Archive for January, 2007

Breach of Law, Breach of Security – NSA Wiretapping

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Note: This entry is the first in a Minaret of Freedom Institute mini-series called, ‘Breach of Law, Breach of Security’, highlighting the necessity of fighting terrorist networks through the use of the rule of law.

Leaks about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic wiretapping program – also known as signals intelligence operations, or “SIGINT”– first appeared on December 16, 2005 in the New York Times. The article revealed that since 2002 President Bush authorized the monitoring of “…international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants…” Almost six months later, the USA Today further revealed the same program was not limited to foreign communications, but “‘to create a database of every call ever made’ within the nation’s borders…” and so far has had “access to records of billions of domestic calls…”

The NSA’s domestic wiretapping activities without judicial or congressional oversight are a clear example of the Bush administration’s incompetent counter-terrorism strategy, both legally and security-wise. On the legal front, the administration has severely restricted individuals’ right to privacy by violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 (regulating wiretapping of a foreign power through a special court), Title III (governing domestic criminal wiretapping), a series of communications privacy laws and possibly the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Initially, supporters of the NSA’s program urged Congressional leaders to legalize the domestic SIGINT operations and “‘encourage’–but not require–Bush or a future president to present any future surveillance program to the secret FISA court for approval.” On January 17, 2007 this policy was voluntarily reversed by the administration (even though it continues to block Congressional oversight of the NSA’s activities).

From a purely security standpoint, the NSA program also give us a chance to analyze the effectiveness of SIGINT and the agency itself in counter-terrorism operations. After information about the domestic SIGINT operations went public, administration officials attempted to defend the program against criticism by claiming it could have prevented 9/11 and was instrumental in preventing several other alleged terrorist plots. Others have debunked all of these baseless contentions, so I will focus on two claims.

First, the extent to which wiretapping SIGINT contributes to these operations, may be overblown. As early as October 2002 the USA Today reported the NSA had trouble penetrating and tracking Al-Qaeda cells because they “learned to evade U.S. interception technology––chiefly by using disposable cell phones or by avoiding phones altogether and substituting human messengers and face-to-face meetings to convey orders.” As the article illustrates, a heavy emphasis on SIGINT can be counterproductive to counter-terrorism efforts. Al-Qaeda members deliberately attempt to trigger false alerts by openly feeding disinformation. They can then plug up any internal communications leaks by observing when counter-terrorism forces act on the false intelligence. Determining the validity of information from SIGINT operations has been difficult even for the most experienced analysts because what are collected are vague statements that can be easily misinterpreted.

Second, according to the 2006 USA Today article, NSA officials claimed domestic SIGINT operations help fight terrorism by using the data produced for “social network analysis.” However the current social network analysis methods used to guide SIGINT operations called “snowball sampling,” (a type of electronic dragnet) are not well suited for the type of counter-terrorism operations traditionally done by FBI criminal investigators. Research conducted by two social network experts, Maksim Tsvetovat and Kathleen Carley [PDF], finds that the snowball method is better suited for highly connected groups, as opposed to small, loosely connected cellular networks [PDF] which define Al-Qaeda. The NSA’s snowball sampling methods gathered a massive volume of useless information that led FBI officials nowhere, wasting limited resources and time. Furthermore, the domestic SIGINT operations are put an enormous technical strain on the NSA’s resources, forcing the agency to consume voracious amounts of electricity–on top of dealing with its current computer problems–to sustain its current operational capacity. This jeopardizes our national security by running the risk of another electrical overload, similar to the one that paralyzed the agency seven years ago and left our nation vulnerable for nearly three days.

Both of these examples illustrate that the NSA, with its SIGINT focus, is not well suited for the type of work effectively conducted FBI criminal investigators. They show that electronic (or human) dragnets are not only ineffective, but also sometimes counterproductive to fighting terrorism. Getting the proper information is necessary, but analyzing it, investigating it and disseminating it to the right people are also imperative. Failing to do these other three steps were major factors that led to the 9/11 [PDF] and 7/7 attacks.

Finally, I will end by examining the broader implications in the fight against terrorist networks. Although the NSA now works within the FISA framework, one must ask whether or not that is best legal approach to fighting terrorism. Assuming that administration’s highly questionable justification for bypassing the FISA warrants–allegedly too difficult and slow to be approved–is true, one should consider that, there are 94 federal judicial districts, but only one FISA court. By the time any security agency manages to get through the “cumbersome” FISA process, it could have obtained permission for a criminal wiretap based on the Title III from any of the many other federal courts. But beyond time and logistics issues of FISA versus criminal courts, there is a larger conceptual conflict within policy circles. It is between using counter-intelligence versus law enforcement approaches to counterterrorism–which have enormous ramifications for both the legal and tactical directions in the fight against terrorist networks.

Former 16-year FBI veteran Michael German finds that instead of the current counter-intelligence approach that drives counter-terrorism policy, the FBI and broader US government should be taking a more law-enforcement based approach instead. The common thread problem of a counter-intelligence approach is its strong need for secrecy. Tactically “on the ground”, secrecy hinders the necessary intelligence sharing to combat terrorists out of a need to protect sources and methods, nor exposes good and bad practices which give less incentive for agencies to review and reform themselves when mistakes are made. Secrecy also allows more room for abusive practices–such as torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib–that are quadruply disastrous for America by undermining its human rights and civil liberties foundations, by diverting limited intelligence resources from other areas to these torture centers, by failing to get credible intelligence, and by convincing Muslims that Bin Laden’s assertions of a US-led war against Islam are correct.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” My main thesis is that civil liberties and the rule of law are not a convenience that needs to be short-changed in an era when all people – non-Muslim and Muslim alike – are threatened by terrorism. They are guiding principles that will help successfully ensure America uses legal and effective tactics in the short-term and achieve strategic success in the long term by proving to the world that America’s principles of liberty and justice for all are not a farce, but a living reality, even in times of combat.

Wa Allahu ‘Alim. (And God knows best.)

Alejandro Beutel

News and Analysis (1/31/07)

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Ivan Eland sets the record straight as to the real motivations behind the 9/11 attackers:

Why following the rule of law is necessary: CIA agents, not Al-Qaeda agents may end up behind bars

King Midas’ touch – missing US taxpayer dollars end up supporting, corrupt, bloated and wasteful Iraqi ‘government’…

…while doing little to improve the rule of law within the country:

“The government’s position in this case is stunning… If they are right, they can pick up any immigrant tomorrow in this country, lock them in a military jail, and the government would hold the keys to the courthouse…. The government could effectively disappear people.” – Jonathan Hafetz

Pakistan adhering to real Islamic law: Arresting and prosecuting alleged rapists, not the victims

A fresh start for honest elections:

Indonesian leaders debate how to implement decentralization policies:

Police thwart ‘Iraq-style’ criminal plot to kidnap and behead British Muslim soldier:

News and Analysis (1/30/07)

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Reenacting the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn:

It’s back to 1979:

EU rejects US efforts to impose further economic and diplomatic isolation on Iran:

Saudi Arabia’s Shi’as: Tone down the sectarian talk or else there will be trouble

All sects in Lebanon appeal for calm:

While Egypt is cracking down on its press freedom…

…Syrians are finding greater access to information through the internet:

Private law firms step up their support for habeas corpus and legal representation of Gitmo detainees after Pentagon remarks:

News and Analysis (1/29/07)

Monday, January 29th, 2007

US State Department report: Israel ‘likely’ violated Geneva conventions summer war against Hezbollah:

Shiite Shrines become flashpoints for further sectarian-inspired violence:

US Military using Muslim “yes man” to clean up image of Guantanamo:

Conservative British MP: Fear of Islam prevents solving the real problems within the Muslim community:

News and Analysis (1/27-28/07)

Monday, January 29th, 2007

King Abdullah offers Palestinian factions an opportunity “to discuss their differences without any intervention from outside parties:”

·        Palestinian Rivals Welcome Saudi Talks To Halt Violence (AFP)

“[S]ome of the worst clashes last week were between Christian groups:”

·        Lebanon Faces Prospect Of Civil War: While Beirut Was Quiet Sunday, the Threat of More Sectarian Violence Kept the City on Edge (Christian Science Monitor)

Pelosi visit signals shift “from quiet disagreement to blunt accusation:”

·        Pakistan Faces a Less-Friendly US Congress: A New Bill Underscores Lawmakers’ Displeasure with a Country that Is a Key Bush Ally in the War on Terrorism (Christian Science Monitor)

Reports American “civilian” deaths are in some cases mercenary soldiers, the real significance of the “Civilian Reserve Corps” in the State of the Union address:

·        Our Mercenaries in Iraq: The President Relies on Thousands of Private Soldiers with Little Oversight, a Disturbing Example of the Military-Industrial Complex (LA Times)

Former Senator from South Dakota says lobbyists are impeding reform:

·        The Hidden Cost of Free Congressional Trips to Israel: Branded As ‘Educational,’ These Trips Offer Israeli Propagandists an Opportunity to Expose Members of Congress to Only Their Side of the Story  (Christian Science Monitor)

News and Analysis (1/26/07)

Friday, January 26th, 2007

Mission not-yet accomplished; 11 billion more and a four-month tour of duty extension announced:

·        US Urges Aggressive NATO Action Against Taliban (AFP)

The conditions imposed on Iraqi government seem to have been dropped:

·        Gates Working to Accelerate Deployment (Washington Post)

Gates says, “We are not going to simply stand by and let people bring sophisticated IEDs into the country;” might Iran feel the same about those who bring Black Hawk helicopters and F-16s into the country?

·        US Unveils Tougher Line on Iranians in Iraq (AFP)

“The increasingly common arrangement for sick or wounded Iraqis to receive treatment in Iran is just one strand in a burgeoning relationship between these two Persian Gulf countries”:

·        Tehran’s Influence Grows as Iraqis See Advantages (Washington Post)

Two weeks of relative calm end, but Haniyah is determined to pursue dialog despite what he calls a “regrettable crime”:

·        Palestinian Clashes Kill Nine in Gaza (AFP)

“Hezbollah, which has a mighty guerrilla force that withstood a 34-day war with Israel last year, has vowed never to turn its guns against its Lebanese foes”:

·        Hezbollah Buries Dead, Urges Lebanese Unity (Reuters)

Many repercussions are feared for the Basque region to a Serb turn to Russia, but the alternative could be civil war:

·        Kosovo Wins Support for Split from Serbia (Washington Post)

News and Analysis (1/25/07)

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

Cheney strongly defends the “successes” in Iraq:

U.S and Iran: Poll comparison reveals interesting results:

Call for calm as violence erupted among students in Beirut:

Positive steps towards peace as the U.S and Somalia engage the Union of Islamic Court in dialogue.

Muslim volunteer engaging Muslims and NYPD to increase understanding:

Woman who was told by a judge to take off her face veil is granted a new hearing:

Saudi urged to stop violating the rights of dissident Muslim school of thought:

News and Analysis (1/24/07)

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Bush’s State of the Union speech, the Democratic Party’s response and analyses:

Iraq’s No-Show, Do-Nothing Parliament:

Lebanon’s opposition protests become violent, much more sectarian:

Think-tank report: improper government response to terrorist networks and sectarianism could lead to more violence:

Government-sponsored university courses intended to help train Imams are met with skepticism from mainstream Muslim community:

Underreported News: Latest Polling Shows that Majorities of Muslims see Islam and Democracy as compatible:

News and Analysis (1/23/07)

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

Plans to build holocaust museum on top of Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem could inflame passions:

Lack of unity and political unease from non-Arab/non-Muslims bar Arab-Americans from gaining political office in Dearborn:

Somali government shows resistance to being inclusive and conciliatory:

Latest global public opinion poll shows US military interventionalism has cost the nation its moral standing in the world:

Fix it until its broken?

Iraq Redux?

News and Analysis (1/22/07)

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

“We have to know the real Sharia; we have to be able to point to passages in the holy Koran and say, ‘Here, read this…. In Islamic history, men have been the boss. They want to be the boss forever…but that is not Islam; that is cultural tradition.”–Rahala Salim

In order to tackle unemployment and stimulate private industry, the Libyan government embarks on an ambitious economic reform plan:

Sectarian bickering rears its ugly head at Muslim ecumenical conference in Qatar:

Welcome to the newest form of demonization and racism – accusing a politician of having attended a Muslim school:

Exhibit A in why foreign interventionism impedes democratization and liberalization: