The Edward Snowden leaks on the NSA spying structure reveal an intelligence approach driven by the fear of the unknown ... and the "unknown unknowns."
MUNICH — In the years after 9/11, Deputy Attorney General James Comey received news of a potential danger: “Threat from the Philippines to attack the USA.” Comey asked the FBI for details and received an email in which someone had written: “Dear America, I’ll attack you if you don’t pay me 99999999999999999999 dollars. MUHAHAHA.”
The FBI identified the sender and notified the Filipino police, who eventually tracked down the parents of the supposed public enemy. “Anyone could see that the email had come from a 13-year-old boy and wasn’t serious,” Comey said later. But at the time, young Maxime had his every move tracked.
The story of this email aptly sums up the situation of the American security services. For more than a decade, the overriding aim has been to ensure that they do not miss a thing. They have chased up millions of clues and hoarded billions of data points, no matter if the subjects are innocent. They break their own rules and the laws of their friends, wherever they deem necessary.
In 2005 the FBI reported that it had not found a single al-Qaeda cell in the country. However, Robert Mueller, then head of the organization, said he was very worried “about what we don’t see.” Former CIA head George Tenet described a tangible fear “of everything we didn’t know.” Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke about the “unknown unknowns.”
Under George W. Bush, the U.S. became so preoccupied with analyzing threats that it was consumed by potential dangers. “It’s like hiding in your apartment and only experiencing the outside world by constantly listening to a police radio scanner,” says terror expert John Mueller.
Europe may well wonder why the U.S. government stores European citizens’ phone numbers, why it taps Angela Merkel’s phone, or why it wages a drone war. The answer is that since 2001 the U.S. has been gripped by paranoia. Danger lurks in every corner and justifies every means.
Not knowing is no longer an option
They say what you don’t know can’t hurt you, but for the CIA, FBI, and NSA, the opposite is true. Not knowing is no longer an option. For years the U.S. intelligence services have been consumed by a fear that the country is full of invisible conspirators. This has led to an “aggressive, panicked attitude,” writes law professor and former government advisor Jack Goldsmith.
Former FBI head Mueller completely restructured the federal investigative force after 2001, yet every evening he visualized a bomb exploding inside a plane. He says that whoever criticizes American intelligence service should meet the families who lost someone on PanAm Flight 103 or on September 11. "That puts everything in a new light,” he says.
Similarly Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, said that he preferred to justify his actions before the House Committee rather than explain why he had failed to stop a second 9/11. It seems that this attitude is prevalent throughout the security services, and even reaches up to the President.
Breaking the rules
In questions of national security, America’s intelligence services have grown accustomed to pleasing themselves. They gather whatever they can get their hands on, even if it is not strictly allowed. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who is responsible for overseeing the security services in Congress, said, “The rules have been broken, and the rules have been broken a lot.”
Wyden was referring to the judiciary of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), a special body that was first created for counter-espionage but has become a kind of shadow Supreme Court. It is a unique kind of tribunal, as only one party stands before the judges: a district attorney who represents the government. The other side – the public, those who have been spied on, the human rights campaigners – is not represented.
Although the trials are utterly one-sided, the judges have often been scathing about the NSA’s methods. In 2009 they found that in sifting through phone calls the NSA had broken the rules “so often and so systematically” that there should be arrests. In 2011, judge John Bates also found that the government was complicit and had “completely misrepresented” the scale of data collected, for the second time in less than three years.
After Edward Snowden’s revelations this summer, the NSA declared that although it collects data from billions of phone calls, it only analyzes a few hundred of these and only when there is a concrete suspicion of terrorism. The judges’ statements suggest that many more are analyzed than is allowed.
The moral of the story is clear. When governments wage secret wars, immoderation and law-breaking are inevitable consequences. There are no controls, as the public, government and courts are kept at a distance and lied to — or prefer to turn a blind eye.
In the face of temptation
For the security services, there is a massive temptation to exploit the insufficient controls and overstep their boundaries. From their perspective, every restriction is a security risk.
But now, finally, the time of controls and reformers is beginning. Congress is debating proposals that would limit the NSA’s powers, at least in the U.S. The White House has set up a commission – meanwhile, in Germany the Bundestag is debating the issue.
However, Senator Wyden warns that the reformers will meet with powerful opposition as the intelligence services fight to retain their shadow realm. President Obama has not yet determined the details and it seems unlikely that we will see significant change in the short term. In the war on terror Obama has moved away from open conflict and towards drone operations, which are dependent on intelligence from electronic surveillance.
Hans-Georg Maassen, President of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, gained insight into the American attitude when his breakfast with NSA head Keith Alexander was interrupted by news of Snowden’s revelations. Alexander is said to have dismissed Snowden as a little traitor from Hawaii. Then he went on with his breakfast.