Obsession Without End

The U.S. Government’s Mania Over National Security

Loring Wirbel
Citizens for Peace in Space
Colorado Springs, Colorado

James Cartwright, former commander of Strategic Command and Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has found himself in the uncomfortable and surprising position of being linked with the likes of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. In late June, word leaked that the Justice Department was investigating Cartwright for possibly leaking information on the U.S. Cyber Command’s “Olympic Games” mission to David Sanger of the New York Times. Sanger wrote in a recent book that Olympic Games was an over-arching offensive cyber-war architecture that included “Stuxnet”—the specific program that inserted rogue commands into the logic controllers of Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges.

The word of Cartwright’s entanglement in the new ‘leaker-hunt’ mania came just as the July issue of Wired magazine hit the newsstands. In a cover article, intelligence expert James Bamford wrote a detailed report on General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency (NSA). Alexander has taken on the added role of directing U.S. Cyber Command—a component of U.S. Strategic Command under StratCom’s diverse mission array. Bamford revealed that even though NSA itself is subject to budget-sequestering cuts, the Cyber Command with its offensive war-fighting duties has been insulated from any funding reductions. A $3.2 billion Cyber Command building at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, called “Site M,” for instance, is currently under construction and will be almost as big as NSA headquarters itself when completed (5.8 million square feet). Drawing the connection between the Maryland-based Cyber Command and Strategic Command even more tightly, Bamford said that when Alexander sends out computer-attack orders from the Cyber Command, the orders are carried out through StratCom’s “Joint Functional Component Command for Network Warfare.”

This information came to the surface in a summer made mad with Edward Snowden’s search for asylum, and by the furor caused by the numerous leaks Snowden gave on the operation of the NSA and related agencies. NSA and Cyber Command operate in a true hand-and-glove fashion, Snowden told one source, since NSA was designated the lead agency for the Stuxnet virus development. Meanwhile, members of Congress ranging from Rep. Peter King on the right to Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the left, ignored the substance of Snowden’s revelations and called for the prosecution of anyone audacious enough to reveal information about the national-security state.

What should Nebraskans take away from this confusing summer? Two important facts: Strategic Command is indeed at the center of all modern warfare—including the global surveillance blanket created by the NSA and related agencies, and the computer-warfare arms race waged under the auspices of Cyber Command. Omaha, along with Fort Meade, Maryland, and other sites, remains a critical ground zero for this network. Also, peace activists in Nebraska should recognize that the vast number of Republicans and Democrats in Congress (and the courts and White House) have no problem with the Frankenstein monster that has been created with this high technology. They just wish people would stop talking about it.

When the former Strategic Air Command had a sole mission of being in charge of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, political leaders would often tell nuclear protesters, “We are the only ones who understand strategic arms policy and Mutually Assured Destruction. You are meddling in matters beyond your comprehension. Let us take care of this.” Now, as warfare is defined by comprehensive global intelligence, drone warfare, and cyber warfare, the new political elite again says, “Stop talking about this technical information. You have no business knowing this. Trust us.” Once again, StratCom is in charge of these new tools of global war we are not supposed to discuss.

Why What Snowden Told Us Wasn’t News

Virtually from the first stories Edward Snowden leaked to the UK Guardian and the Washington Post on June 9, skeptics were insisting that Snowden was not revealing anything we did not already know, even though the media rarely talked about the NSA. (Odd, then, that the Obama Administration wanted to prosecute him within a matter of days under the Espionage Act). In a sense, though, the scoffers were right. Snowden only provided solid documentation for things that intelligence experts always claimed were true about the NSA. But what was maddening in the skeptics’ jaded approach to Snowden is the way the entire Washington establishment has allowed the intelligence cabal, the drone cabal, the cyber cabal, to expand their missions and their snubbing of the law without any oversight from Congress or the courts.

It may be useful, then, to go through a brief history on how the intelligence community has changed over recent decades. The NSA was established by executive order in 1952, with a mission to intercept the military and diplomatic communications of our adversaries (primarily the USSR and China), and attempt to break their codes. The agency’s main tools were ground-based antenna fields, along with special airplane and ship listening posts. Even as Strategic Air Command wandered the globe looking for nuclear weapons bases, the NSA came along behind the nuclear barons and signed secret treaties with nations for the location of listening posts. In most cases the parliaments or legislatures of these host nations were unaware of the treaties—these were classified, private treaties signed between the White House and a prime minister or president. Yet even in the 1950s, the NSA also was setting up listening posts in domestic locations like Skaggs Island, California; Two Rock Ranch, California; and Winter Harbor, Maine.

A second high-tech intelligence agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), was created in 1960 to manage the nation’s spy satellites. Within ten years, it was outspending the NSA, and is now the nation’s largest intelligence agency by budget (NRO is now around $16 billion; NSA, around $12 billion). During the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, NSA ground stations around the globe often were the target of guerilla military groups, so the NSA sought the help of the NRO in sending its listening stations into space. By the mid-1980s, space was the pioneering environment for joint NSA/NRO missions.

The raft of congressional hearings in the late 1970s into the CIA’s covert operations and dirty tricks disclosed some NSA dirty laundry as well, including a program called “Shamrock” where companies like ITT and Western Union were pressured into supplying the NSA with copies of all international telegrams. As part of the process of reform, Congress set up a secret court to oversee the NSA, the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court” or FISA Court. But as the New York Times revealed in a July 7, 2013 front-page story, the FISA Court has grown over the past 35 years to become a law unto itself, which has included usually rubber-stamping all NSA activity.

It is almost impossible though to overstate the critical role that space-based intelligence gathering played in the development and expansion of the modern national security state. Although seldom noted, space satellites do not easily turn off their antennas as an orbit passes over the U.S. Listening satellites, accordingly, work best when collecting all communications on the planet round the clock. During the ’80s and ’90s, presidents from Reagan to Clinton asked the NSA to increase its targets to include commercial and civilian communications. Thus, when the FISA Court set rather loose limits on the NSA in the two decades following the court’s founding, it was not telling NSA what it could collect. The agency already was collecting all electronic communications on the planet. The FISA Court was telling the NSA what it could acknowledge collecting when it shared information with other agencies.

Long before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the NSA was routinely conducting satellite surveillance on American citizens. And what’s more, it was public information. What Edward Snowden so dramatically leaked to the world this summer had been known for nearly 20 years—at least since the revelations about the NSA’s “Echelon” satellite surveillance during the Clinton Administration that had provoked international outrage.

What the events of September 11 did give rise to were passage of the U.S. Patriot Act; the transformation of StratCom to include cyber-war, global strike, and indirect oversight of NSA; and the creation of a dedicated Northern Command and Department of Homeland Security to make domestic surveillance appear more mundane. When the FISA Court showed a slight bit of reluctance in rubber-stamping new NSA plans in 2002, President Bush created something called “FISA Bypass” in which the agency could use special high-tech tools without seeking the approval of the court.

For example, the NSA recruited the nation’s leading telephone companies to install special equipment in their switching centers in order to deeply probe Internet packets running across their networks, and to copy the packets and send them across fiber optic cables to the NSA. During the insider-trading trial of former Qwest Communications CEO Joseph Nacchio in 2007, he claimed he was being set up by the NSA because Qwest was the only company that refused to play ball with the NSA. This sounded far-fetched until Snowden’s revelations in 2013 showed how much the NSA was willing to muscle private industry. Snowden revealed a newer program called “Prism,” where the NSA worked with the owners of large data centers such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft to make sure all information in Internet data centers was shared with the agency. Some CEOs of these companies claim they never heard of Prism. But it is extremely likely that NSA worked only with lower-level information tech specialists in those companies, leaving the CEOs in the dark. It’s the way NSA typically does business.

In his Wired story revealing how much the NSA controls Cyber Command, James Bamford emphasized the number of huge private corporations building Cyber Centers near NSA headquarters—Boeing, Booz Allen Hamilton, General Dynamics and SAIC were among the many planning multi-billion-dollar centers for computer attack and defense. More unnerving, Bamford said, were little start-ups like “Endgame Systems.” Endgame’s plans for attacking other nation’s computers seemed illegal under either U.S. or international law. Bamford got an NSA insider to say the agencies all recognize how shadowy this kind of work is, which is why it is best to conduct it in the offices of private corporations.

This is the real story behind NSA, Cyber Command and StratCom. As intelligence author Glenn Greenwald says, it is the mundane acceptance of vast levels of criminal behavior which is more upsetting, rather than any particular monster antenna fielded by the NSA, or any computer virus created by Cyber Command. In both houses of Congress, those upset by NSA activities seem limited to two senators: Sens. Mark Udall and Ron Wyden. NSA cheerleaders include the likes of Sen. Al Franken, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi—all of who say we must simply accept what secret agencies do. And the federal courts offer no last resort, terrified as they are of exercising any authority over the FISA Court, which has become a law unto itself.

Given the aggressive war-fighting plans created by other StratCom component commands like “Global Strike,” why in the world would anyone expect benign behavior from Cyber Command or the technical intelligence agencies? The agencies benefit from a deliberate deafness practiced by everyone in Washington that allegedly has oversight authority. This includes the White House, where Obama has been a key instigator of taking away the passport of Edward Snowden and demanding his prosecution. Obama also fully supports the efforts by Attorney General Eric Holder to charge eight journalists under the Espionage Act.

The probe into retired General James Cartwright indicates the national security state has begun to eat its own children. In early July, Fox News and McClatchy News reported that Cartwright may have been targeted because federal employees are being ordered to spy on each other in the “Insider Threat” program. It could be funny were it not so pathetic.

But we dare not assume that this means the state is near collapse. Only the constant protests in support of Bradley Manning during his trial at NSA headquarters, and the protests conducted in many American cities July 4 against the NSA, can help rip off the benign masks of these very dangerous agencies. Peace activists can expect to have very few allies in this fight. Opposition to the new national-security state is universal across social media. But in official Washington, all significant players in the two major parties have announced they are willing to imprison thousands to stop a nation of leakers. The vast majority of those within the political bureaucracy do not dare to oversee NSA, Cyber Command or StratCom with transparency. What they see might be too ugly.

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