The NSA Is Only the Tip of the Iceberg

by Loring Wirbel
Citizens for Peace in Space

Rumors have circulated for many years, long before the June 2013 Edward Snowden revelations, that the National Security Agency was capable of intercepting literally all electronic communications on the planet. The rumors gained substance in early October, when the BBC reported that the NSA tried bringing up its massive new storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah, and ended up browning out two power plants that serve the greater Salt Lake City area. At press time, NSA’s Bluffdale facility still had not gone online—foiled by its own massive mission to collect anything of interest going on with allies and adversaries alike.

The only people that seem to have missed the memo that the NSA covers the planet, are the leaders of leading allied nations, including Germany, Spain, Mexico, Greece and Brazil, who all took turns over the course of the summer and early fall expressing shock that the NSA was really probing their cell-phone calls, email addresses and private meetings. Some of this shock has a theatrical spin, for two reasons: proof of the NSA intercepting critical international meetings has been leaked for decades; and every nation has its own ‘signals-intelligence’ (SIGINT) agency which attempts to do the same things the NSA does. Nevertheless, the public anger expressed by the likes of Angela Merkel of Germany and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil helped give the Snowden revelations more shelf life, keeping the NSA in the headlines constantly for five months.

But these leaders of NATO allies can scarcely feign surprise. Under the terms of the “BRUSA” and the “UK-USA Security Agreement” signed in the late 1940s, the U.S. and U.K. have set up a five-member ‘white Anglo-Saxon club’ in signals intelligence with the governments of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These five nations share communication intercepts that are not shared with NATO allies or anyone else. Snowden’s disclosures simply show how this two-tiered program allows the English-speaking nations to spy without limits on everyone else. When the treaties were signed, that meant spying on leaders of nations. Improvement of technology in the 1980s and 1990s allowed this to be extended so that the NSA can intercept the communications of every citizen on the planet.

Some pundits worry as to whether the disclosures might mean the death of the global Internet. President Rousseff has called for Brazil to create its own encrypted Internet—a national equivalent to the mysterious encrypted “Darknet” where many drug and criminal transactions take place. While it is good to see national leaders make calls for autonomy, Rousseff’s proposal shows almost a shocking naiveté. Since the NSA was created to be a global specialist in codemaking and codebreaking, why assume that the agency couldn’t decrypt any new code that came along? What is the point in creating a walled-off Internet for Brazil or any other nation?

What the series of constant summer and fall revelations from Snowden and others have done is to expose the routine baseline state of the national security establishment, as it has regularly conducted business since the end of World War II. It is instructive to learn of specific NSA programs like “Prism” and “Bullrun,” because they provide the anatomical details of how the NSA operates. Nevertheless, there still must be a larger contextual awareness as to how National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Strategic Command, Cyber Command and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), conduct similar operations on a daily basis, as a regular means of completing their mission. A few brave journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Kevin Gosztola try to provide revelations in a wider context, but most of the U.S. media keeps its focus on the NSA with a very tight boundary.

For example, The Sunday New York Times had a useful and extensive front-page article on the NSA this past November 3, “No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming NSA,” providing a decent top-down view of the agency from within the Beltway. But the story, despite its voluminous length, carried a strict Washington-Baltimore ‘insider’ point of view. Why no mention of the massive agency NRO, with whom the NSA collaborates? Why no talk of the Cyber Command, which shares the NSA’s headquarters? Why did the story not mention the Regional SIGINT Operations Centers (like Menwith Hill, UK, and Buckley AFB, Colorado) which are critical to NSA’s collection efforts? Why was there no discussion of NSA sites at undersea cable landing stations or telephone switching centers? Why no mention of StratCom, whose Intelligence/Surveillance/Reconnaissance (ISR) mission it is to oversee the U.S.’s entire national security network? In James Bamford’s second book on the NSA, Body of Secrets, he discussed how it was important to understand the head, body, heart and circulation of NSA to understand how it works. Scott Shane, author of the New York Times article, gave us a review of the agency’s central nervous system without explaining the body surrounding it.

The media’s near-sightedness is similar to that of the politicians themselves. The tactic of wilful ignorance has been perfected over the 60 years of the NSA’s existence. When President Obama provided a mealy-mouthed excuse for his weak NSA oversight at a G20 meeting, he actually was describing the Washington world as it exists. Technology improves incrementally, Obama said. Congress gives the technical intelligence agencies a pass when new technology is rolled out, and presidents are presented with a ‘gee whiz’ series of PowerPoint slides that make it sound wonderful and free of ethical problems. There has not been more than a handful of legislators or White House staff in the past 60 years who understand the first thing about telecommunication networks, so it is natural no one has sought to check the NSA’s growing omniscience.

And the courts? In a startling November 4 editorial, the Denver Post said that the U.S. Supreme Court was not looking forward to two new cases involving the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court”—the secret court tasked with overseeing the NSA. (One of these cases involved an alleged Uzbek terrorist in Aurora, the same Colorado city that plays host to a large NSA base at Buckley AFB. The Justice Department has admitted for the first time in history to using intercepts from the NSA to prosecute the case, and the Denver Post predicted the case would go all the way to the Supreme Court.) The Supreme Court did not want to touch this secret court, the Post editorial said, because it would force the court to admit that the NSA was a criminal agency since its founding. Well, precisely. On November 18, the U.S. Supreme Court did just that—it rejected another FISA/NSA case without comment. Unfortunately, the three branches of government continue to play ‘see-no-evil’ with similar agencies which have not been dragged into the spotlight—like StratCom and its multiple minions: Global Strike Command, the NRO, Cyber Command and JSOC.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the intelligence agency heads know just how to exploit this knowledge gap. During Congressional hearings in late October, agency insiders were playing ‘what did the president know and when did he know it’ games with members of Congress, avoiding deeper questions regarding the legality of interception. General Keith Alexander, who serves as head of the NSA and Cyber Command (both of which are StratCom component commands), indicated he would be ready to step down from the NSA in early 2014. He said nothing about Cyber Command, however—even as C4ISR and Networks Journal reported that Congress would be seeking to split management of the NSA and Cyber Command. This would allow Alexander to continue probing the computers of world citizens as Cyber Command director, even as the NSA falls victim to public probes.

What Is To Be Done?

An effective way of challenging the power of the national security state needs to involve both the leaders and the citizens of all other nations of the world, as well as U.S. citizens themselves. Attempts to create an independent Internet sound dated and silly—a bit like the Libertarian computer pioneers of the 1990s who predicted they could beat the NSA by turning to ‘public-key’ cryptography. Interception and computer code-breaking has been the NSA’s business for six decades. It is the world’s leading expert. If it is restricted by 2014 legislation, we can be sure the Cyber Command will take over in those realms where the NSA has its hands tied.

This means that critics must widen their scope to include all the technical agencies of the national security state, including all the crypto agencies of every nation on the planet. The technical groups within Strategic Command (such as Global Strike Command), the NRO, JSOC, Cyber Command, all must submit to the same public rules of the road as the NSA does. Global citizens and nations working through venues such as the UN must insist on transparency, accountability and rules of monitoring and technology advances that are able to be vetted by professional outside monitoring groups. This cannot come from Congress or the White House or even the Supreme Court. Independent bodies similar to the “UN Disarmament Commission” or the “Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers” must be able to analyze the technology used by these agencies. Some degree of secrecy can be preserved, even as an outside group tells an agency it may not carry out a particular mission.

Analysts who claim the genie is already out of the bottle with the NSA and global monitoring forget the example of the SALT II Treaty and “MIRVs” (Multiple Independently Targeted Re-Entry Vehicles). Henry Kissinger once said that since MIRVs had been invented for nuclear missiles, it was impossible to un-invent them. Yet that is precisely what SALT II did. The U.S. and then-Soviet Union got rid of their MIRVs, and no nation put them on nuclear missiles again.

By limiting the size and frequencies of certain radar dishes, antenna clusters, packet-analysis equipment and the like, it will be possible to ‘un-invent’ intrusive, comprehensive monitoring of civilian communications. But the effort must be global, it must include all nations, and it must include all national-security agencies involved in such activity. If Edward Snowden’s revelations can take us even part of the way to that goal, then his whistle-blowing work will not have been in vain.

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