns drawn, and came in. My son opened the door, let them in, and they pushed him out of the way at gunpoint. And they came upstairs to where my wife was getting dressed, and I was in the shower, and they were pointing guns at her, and then they - one of the agents came into the shower and pointed a gun directly at me, at my head, and of course pulled me out of the shower. So I had a towel, at least, to wrap around, but - so that's what they did.

And then they took me out and interrogated me on the back porch. And when they did that, they tried to get me - they said they wanted me to tell them something that would be - implicate someone in a crime. ... I said I didn't really know about anything. And they said they thought I was lying. Well, at that point, "OK," I said, "I'll tell you about the crime I know about," and that was that Hayden, Tenet, George Bush, Dick Cheney, they conspired to subvert the constitution and the constitutional process of checks and balances
Wiebe and Drake's experiences were similar. None of them were implicated in the leak.

In 2010, Binney and Wiebe finally received Letters of Immunity from the Justice Department confirming their whistleblower protection. Drake, however, was less fortunate. After being threatened with spending "the rest of his natural life behind bars" if he didn't provide information on the source of the leak to the New York Times, and several years in the NSA/Department of Justice wringer, he was finally indicted and put on trial.

In 2011, Drake - having by now left the NSA to work in the local Apple store - rejected two plea deals offered by the government and finally settled for no admission of sharing classified information and one year of probation and community service for "exceeding authorized use of a computer".

This reminds me of a cartoon strip about Dilbert accepting a misdemeanor plea of "lewd conduct with appliances" after being falsely accused of stealing a computer.

As to the question of whether Snowden should have worked within the system as they had, the three NSA men were strikingly straightforward in an interview with USA Today:

Q: Did Edward Snowden do the right thing in going public?

William Binney: We tried to stay for the better part of seven years inside the government trying to get the government to recognize the unconstitutional, illegal activity that they were doing and openly admit that and devise certain ways that would be constitutionally and legally acceptable to achieve the ends they were really after. And that just failed totally because no one in Congress or - we couldn't get anybody in the courts, and certainly the Department of Justice and inspector general's office didn't pay any attention to it. And all of the efforts we made just produced no change whatsoever. All it did was continue to get worse and expand.

Q: So Snowden did the right thing?

Binney: Yes, I think he did.

Q: You three wouldn't criticize him for going public from the start?

J. Kirk Wiebe: Correct.

Binney: In fact, I think he saw and read about what our experience was, and that was part of his decision-making.

Wiebe: We failed, yes.
Looking at what happened to the NSA's three wise men, it would appear very unlikely that Snowden, a wet-behind-the-ears grunt in the infowars, could get a private or public hearing in the United States for his complaints about the NSA before he disappeared beneath an FBI dogpile ... or worse, in the opinion of the three:
Q: What should Edward Snowden expect now?

Binney: Well, first of all, I think he should expect to be treated just like Bradley Manning [an army private now being court-martialed for leaking documents to WikiLeaks]. The US government gets ahold of him, that's exactly the way he will be treated.

Q: He'll be prosecuted?

Binney: First tortured, then maybe even rendered and tortured and then incarcerated and then tried and incarcerated or even executed.

Wiebe: Now there is another possibility, that a few of the good people on Capitol Hill - the ones who say the threat is much greater than what we thought it was - will step forward and say give this man an honest day's hearing. You know what I mean. Let's get him up here. Ask him to verify, because if he is right - and all pointers are that he was - all he did was point to law-breaking. What is the crime of that?

Drake: But see, I am Exhibit No. 1. ...You know, I was charged with 10 felony counts. I was facing 35 years in prison. This is how far the state will go to punish you out of retaliation and reprisal and retribution. ... My life has been changed. It's been turned inside, upside down. I lived on the blunt end of the surveillance bubble. ... When you are faced essentially with the rest of your life in prison, you really begin to understand and appreciate more so than I ever have - in terms of four times I took the oath to support the Constitution - what those rights and freedoms really mean. ...

Believe me, they are going to put everything they have got to get him. I think there really is a risk. There is a risk he will eventually be pulled off the street.
There is another reason to pay attention to Binney, Wiebe, and Drake.

Binney and Wiebe are experts in - perhaps even invented - the automated surveillance techniques Snowden is talking about. Binney, in particular, is described as a brilliant crypto-analyst - "regarded as one of the best code breakers and mathematicians in the NSA's history", according to a documentary film by Laura Poitras - who came up with the automated distributed data analysis solution, ThinThread, that correlated data to targets in real time and only forwarded relevant hits to the NSA mothership.

This is in contrast to Trailblazer, which vacuumed up everything and sent it home in the hope that the data could be mined retroactively, but in time to reveal some dangerous plots.

Binney's opinion that ThinThread could have stopped 9/11 - if Hayden hadn't stopped ThinThread in 2000 and proceeded with Trailblazer instead - certainly contributed to the rancor with which the NSA pursued Binney.

Jane Meyer reported in the New Yorker that, in one of life's little ironies, as Trailblazer was headed to the intel boneyard post-9/11 as an unworkable, over-budget boondoggle, the NSA allegedly picked up Binney's ThinThread, stripped out the code which encrypted the data of US citizens until a warrant was obtained, and started running it under the codename Stellar Wind for targeted and unwarranted surveillance of US citizens as well as foreign subjects. Thereby, "violation of the Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure" was added to "fraud, waste, and mismanagement" on Binney's menu of grievances against the NSA.

In an interview Binney gave to Daily Caller, he gave an idea of how the system works:
Daily Caller: But what universe of information are we talking about that's available to the NSA?

Binney: The former FBI agent, Tim Clemente, says they can get access to the content of any audio, any phone call. He says that there are no digital communications that are safe or secure. So that means that they were tapping into the databases that NSA has. For the recorded audio, and for the textual materials like emails and phone.

Daily Caller: All textual material?

Binney: Any kind of textual material is relatively easy to get. The audio is a little more difficult. Now I don't think they're recording all of it; there are about 3 billion phone calls made within the USA every day. And then around the world, there are something like 10 billion a day. But, while they may not record anywhere near all of that, what they do is take their target list, which is somewhere on the order of 500,000 to a million people. They look through these phone numbers and they target those and that's what they record.

Daily Caller: There's been some talk about the authorities having a recording of a phone call [alleged Boston marathon bomber] Tamerlan Tsarnaev had with his wife. That would be something before the bombing?

Binney: Before the bombing, yes.

Daily Caller: Then how would they have that audio?

Binney: Because the NSA recorded it.

Daily Caller: But apparently the Russians tipped off the FBI, which then did a cursory interview and cleared him. So how were they recording him?

Binney: Because the Russians gave a warning for him as a target. Once you're on a list, they start recording everything. That's what I'm saying.

Daily Caller: So why didn't they prevent the bombing?

Binney: Once you've recorded something, that doesn't mean they have it transcribed. It depends on what they transcribe and what they do with the transcription. ... They can do textual processing at a rate of about 10 gigabits a second. What that means is about a million and a quarter 1,000-character emails a second. They've got something like 10 to 20 sites for this around the United States. So you can really see why they need to build something like Utah to store all of this stuff. But the basic problem is they can't figure out what they have, so they store it all in the hope that down the road they might figure something out and they can go back and figure out what's happening and what people did. It's retroactive analysis. The FBI is using it that way too.

Daily Caller: Can you do that for audio? Can they retroactively put together the conversation we're having right now? Suppose nobody from the government is taping this conversation right now. Is there any way they can go back and reconstruct it?

Binney: Well I think I'm on a target list, so anybody that my phone calls, they will be recorded. So yeah.

Daily Caller: Does this mean that my phone number is now going to be on a list?

Binney: You are now part of my community, so you can assume you are now going to be targeted, too.

As for Snowden's assertion that he could listen to the phone calls of anyone in the United States, including the president, it's a question of admin privileges, according to Binney (from USA Today):
So that meant he had access to go in and put anything. That's why he said, I think, "I can even target the president or a judge." If he knew their phone numbers or attributes, he could insert them into the target list which would be distributed worldwide. And then it would be collected, yeah, that's right. As a super-user, he could do that.
The third reason to pay attention to Binney, Wiebe, and Drake is that they seem to be trying to coach Snowden on the best way to avoid the most dire legal and public relations jeopardy (from USA Today):
Q: What would you say to him?

Binney: I would tell him to steer away from anything that isn't a public service - like talking about the ability of the US government to hack into other countries or other people is not a public service. So that's kind of compromising capabilities and sources and methods, basically. That's getting away from the public service that he did initially. And those would be the acts that people would charge him with as clearly treason.

Drake: Well, I feel extraordinary kinship with him, given what I experienced at the hands of the government. And I would just tell him to ensure that he's got a support network that I hope is there for him and that he's got the lawyers necessary across the world who will defend him to the maximum extent possible and that he has a support-structure network in place. I will tell you, when you exit the surveillance-state system, it's a pretty lonely place - because it had its own form of security and your job and family and your social network. And all of a sudden, you are on the outside now in a significant way, and you have that laser beam of the surveillance state turning itself inside out to find and learn everything they can about you.

Wiebe: I think your savior in all of this is being able to honestly relate to the principles embedded in the constitution that are guiding your behavior. That's where really - rubber meets the road, at that point.
A few inferences we can draw:

First, Snowden gave considerable thought to the consequences of his revelations (something which has inexplicably escaped certain critics, such as The Daily Banter's Oliver Willis - motto: "Like Kryptonite to stupid" - who characterized Snowden as a "childish simpleton").

Second, if he had stayed in the US and tried to pursue the legal whistleblower route - which protects NSA employees who report their concerns about illegal behavior, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement to the Inspector General and the relevant congressional oversight committees, but specifically forbids them to go public - he would have gotten nowhere.

Third, his best option was to go overseas, beyond the reach of the FBI, and publicize his information and gain sympathy for himself and his cause, perhaps hoping that, as in the case of Thomas Drake, the Obama administration would find it politically awkward to pursue the maximalist criminal case.

Fourth, when reviewing his overseas options, he wanted to establish himself in a jurisdiction less vulnerable to US government pressure. For this reason, he ruled out Iceland (and Iceland has apparently ruled out Snowden; the Iceland government declined to meet with Snowden's intermediary and said that Snowden could only apply for asylum if he was already in Iceland).

Quite possibly, he chose Hong Kong both for its laudable freedom of speech/rule of law credentials, and also because, as an ex-CIA employee who had worked briefly on the covert side (and made a point of stating he knew where the CIA Hong Kong station was located), he regarded Hong Kong as a jurisdiction in which the PRC does not cooperate with the CIA very actively and may, in fact, keep their people on a relatively tight leash.

Also, asylum requests in Hong Kong are handled by the local office of the UN Human Rights Council, not the SAR itself. Perhaps this unique wrinkle in the Hong Kong asylum process had more than a little to do with Snowden's decision to go there.

The UNHCR's concern about the treatment of Wikileaks whistleblower Bradley Manning invites speculation that its local office might eventually approve a request by Snowden for asylum against a US extradition demand on the grounds that he is at risk of persecution, not just prosecution in the United States.

After all, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Juan Mendez, reports to the UNHRC and is on record characterizing the treatment of Bradley Manning at Quantico as follows: "I conclude that the 11 months under conditions of solitary confinement (regardless of the name given to his regime by the prison authorities) constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture. If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture."

Fifth, in order to retain the sympathy of the "few good men" inside the national security apparatus and supporters in the media and public - and to forestall a domestic witchhunt - it would be important not to disclose operational details of NSA operations that might open him to the charge, no matter how specious, that he was helping the "bad guys" evade US surveillance.

It seems Snowden has done this; in fact, pundits looking for smoking gun revelations have been frustrated with the vagueness with which he has described the PRISM program and other surveillance techniques.

Parenthetically, Binney had this to say about the "helping the enemy" issue in his Daily Caller interview:
Q: Did foreign governments, terrorist organizations, get information they didn't have already?

Binney: Ever since ... 1997-1998 ... those terrorists have known that we've been monitoring all of these communications all along. So they have already adjusted to the fact that we are doing that. So the fact that it is published in the US news that we're doing that, has no effect on them whatsoever. They have already adjusted to that.
Sixth, Snowden and Glenn Greenwald understand the importance of sustaining media heat and public interest in his case by dribbling out sensational revelations - while trying not to compromise his "American patriot" cred.

So, while one would expect that US spying on international gabfests would be expected, Snowden exposed non-US activity: the pervasive surveillance regime instituted by the British government targeting foreign dignitaries and their staffs attending the Group of 20 conference in the UK last September.

Seventh, I believe that Snowden wants to very carefully pressure the US government by increasing its anxiety that he a) has information interesting to the PRC, and b) is currently gallivanting around in a PRC Special Administrative Region vulnerable to whatever skullduggery the Chinese might unleash, either during his residence or when his 90-day visa expires mid-August.

The Snowden-in-Hong Kong situation certainly raised hackles in the United States, particularly among the less informed for whom the distinction between Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China (and, for that matter, between the South China Morning Post and some Red Chinese broadsheet) is considerably less than a clear, bright line, and even Bill Binney expressed his anxiety about what Snowden might be telling the Chinese:
Q: There's a question being debated whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor.

Binney: Certainly he performed a really great public service to begin with by exposing these programs and making the government in a sense publicly accountable for what they're doing. At least now they are going to have some kind of open discussion like that. But now he is starting to talk about things like the government hacking into China and all this kind of thing. He is going a little bit too far.

I don't think he had access to that program. But somebody talked to him about it, and so he said, from what I have read, anyway, he said that somebody, a reliable source, told him that the US government is hacking into all these countries. But that's not a public service, and now he is going a little beyond public service. So he is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor.
As far as Dick Cheney is concerned, of course, Snowden has already completed the journey.

To which Snowden riposted:
Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American.
I think in his interview with the South China Morning Post, Snowden was, as usual, trying to use the sizzle to sell the steak, intentionally vague in his responses, resorting to generalities, repeating details in the public domain, and not handing over documentation that might turn out to be legally compromising to his case (one interested Hong Kong legislator commented that Snowden's allegations so far "are noticeably lacking in details or evidence.")

As the SCMP reported it:
Snowden said that according to unverified documents seen by the Post, the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland since 2009. None of the documents revealed any information about Chinese military systems, he said.

One of the targets in the SAR, according to Snowden, was Chinese University and public officials, businesses and students in the city. The documents also point to hacking activity by the NSA against mainland targets.

Snowden believed there had been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland.

"We hack network backbones - like huge Internet routers, basically - that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one," he said.
In what was probably more unwelcome news for the United States, the UN Human Rights Council local office told the South China Morning Post it might take the UNHRC months to shuffle Snowden's asylum paperwork to the top of the pile if he decided to apply:
Farooqi [a protection officer at the Hong Kong UNHRC office] said because the city has no asylum-screening system, applicants whose tourist visas have expired are usually detained at an immigration centre while their documents are verified. Applications can be made to the UNHCR for asylum at any time. The period of detention usually ranges from a few weeks to a few months, but can be longer, the UNHCR says.
What would happen to Snowden's four laptops, purportedly jammed with interesting information (encrypted? unencrypted?) if he was detained by the Hong Kong government prior to deportation or extradition? Enquiring minds want to know.

For the time being, the PRC government is happy to keep its head down and let the US government writhe on the forked stick of its predicament.

In their public statements, Snowden and the three whistleblowers declare their belief that the NSA has misled congress and the president, implying there is wriggle room for President Obama to mitigate the abuses of the US surveillance state - and recognize Edward Snowden in a role other than that of thief or traitor. It remains to see if this fond hope is rewarded.

Exactly how this plays out - and whether the public goes along with the Snowden-as-Chinese-spy narrative - is open to conjecture. In a USA Today/PEW poll released on June 17, 54% said Snowden should be prosecuted, with 34% saying no. As to whether the revelations served the public interest, 49% said yes and 44% said no.

The situation is fluid, and a mis-step by Snowden - or overreach by the US government - could send public opinion tilting either way.

The way the pendulum swings may determine whether Snowden gets asylum in Hong Kong - or a favorable plea bargain in the United States and US government re-evaluation of the pervasive NSA surveillance regime that he says he desires - or extradition and long, hard time in a US penitentiary.

It is possible that Binney, Wiebe, and Drake will continue to give the pendulum a push toward Snowden in order to use his notoriety to gain public accountability for a government program that they believe is profoundly unconstitutional.

Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who produced Snowden's video interview with the Guardian (and co-bylined Snowden stories in the Guardian and the Post) was also the first person Snowden contacted when he decided to go public - because she had made a short film about Bill Binney and Stellar Wind, The Program, that was posted on the New York Times in 2012, and had described her personal experience of being on a government watch list in the accompanying article:
To those who understand state surveillance as an abstraction, I will try to describe a little about how it has affected me. The United States apparently placed me on a "watch-list" in 2006 after I completed a film about the Iraq war. I have been detained at the border more than 40 times. Once, in 2011, when I was stopped at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York and asserted my First Amendment right not to answer questions about my work, the border agent replied, "If you don't answer our questions, we'll find our answers on your electronics."
When Snowden contacted her in January, he told her:
He told me he'd contacted me because my border harassment meant that I'd been a person who had been selected. To be selected - and he went through a whole litany of things - means that everything you do, every friend you have, every purchase you make, every street you cross means you're being watched. "You probably don't like how this system works, I think you can tell the story."
Poitras is now working on a documentary about Snowden.

This is the story that the Obama administration is trying to make smaller, about Edward Snowden, the rogue analyst, the "childish simpleton".

In his most detailed defense of the system so far, in Germany, President Obama has decided to acknowledge the NSA's capabilities but hang his hat on the legal process ostensibly underpinning the surveillance, a "circumscribed, narrow system, directed at us being able to protect our people and all of it is done with the oversight of the courts".

By moving the debate away from the universe of tens of thousands of leak-prone analysts to the privileged and murky world of the allegedly rubber-stamp FISA court, President Obama perhaps expects he can keep the NSA story bottled up.

But there are some smart, connected, and determined people - starting with, but probably not limited to Binney, Wiebe, Drake, Greenwald, and Poitras - out there who want to make the story bigger.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Is the Snowden Case Headed for a Plea Deal?

I’m guessing that there is more to Edward Snowden’s choice of Hong Kong instead of Iceland as an intial refuge than a matter of dim sum over skyr, hangikjöt, kleinur,laufabrauð, and bollur

At the very least, Snowden can keep the global media pot boiling with interviews to the avid Hong Kong media about exciting China-related hacking secrets, thereby raising his profile and improving his chances of receiving genuine due process from the courts in Hong Kong and the United States.

It’s a better way to keep the world engaged in Snowden’s situation than giving an interview to the Fréttablaðið (Iceland’s biggest newspaper), watching the international stories slip to the inside page, and waiting for somebody to kick the door in.

But there’s another card he can play, especially if he doesn’t want to get extradited to the United States, albeit after a spectacular and presumably fair trial in Hong Kong, and then spend the rest of his life in a US prison.

That’s for him to make a deal with the US Government not to ignite whatever dynamite he’s got on the four laptops he brought to Hong Kong, in return for brief, easy time in some US penitentiary.

After all, in terms of informing and inflaming the public, Snowden’s work is pretty much done.

And he’s done it without revealing any operational details.

Maybe the best use of the rest of the information he’s got is as a “get out of jail” card.

If the USG doesn’t act interested, maybe its attitude will change after a few more embarrassing tidbits make it into the public domain.

I’ll be interested to see if the US government tries to get some kind of injunction to get the Hong Kong papers not to report his revelations and remove Snowden’s public relations megaphone--and diminish his bargaining power.

In the worst case, Snowden could threaten to turn over his goodies to the PRC if he didn’t get a deal.
That would certainly get Washington’s attention; but it would be immediately leaked to the press, branding Snowden with the “traitor” label, destroy any standing he’s been able to accrue, and make him fair game for whatever skullduggery the US decides to send down the pipe.

I doubt that’s Snowden’s strategy.

But maybe he’s bedeviling the US government with the unnerving prospect that the longer he stays in Hong Kong, the better the chance is that he’ll get snatched by PRC security services; and, if he does get arrested prior to extradition, who knows what will happen to him—and his laptops--during interrogation?

It’s a dangerous game with no guaranteed outcome, but what do you expect if you walk out of the United States with a computer full of secrets?

I think Edward Snowden (and Glenn Greenwald) knew what to expect, and that’s why he’s in Hong Kong.

Since I think China Matters readers expect some factual meat and potatoes as well as airy speculation, here are some more thoughts on Edward Snowden's Panopticon:

For Some People, Edward Snowden’s Panopticon Is Already Here

Critics of Snowden’s leak concerning the extent of NSA surveillance often fall back on the argument that “people who don’t do bad things have nothing to fear”, i.e. extensive/intensive surveillance isn’t an issue for non-wrongdoers.

The “Panopticon” issue raised by Snowden (from a Foucault book) states, on the other hand, that omnipresent surveillance is by its nature oppressive—for everyone, including the “good guys”.

The gold standard for routine, workaday surveillance used to be the post office.

Some of us are old enough to remember the halcyon days when the greatest threat to public safety was the danger that a postal worker would go off and shoot himself and/or his boss and coworkers and/or the public at large.

As was reported in the press in the 1990s, a big part of “going postal” was the stressful work conditions (I’m assuming that some of the same practices prevail today, with some modifications, but we’ve got bigger homicidal fish to fry than the post office now and there isn’t as much reporting on the labor conditions inside the USPS).

A key problem at the post office was rampant Taylorism (industrial time management).

Workers who worked hard and were efficient were not rewarded; they got more work and longer routes.  Therefore workers “paced themselves” so they would not conspicuously exceed their quotas.
Management’s main job was squeezing more work out of the employees, and a key task was to identify and push the workers who were “pacing themselves”.

The whole system was underpinned by the surveillance system.  It wasn’t just to detect mail theft.  It was to catch workers who weren’t giving what the USPS considered 100%.  

In 1998, Traci Hikull profiled USPS operations in northern California for the San Jose Metro:

Jan Maddux, president of the 1,000-plus-member American Postal Workers Union Local 73, sits in his San Jose office describing some uncharming but typical managerial tactics. "You're gone 10 minutes and 30 seconds on your break, and you're AWOL 30 seconds," he says. "They'll stand behind you and watch you to make sure you're not casing [sorting mail] with one hand because that's wasting time, see? So they'll write you up."

"These people work hard. The workload ..." [a local postmaster] sighs, not finishing the sentence. When asked if he thinks the pressure to perform makes employees feel like they're being watched for slipups, he covers his face with his hands and scrubs at it, the same way people do when they've been staring at a computer monitor too long.

"We're supervising them not to catch them messing up but to be sure everything is handled properly," he says finally. 

"We have all these spotlights on us, and that's why we've just gotten better and better," Cattivera adds. "And isn't that the way it should be? Shouldn't we be held accountable to make sure you get your mail every day?"

It's not hard to see why people lose it working for the post office. The constant surveillance alone would drive some people over the edge, and the peculiar logic takes care of the rest.

The fact of being under continual surveillance is, by itself, enough to stress people out.

A study in England concluded that pervasive workplace surveillance increased stress-related complaints by 7 to 10%:

Monitoring noted by the PSI study includes logging emails and internet usage, keystroke loggers, recording and timing calls and measuring shop-till throughput. 

Bearing the brunt of the IT scrutiny are administrative and white-collar employees, such as call-centre staff and data-entry workers, who complained of an increase in work strain of 10 percent when they are being watched. 

In 2013, the LA Times’ Alana Samuels wrote a two-part piece on today’s “harsh workplace” and the central role of surveillance.  She reported:

Phil Richards used to like his job driving a forklift in a produce and meat warehouse. He took pride in steering a case of beef with precision., he says, he has to speed through the warehouse to meet quotas, tracked by bosses each step of the way. Through a headset, a voice tells him what to do and how much time he has to do it.

It makes the Unified Grocers warehouse in Santa Fe Springs operate smoothly with fewer employees, but it also makes Richards' work stressful.

"We're just like human machines," said Richards, 52. "But with machines, they don't care whether you feel good, or if you're having a bad day."

Technology has eliminated many onerous work tasks, but it's now one of the factors contributing to a harsher work environment.

Employers are using technology to read emails and monitor keystrokes, measure which employees spend the most time on social networking websites and track their movements inside and outside the office. They can see who works fastest and who talks the most on the phone. They can monitor how much time people spend talking to co-workers — and how much time they spend in the bathroom.
The sanitation truck that James Brooker III drives in Raleigh, N.C., has a GPS device that enables his bosses to track his every move. Co-workers have been disciplined for driving too slowly or for taking an extra 10 minutes on a lunch break on a tough day, he said.

"You're always worried that you're not doing your job correctly," he said. "It makes you stressed out, and there's so much pressure to rush."
Employers can read workers' email, see what websites they visit and read any emails or text messages stored on work-issued computers or smartphones. In all but six states (California is one of the exceptions), employers can require employees to provide their passwords to social networking sites. And in most states, employers can monitor their employees and are not required by law to tell them it's happening.
Michael Cunningham found this out the hard way.

His employer suspected he wasn't working when he said he was and put a GPS device on Cunningham's personal car without telling him. Officials tracked him driving to a diner instead of work, tracked his son driving to an internship and tracked him during an approved vacation in Massachusetts. A year later, they fired him, explaining the GPS had confirmed their suspicions that he was falsifying his time sheets.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Cunningham sued his employer, the New York state Department of Labor, but lost. Judges in New York's Appellate Division ruled that the law does not prohibit employers from using GPS to monitor employee behavior if it is relevant to the employee's job performance.

The ruling means that although the government has to get a warrant to use a GPS device to track criminals, it can legally track its employees without approval from the employee or a judge, said Corey Stoughton, the ACLU lawyer on the case.
When executives at Dixie Specialty Insurance, a Mississippi company, noticed a few employees were working more slowly than they once had, they installed software from Awareness Technology on company computers to monitor what websites the employees were visiting and block the more popular ones. Productivity jumped, said Cassandra Phillips, the company's information technology manager.

Software from another company, SpectorSoft Corp., tracks how much time employees spend on certain websites and can measure whether it is "active time" — whether or not the employee is typing or clicking, for example.

In the private sector, the objective of surveillance is enhanced productivity.

And it works best, in true Panopticon style, when employees assume surveillance is universal and pervasive and modify their activity without the local Bill Lumbergh showing up to give them a nudge.

And then the company can lay off Bill Lumbergh! That’d be great! Start chewing those Rolaids, Bill!

In other words, control is internalized together with, of course, the stress.

In private life, I think a similar dynamic will apply as surveillance becomes more pervasive.

The result will not be enhanced productivity; it will be enhanced compliance.

We will experience the Stasi-worthy anxiety that our activities are being continually observed and judged and we may be found wanting.

The slogan could be: "I must do more; what must I do?"

That’s life in the brave new world of the Panopticon.  

Safer? Maybe

More stressful? Definitely