The Latest Snowden Waves

While Edward Snowden is apparently stranded at the Moscow airport, bereft of a passport and a destination, the NSA's 'we're spying on everybody for their own good' scandal is making ever bigger waves. Here are a few interesting tidbits that have recently surfaced:

Apparently, domestic spying without a court order involving thousands of people is done routinely. Of course since who exactly is spied on is classified for 'national security reasons', there is no way to challenge such activities in court, in spite of their apparent in-your-face violation of the constitution: no-one has standing to complain! This interpretation of the law means that de facto, anything can be done under the cover of 'national security', just as long as the people concerned don't know about it.


“The National Security Agency has acknowledged in a new classified briefing that it does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls, a participant in the briefing said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed on Thursday that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed "simply based on an analyst deciding that."

If the NSA wants "to listen to the phone," an analyst's decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. "I was rather startled," said Nadler, an attorney and congressman who serves on the House Judiciary committee.

Not only does this disclosure shed more light on how the NSA's formidable eavesdropping apparatus works domestically, it also suggests the Justice Department has secretly interpreted federal surveillance law to permit thousands of low-ranking analysts to eavesdrop on phone calls.”


Yes, it is quite startling, or let us better say, it isn't startling at all. What is startling is that it is now officially admitted. But it's OK, because '50 terrorist acts have been prevented' by means of universal snooping. Of course, since all of the information relating to these averted attacks is classified too, we have to take 'their' word for it (funny, there was an equally startling paucity of terror attacks before the all-around wiretapping began. How come?).


Snowden has by now been roundly demonized and has been charged with espionage of all things, just because he has managed to thoroughly embarrass the administration that once upon a time promised oh so much more openness and respect for privacy (prior to being elected, that is). It is quite clear that the main problem is embarrassment over having been caught red-handed. Snowden's data releases meanwhile have been carefully calibrated to make it actually very difficult, if not impossible, to allege that he has endangered anyone. However, they have revealed the reach of this out-of-control Orwellian surveillance state and in the process have caused maximum embarrassment to both the US and UK governments.

First it turned out that UK spooks had not only spied on foreign delegations at the last G-20 meeting, but are also recording a wealth of international voice and data traffic and sharing their pickings with the NSA (which is a strong hint that the sharing is running both ways):


“Britain's spy agency GCHQ has tapped fiber-optic cables that carry international phone and internet traffic and is sharing vast quantities of personal information with the U.S. National Security Agency, the Guardian newspaper said on Friday.

The paper, which has in recent weeks been publishing details of top-secret surveillance programs exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, said on its website that Snowden had shown it documents about a project codenamed "Tempora."

Tempora has been running for about 18 months and allows GCHQ, which stands for Government Communications Headquarters, to tap into and store huge volumes of data drawn from fiber-optic cables for up to 30 days, the paper said.

The Guardian said Snowden had provided it with access to documents about GCHQ's alleged cable-tapping operation as part of his effort to expose "the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history."

For decades, the NSA and GCHQ have worked as close partners, sharing intelligence under an arrangement known as the UKUSA agreement. They also collaborate with eavesdropping agencies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand under an arrangement known as the "Five Eyes" alliance.


(emphasis added)

The 'five eyes' alliance? This is yet another case of life imitating art. In Alan Moore's 1980's comic book series 'V for Vendetta' (which became widely known after it was made into a movie),  the apparatus of spying and coercion used by a fictional fascist UK government in a dystopian future is divided into departments with names like 'Ear', 'Finger' and 'Eye'. 'Five Eyes' therefore sounds like the alliance of the 'Eye' departments of present-day regulatory democracies.

The petulant reaction of the US administration to Snowden's revelations is embarrassing as well. The idea that by making an example of Snowden, future whistleblowers can be deterred undoubtedly looms large (no administration has been treating whistleblowers harsher than the Obama administration).  After all, it shows that if one dares to reveal government misdeeds, one's life will be destroyed, while the government misdeeds will continue exactly as before. Ron Paul had an interesting thought on Snowden's persecution, and it is hitting the nail exactly on the head:



Ron_PaulRon Paul succinctly summarizes what it all means.

(Image source unknown – The Web)



As we noted when we last wrote about this topic, the EU's governments are very likely quite envious that the NSA can spy with such impunity on just about everybody. They would dearly love to do it themselves. In fact, their rather subdued reaction when the scandal first broke indicated that it is quite possible that they have been using the NSA to circumvent their own legal restrictions. Mind, we are not alleging that this is in fact the case, we're only saying it seems possible and would be in keeping with the disdain modern-day governments evince for the privacy of their citizens. After all, there's always something the government would like to know. The pretext of fighting terrorism is wearing rather thin by now – fights against terrorism have been conducted well before all this universal snooping began (and quite often with success; recall Germany's struggle with the RAF). We're certainly not arguing that actual terrorists should be ignored or be given a pass; but the reality of the matter is that a truly spectacular attack like the WTC attack is a rare exception. Aside from that one occasion, it seems to be a rather negligible threat. Moreover, although the official story of this particular attack sounds largely like an attempt to cover up government incompetence at almost every level, what little we do know with certainty about the events suggests that it could have been prevented easily within the confines of the pre-9/11 legal and operational framework.

Having said that, it seems quite doubtful that truly committed and sophisticated terrorists can be more easily stopped by universal spying on electronic communications than by traditional methods. Let's just say that those that do get caught in this manner are probably not exactly the best organized and most dangerous ones. As long as the probability of death from falling off a piece of furniture remains a great deal higher than the danger of dying from a terror attack, one wonders why not more resources are directed toward making furniture safer.


The EU is 'Furious'

Anyway, the EU can no longer just sit idly by, as it has turned out that the NSA has also bugged EU diplomatic representations in Brussels, Washington and at the UN. Oops! What did they think, that they would be excepted? After all, we're all potential terrorists now! Unfortunately the first thing that has come under threat by this latest brouhaha are the transatlantic trade negotiations. As far as we are concerned, free trade benefits primarily the citizens of the countries concerned, who are now going to suffer a disadvantage essentially because one set of politicians spied on another.

It is also remarkable what a big deal this has all of a sudden become, now that the EU's ruling elite has found out that it is a target of NSA spying as well. It was considered far less of a problem as long as only the hoi-polloi were held to be targeted (at least that is our distinct impression).


“Europeans are furious. Revelations that the US intelligence service National Security Agency (NSA) targeted the European Union and several European countries with its far-reaching spying activities have led to angry reactions from several senior EU and German politicians.

"We need more precise information," said European Parliament President Martin Schulz. "But if it is true, it is a huge scandal. That would mean a huge burden for relations between the EU and the US. We now demand comprehensive information."

Schulz was reacting to a report in SPIEGEL that the NSA had bugged the EU's diplomatic representation in Washington and monitored its computer network (full story available on Monday). The EU's representation to the United Nations in New York was targeted in a similar manner. US intelligence thus had access to EU email traffic and internal documents. The information appears in secret documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden, some of which SPIEGEL has seen.

The documents also indicate the US intelligence service was responsible for an electronic eavesdropping operation in Brussels. SPIEGEL also reported that Germany has been a significant target of the NSA's global surveillance program, with some 500 million communication connections being monitored every month. The documents show that the NSA is more active in Germany than in any other country in the European Union.

EU and German politicians on Sunday, however, were reacting primarily to the revelations that the US had specifically targeted the 27-member bloc with its surveillance activities. "If these reports are true, then it is abhorrent," said Luxembourgian Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. "It would seem that the secret services have gotten out of control. The US should monitor their own secret services rather than their allies."

Asselborn characterized the operation as a breach of trust. "The US justifies everything as being part of the fight against terrorism. But the EU and its diplomats are not terrorists. We need a guarantee from the very highest level that it stops immediately."


(emphasis added)

As noted above, it only really strikes you how off-putting it is to be classed with terrorists once it happens to yourself. So we wonder if Mr. Asselborn thinks it would be fine to spy on everybody except EU politicians. It is also interesting to ponder the official reaction to the allegations.

As Reuters reports:


“EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said on Sunday that U.S. authorities were immediately contacted about a report in Der Spiegel magazine that the U.S. spy agency had tapped EU offices in Washington, Brussels and at the United Nations.

"As soon as we saw these reports, the European External Action Service made contact with the U.S. authorities in both Washington D.C. and Brussels to seek urgent clarification of the veracity of, and facts surrounding, these allegations," Ashton said in a statement. "The U.S. authorities have told us they are checking on the accuracy of the information released yesterday and will come back to us as soon as possible," she said.

France also asked for an explanation. "These acts, if confirmed, would be completely unacceptable," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

The U.S. government said it would respond through diplomatic channels. "We will also discuss these issues bilaterally with EU member states," a spokesperson for the Director of National Intelligence said.

"While we are not going to comment publicly on specific alleged intelligence activities, as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations."


(emphasis added)

This reads almost like a satire. 'They will get back to us as soon as they have checked on it.' What, you mean they don't really know what they are doing? The turn of phrase used in the public statement at the end is also interesting, since it basically states: 'Of course we're doing it. Isn't everybody?'


The Law

It is worth quoting a few more excerpts from this article at the Independent that relate to the legal situation, since the standard comeback of politicians and security bureaucrats has been 'well, no matter what we do, it's all legal, so bugger off'. In part that may actually be correct, since apparently the laws that were specifically written to exonerate ( after the fact) all those implicated in the first wiretapping scandal that broke under Bush, have been deliberately worded in such a manner that they practically set no limit whatsoever on spying. And even if such laws are in conflict with constitutional law, there is no danger, since no-one can challenge them – based on the 'standing' technicality.


“Documents that came to light in an EFF lawsuit provide some insight into how the spy agency vacuums up data from telecommunications companies. Mark Klein, who worked as an AT&T technician for over 22 years, disclosed in 2006 (PDF) that he witnessed domestic voice and Internet traffic being surreptitiously "diverted" through a "splitter cabinet" to secure room 641A in one of the company's San Francisco facilities. The room was accessible only to NSA-cleared technicians.

AT&T and other telecommunications companies that allow the NSA to tap into their fiber links receive absolute immunity from civil liability or criminal prosecution, thanks to a law that Congress enacted in 2008 and renewed in 2012. It's a series of amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, also known as the FISA Amendments Act.

That law says surveillance may be authorized by the attorney general and director of national intelligence without prior approval by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, as long as minimization requirements and general procedures blessed by the court are followed.

A requirement of the 2008 law is that the NSA "may not intentionally target any person known at the time of acquisition to be located in the United States." A possible interpretation of that language, some legal experts said, is that the agency may vacuum up everything it can domestically — on the theory that indiscriminate data acquisition was not intended to "target" a specific American citizen.”


(emphasis added)

Carte blanche, in other words. It is also interesting that the president specifically is held to be above the law, in other words, there is no longer the 'rule of law' in force, but effectively the rule of men. No matter how many justifications are reeled off by the government's propaganda arms, that is what it means in the end.


“McConnell said during a separate congressional appearance around the same time that he believed the president had the constitutional authority, no matter what the law actually says, to order domestic spying without warrants.

Former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente told CNN last month that, in national security investigations, the bureau can access records of a previously made telephone call. "All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not," he said. Clemente added in an appearance the next day that, thanks to the "intelligence community" — an apparent reference to the NSA — "there's a way to look at digital communications in the past."


(emphasis added)

He can do what he wants 'no matter what the law actually says'? That is the definition of a dictator. We would also be curious to learn where precisely in the constitution this authority is conferred. Maybe someone should ask Mr. Obama –  after all, he is a constitutional lawyer.


We Shall Overcome

Lastly, a supremely naïve article was published by 'Der Spiegel', in which it was argued that 'the public must fight for its right to privacy'. After correctly noting what an outrage the revelations are:


“The fact that the Americans and the British — it is yet to be revealed who else participated — have granted themselves this enormous power, without ever informing their own people, is a scandal of historic proportions. To the initiated, all the recent public debate about data retention, Internet privacy and the practices of Facebook and Google must have been downright amusing. The state, as it turns out, knew everything all along.

That was precisely the goal, according to the head of the NSA, Lieutenant General Keith Alexander. "Why can't we collect all the signals all the time?" he asked in an internal document acquired by theGuardian. "Sounds like a good summer project for Menwith," he continued, referring to a GCHQ/NSA facility at Menwith Hill in northern England.”


Interesting thought processes revealed by Mr. Alexander, who probably couldn't care less that they have been revealed. The article then concludes by stating the following:


“A different quote shows that intelligence personnel lied to the public following the first revelations of the existence of the program. European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said that, in meetings with US officials, she had been assured that data from Europeans had not been collected "in bulk." The surveillance of Europeans, they insisted to Reding, had been targeted and only undertaken in exceptional cases. That now appears to be untrue — it's just that the mass acquisition of data in Europe is taken care of by GCHQ, rather than by the NSA.

The public revelation of these activities in the Guardian, thanks to the risky actions of former NSA worker Edward Snowden, marks a turning point. The next weeks and months will show whether democratic societies across the world are strong enough to take a stand against the unlimited, totalitarian ambitions of Western secret services — or not.

The governments of the countries in question apparently did not have the necessary backbone. They knew full well that the kind of surveillance being undertaken lacked all democratic legitimacy. But they pursued the programs anyway, behind the backs of their electorates. It is now up to voters to defend themselves. It is up to us, whose data has landed as by-catch in the nets of Tempora. We must force our own representatives to defend our freedoms.


(emphasis added)

Shocker! They lied to the public! And now 'we must force our own representatives to defend our freedoms'. Apparently over at the 'Spiegel' magazine they have completely forgotten who's who in the zoo. The 'secret services' are not an entity apart from the State – they are part of it. The mirage of 'democratic accountability' is held up as a way out. But how exactly can one's 'representatives' be forced to alter course? Surely no-one can be so naïve as the think that any of this can be 'fixed' by elections or mere protests. Too powerful and well-funded an apparatus stands behind these activities. It would be a miracle if anything changed; moreover, the couch potatoes can't be bothered anyway. Those that have ordered and are involved in the spying are undoubtedly betting that the furor will die down again just as it did the first time around, and they are probably right. In the meantime, they will continue exactly as before. We're willing to take bets on this. All that has really happened is that whistleblowers have been put on notice.



Although the topic is less than funny, it has actually managed to gain in entertainment value now that EU politicians and diplomats have found out they are being spied on as well. Given that nothing is likely to change, this fact (i.e., the higher entertainment value) is a slight improvement on what obtained hitherto.



25.06.13: Steve Bell on Guantanamo BayThe room is ready for Snowden. Cartoon by Steve Bell





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3 Responses to “Equal Opportunity Spy-Fest”

  • davidh:

    All the more reason to use a new email protocol, described at

    The public email address is a hash of the public key. The problem then becomes ‘how do you establish trust?’

    The solution for PGP2 in the ’90s was to exchange keys in person, and create a web of trust.
    Modern successors (I have GnuPG 1.4.13) still implement this web of trust.

    Attaboy’s to the bitmessage originator, Jonathan Warren.

  • jimmyjames:

    The documents also indicate the US intelligence service was responsible for an electronic eavesdropping operation in Brussels. SPIEGEL also reported that Germany has been a significant target of the NSA’s global surveillance program, with some 500 million communication connections being monitored every month. The documents show that the NSA is more active in Germany than in any other country in the European Union.


    I read somewhere that most of the intercepts in Germany have been centered around the Frankfurt area- where the big DAX companies are situated-
    Nothing could make ones investment choices easier than having first hand knowledge into German engineering technology- have to wonder if Obama et al have been sharing the stolen information with their corporate campaign donating buddies- naw.. that would be illegal.. wouldn’t it?

  • zerobs:

    This NSA fiasco and its related controversies is shedding light on the result: Trust is collapsing.

    People want to look at financial data to see why bond yields are climbing when the reason is covertly staring them in the face.

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