November 5, 2013

Interview in The Daily Journalist - "NSA’s latest foreign surveillance scandal"

Although this is Middle East Perspectives, I was also an intelligence officer with direct experience in this arena. My thoughts:

1) What are your thoughts on the NSA spying foreign allies? Is it healthy for America’s relation with the EU and will that consecrate into a serious rupture of mistrust between close peers? 
I am not sure I agree with the term “spying” in regards to NSA. Spying to me is when you convince someone to betray their country and work for a foreign power. The National Security Agency intercepts and collects foreign communications. While some countries may try to make that illegal, once you put something onto electronic media, it is out there for anyone with the capability to access it.
The United States has been collecting the communications of some, not all, allies for as long as we have had the capability. All of these operations are in response to validated collection requirements – someone asked for information on a particular topic and these particular communications were assessed to contain the information needed to satisfy the request. NSA, or any intelligence agency, does not just go out and collect whatever they want. The intelligence community responds to its consumers.
As for relations with the EU, it could be a temporary problem, but I seriously doubt that any of them are surprised. They will do the Claude Rains “shocked” routine, but I don’t foresee a major issue. If the communications are sensitive, they should be encrypted. Using any type of unsecured communications device is asking for someone to exploit it.

 2) Merkel and other presidents are trying to get in contact with Edward Snowden to get more information about the spying programs. It seems now, that Edward Snowden has become somehow a vital key to open up new classified information about the CIA’s and NSA’s programs in Europe. How is the U.S. going to react with its close allies as their trying to obtain more information with Russia’s diplomatic permission from Edward Snowden? 
They are sovereign nations trying to secure their own communications vulnerabilities, so it will be hard for us to convince them not to seek the information from Snowden. Snowden is no doubt a fabulous source of information for the Russians. How would we treat someone who brought us all that information? We certainly would not send him back.

3) Overall, does the U.S. Government really trust its allies when we consider it targets not only its citizens but the actual presidents?
Trust and intelligence may be mutually exclusive terms. It really has nothing to do with it. If there is a collection requirement, obviously someone in the US government is wary of what we are being told by a particular ally. Again, NSA does not determine trust or who are allies – it responds to validated (that also means vetted by the lawyers) collection requirements.
Why wouldn’t you try to collect leadership communications – those are probably the best sources of the information the intelligence community has been tasked to collect? Regular citizens are not usually of interest unless they have access to information of interest.

4) It’s been proven again and again, that the NSA no matter what program they come up with does not have the capacity to process all the communications it intercepts since it doesn’t have the actual man power to sustain that vast amount of information it gathers. Why is the NSA, focused on spying other nations considering the unlikely hood of listing all the threats their supposed to intercept? 

Again, NSA and the intelligence community respond to information requirements. They do collect vast amounts of data that will never be fully processed, but that data may be useful at a later date, hence the need to store huge amounts of information. For example, when a raid of an al-Qa’idah safehouse in Pakistan yields cell phones or laptops that contain email addresses, phone numbers, etc., it requires searching through the stored data.
If that data is associated with a US person (different than a US citizen), that requires a FISA warrant. Some of the phone numbers may be in countries that are considered to be allies – NSA needs to access those records and communications. Remember, many of the 9/11 hijackers were living in Germany, an ally.

 5) Obama was not the first president who gave his permission to wiretap conversations among close allies. Bush also did so as well with the former German chancellor. Did spying on close allies start prior to the Bush era, or did they start after 9/11? 
I suspect it has gone on since we have had the capability. I an not sure this type of collection – they are foreign communications, which is the NSA charter – requires Presidential approval.
We do have agreements with certain countries on limiting certain activities, but unless there is an agreement, foreign communications are valid collection targets.

6) How is this latest diplomatic scandal going to affect Obama’s campaign overall and reputation? In 2008 he toured in the primaries around EU, promoting peace but it seems a little hypocritical now? 
I don’t think this will affect it at all. There will be some lip service, but if the European countries think that we are not targeting their communications, they are naive. I don’t assess them to be naive. Do you not think the BND and DGSE are not involved in similar operations? If we think not, it is us who are naive.