June 17, 2013 6 Comments
Jeremy W. Crampton discusses recent developments around security, surveillance and the state. This is a shorter version of a commentary forthcoming in Society & Space, Vol 31 No 4, entitled “Is Security Sustainable?” Jeremy also runs the Open Geography site where he discusses a range of related questions, as well as his long-standing interests in cartography, Foucault, and other geographical issues.
The recent revelations in the Guardian by Glenn Greenwald and his colleagues about the mass surveillance operations of the US intelligence community (IC) have brought unusual attention to government activities that typically operate in conditions of extreme secrecy.
There’s more to come—Greenwald has promised further stories on the National Security Agency (NSA). Amidst all the revelations and the speculation, however, we are in danger of missing the forest for the trees. There are some larger points to keep in mind here; specifically just what all this surveillance is achieving, and at what cost.
But first a quick recap.
1. On Thursday June 6, 2013 the Guardian published a Top Secret court order requiring America’s leading telecommunications company, Verizon, to turn over metadata on all customer phone records, including all calls within the US. These metadata include phone numbers, length of call, calling card numbers used, and the call’s geographic location on “an ongoing daily basis.” The order came from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, which operates in secret. There’s no reason to think this is the only such order. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who Chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted the same day that as far as she was aware, this was a routine three-month extension of a practice that had been going on since 2006. This collection is legally justified by the FISA “business records” section and does not need a warrant, although the US government has repeatedly prevented any legal challenges to this law. (In a Catch-22, since you don’t know you are specifically surveilled you cannot sue; and you don’t know because these programs are secret for national security reasons.)
2. In the next few days the paper published further stories on a big data mining and analysis program in use at the NSA called “Prism” (Planning Tool for Resource, Integration, Synchronization and Management), the existence of which is not classified (but the nature of which is classified). The leaked Powerpoint slides claimed that Prism provides “direct access” to the servers of many tech companies, including Google, Apple, Facebook and Yahoo (but not Twitter nor Amazon). This implies (we don’t know for sure since the companies are legally enjoined from discussing their cooperation with the intelligence services) the mass surveillance of the content (not only metadata) of all traffic across those servers, including emails, voice, and chat. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, issued a denial that the program allowed mass surveillance, stating it is extremely targeted and, like the Verizon order, legally authorized under FISA.
3. Then the paper published a Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) directing the formation of an overseas list for cyber-attack by the US. On Saturday the source behind these documents was revealed to be 29-year-old Edward Snowden, who before leaving Hawai’i for Hong Kong (where he currently remains) worked for the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton (“Booz Allen”). Previously he had worked for both the CIA and the NSA.
A couple of preliminary remarks about all this. Senator Feinstein, in defending the FISA Court, as well as President Obama and DNI Clapper, have said that these programs are legal, and that all necessary oversight is being conducted. First, it is part of the problem, not the solution, that these programs (Verizon and PRISM, as well as other NSA surveillance we sometimes hear about, such as “Ragtime” a codename revealed in Marc Ambinder’s book, Deep State) operate within the law. It indicates that the laws are wrong, overbroad, and unconstitutional. This includes the USA PATRIOT Act and the renewed FISA law. The laws were not even envisaged for such mass collection as the Verizon order, indicating the radical legal interpretation being placed on them by the Bush and Obama administrations.
Second, to say that “Congress is fully briefed” is irrelevant and untrue. Only a very small group of Senators (typically either the “Gang of Four” (pdf), or “Gang of Eight” (pdf) get anything like regular national security/intel briefings, but, since they can’t tell the public what’s going on, and Intelligence oversight committees rarely hold publicly accessible meetings, this is not much good to US citizens, nor even to the Senate and Congress. Indeed, Senator Wyden (D-OR), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence committee, has long hinted at these programs and attempted to get more information about them publicly released. He has also sought—and so far failed—to get the legal authorities behind these and other programs before the public; that is, not the programs themselves but the legal opinions on which they rest (eg., for overseas drone assassinations) which remain highly classified. Failing to get a straight answer from General Keith Alexander (the NSA Director), on March 12, 2013 Wyden infamously asked Clapper directly whether the “NSA collects any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper, who had been provided with the questions the day before, answered “No—not wittingly.” Clapper later said this was the “least untruthful” answer he could give, but suffice it to say it is being widely read as a direct lie.
So where does this leave us? I suspect that, as with all big stories, this one will eventually die down, perhaps with some modification of the PATRIOT and FISA laws. But I’d like to look a little beyond the horizon and point to some issues that are more longstanding. Here are three.
First, I’d like to ask about the ongoing cost of security that the PATRIOT Act, the intelligence community, and all this surveillance. What does the US actually pay? One attempt at an answer to this surprisingly difficult question was recently provided by the National Priorities Project (NPP). Their estimate was that the US national security budget was $1.2 trillion a year. Or to put it another way, since September 11, 2001 the US has spent an estimated $7.6 trillion on homeland security, the military prosecution of foreign wars, and intelligence operations. Intelligence alone has cost as much as $80.1 billion in 2010, although has since declined to $62.8 billion for FY2014. It should be obvious that whatever your position on security as it is currently practiced, these are unsustainable expenditures.
They are made even more so, by my second issue; namely the outsourcing of much of the country’s security and intelligence work. If oversight of government activities and expenditures is lacking, then it is even more so in the case of private companies. Additionally, these companies operate under the profit motive. The fact is, however, that the DoD and the IC could not operate without these “spies for hire” in the words of Tim Shorrock, a leading writer on intelligence contracting. Booz Allen is a case in point. According to their own estimate, 98 percent of their revenue comes from the government. And that taxpayer money is considerable; some $31 billion in total (at least $19.6 billion from the Department of Defense, which makes them the DoD’s 25th all-time largest contractor). Many of these contracts are secret. The country’s top geographical intelligence agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) received special dispensation in 2007 to stop reporting even unclassified bare bones information about its private contracting. We should ask if this is the security we want. NSA Director Alexander revealed at a hearing on June 12 previous reports that the NSA’s IT infrastructure was outsourced as long ago as 1999. And the government’s own records indicate that there are as many as 1.4 million people with the highest security clearance—Top Secret—of which 480,000 were outside contractors. This should help explain why seemingly “junior” IT guys like Edward Snowden have access to the material they do.
But it’s not just dollars and clearances. There’s a constantly revolving door between senior positions at defense contractors and government agencies. James Clapper, Obama’s DNI, is a former Booz Allen executive. His opposite number in the Bush administration, Mike McConnell, is now a Booz Allen executive. This revolving door explains why so many contracts are “uncompeted”, or if competed, then done so by only a single company.
Finally, we really need to sort through the increasing enrollment of geography into the securitization project. How does geographic expertise (including GIS) get co-opted and circulate? What work does it do? Many of the activities of the intelligence and national security communities would not be possible without geographic concepts and methods. This goes well beyond the “human terrain teams” which were in the news a few years ago. Signature drone strikes that don’t require the identification of individuals outside traditional theaters of war are based on principles of geographic mobility and association. The field known as “Activity Based Intelligence” (ABI) which has “generated significant buzz throughout the intelligence community” (pdf) is a means to integrate multiple intelligence sources, of which a key element is geographical intelligence (GEOINT). Much like the purported capability of the NSA Prism system, ABI is real-time intelligence surveillance, using geolocated big data. It identifies patterns, commonalities, and geographic interactions using what is now routinely called “human geography” in the IC (see this slide presentation by a Booz Allen employee).
Perhaps as Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin indicated a few years ago, we need to develop a better “ethics of forgetting”?