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Tempora-Fried Conflict of Interest

The Buzz

Let’s agree, for the sake of argument, that the National Security Agency’s various data-gathering activities in the United States are unquestionably constitutional, legitimate and necessary. Let’s further agree that the oversight regimes in place—internal measures, Congressional committees, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts—are robust and transparent enough to prevent abuse. These assumptions are strong enough to address the vast majority of worries about the programs. Yet they do not touch one major concern: foreign intelligence agencies gathering information on Americans.

The United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters—GCHQ—was revealed to have a far more extensive collection program than the NSA’s. The program, codenamed Tempora, extracts data from international fiber-optic data cables and then collates it in a manner quite similar to the NSA’s PRISM system. But Tempora takes in more, both in scope and in scale. It stores both the content and the associated metadata of communications, unlike the NSA, which merely takes the latter. While one NSA program took in ninety-seven billion pieces of information in one month, at peak rates Tempora could do that in just over two days. And GCHQ lawyers told their NSA counterparts that “we have a light oversight regime compared to the U.S.”

Tempora offers major benefits to the United States, as the NSA enjoys access to the data and works closely with GCHQ on exploiting it. The United States and Britain are surely safer and better informed, and they’re cooperating in yet another area. Yet there’s a big downside for the United States. British cable-tappers are taking in many American communications. Tempora got its start at a GCHQ station at Bude, Cornwall, where many fiber-optic cables from the United States make landfall. This is partly of necessity—the United States is a major waypoint for data flows, so much of what’s going from America and into Tempora does not necessarily involve any U.S. persons.

Yet much surely does. And this is concerning for many reasons. For it is one thing when the American government gathers information on Americans. It is another when a foreign government does—whether allied or not.

American citizens are having their privacy violated en masse by a foreign crown—by one of its espionage services, no less. Preventing such activity is one of the core functions of a government. That’s part of the reason Washington has been so unhappy with Chinese cyber snooping. That’s why numerous states around the world protested—and even took action—when the NSA’s programs were revealed.

The U.S. response to the GCHQ’s Tempora program should be similar. A government-to-government complaint is natural and appropriate. But so is a second set of steps—educating the American public about methods that could be used to protect their information from foreign peeping. This would likely be far more effective than a mere protest—espionage is, after all, an eternal element of interstate relations, and modern technology has made it terribly easy. The most effective protection must thus focus on individuals. Widespread public adoption of powerful encryption on communications, and of secure communications endpoints (email clients, phone systems, web browsers, etc.), would make mass foreign cyber snooping extremely expensive, as decryption takes time and lots of computing power. Private citizens have already organized collections of free tools that could make this happen—Peng Zhong’s PRISM Break is one example.

Yet that particular page’s name may hint at why the U.S. government hasn’t taken such steps to protect its citizens from foreign espionage. The programs don’t discriminate. Making Americans safer from Tempora would also make them safer from PRISM. Further, it would be virtually impossible to keep the rest of the world from taking the same preventive steps, reducing PRISM’s effectiveness against foreign targets. The latter problem merely requires that the government balance contending goals. But the former is a conflict of interest.

Image: Flickr/George Rex. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCyber SecurityGreat PowersIntelligenceSecurity RegionsUnited StatesUnited Kingdom

The Wheel of Alarm on Iran

Paul Pillar

Amid a prolonged campaign to keep us scared about what is depicted as an inexorable Iranian march toward acquiring nuclear weapons, it is easy to lose sight of the cyclical nature of discourse about Iran's nuclear program, which began in the days of the Shah and has been the subject of repeated unrealized predictions about how close the Iranians supposedly were to getting a bomb. Rather than any one-way march, what we are seeing is a wheel of alarm that keeps turning around. Discourse on this subject is better understood not in terms of threats posed by Iran but instead in terms of the purposes, both long- and short-term, served by hyping of such a threat.

A couple of developments in particular have pushed the latest turn of the wheel. One is Hassan Rouhani's victory in the Iranian presidential election, which has made it harder for the alarmists to keep painting the face of Iran as a menacing one. The chief agitator on Iran, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, already sorely misses one of its most helpful props: outgoing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even though he does not leave office until next month.

Netanyahu's government also is discomfited by recent movement, or at least appeals for movement, in diplomacy aimed at settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry really does seem to be serious about getting something done on this problem. There also have been pointed reminders lately from voices within Israel, including editorialists at major newspapers and experienced security officials such as former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, that continuing the government's current course means a bleak future for Israel of costly international isolation and even losing any identity as a Jewish and democratic state. For Netanyahu's government, one of the purposes of ringing alarm bells about Iran as the “real problem” in the Middle East is to divert attention from these truths about the conflict with the Palestinians and to divert energy from any diplomacy aimed at ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Any new attention to the Palestinian issue is a spur for that government to ring the bells yet again.

It thus was unsurprising that Netanyahu took to U.S. airwaves on Sunday to try to scare the pants off us again about the Iranian nuclear program. As usual, he conducted his fear-mongering while seemingly oblivious to major realities about this subject. He ignored the repeated and publicly expressed intelligence judgments that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon and may never decide to do so. His demand that Iran end all enrichment of uranium is clearly a non-starter and only a prescription for making diplomacy fail. The amped-up saber-rattling he demands from the United States as well as Israel only heightens whatever interest the Iranians may have in a nuclear deterrent, further impairs diplomatic prospects by making the Iranians even more doubtful about U.S. intentions, and ignores how implementation of a military threat would probably be counterproductive by leading the Iranians to make the very bomb-building decision they have not to date made. His description of the Iranian government as a “messianic, apocalyptic, extreme regime” is a crude stereotype that continues his practice of treating this entire issue in a cartoonish way, even when he is not using literal cartoons at a podium at the United Nations. He ignores that the only existential threat that a nuclear weapons state in the Middle East poses to another state in the region is the threat that Israel poses to Iran, and he ignores that the only threats of military attack in that duopoly are the threats that Israel is making against Iran rather than vice versa.

Besides not being led astray by this pied piper of alarm, there is work to be done on the issue of Iran, and all the more so in the wake of the Iranian presidential election. Some of the most important points to bear in mind are expressed in a just-released open letter to President Obama from 29 national security experts and former government officials (myself included). The letter observes that Rouhani's election presents “a major potential opportunity to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.” It calls on the administration to redouble efforts to engage Iran not only on the nuclear issue but also on other matters of concern to the United States. On the nuclear issue, it states that a new proposal is needed that, while incorporating what the United States and its Western partners are seeking regarding limiting and verifying Iran's nuclear activities, treats sanctions in terms of their stated purpose of leverage to obtain such an agreement, rather than just being unending punishment or a domestic political statement. Sitting back and expecting Iran to make the next move would likely lead to just one more episode in the long history of missed opportunities in this relationship.

While doing these things, avoiding what is unhelpful is also important. As the letter states, “no further sanctions should be imposed or considered at this time as they could empower hardliners opposed to nuclear concessions at the expense of those seeking to shift policy in a more moderate direction.” Also unhelpful would be more of the sorts of military threats that Benjamin Netanyahu likes to make.

Image: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsUNSanctionsNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

A New Assessment of Rand Paul

Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Rand Paul the avatar of a new Republican foreign policy that will return the GOP to its traditional and more moderate roots? Or is he too eccentric and erratic to command real respect inside his party, which is currently dominated by neoconservatives? In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Stuart A. Reid, a senior editor at Foreign Affairs, astutely analyses the Paul phenomenon.

Paul first captured national attention with his filibuster on March 6 in which he opposed John Brennan's nomination for the CIA. He said, "I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court." With such statements Paul laid bare the rift that exists in the GOP between neocons and himself over the best way to conduct American foreign policy. One of his first moves was to introduce legislation slashing both domestic and defense spending. Paul opposed American intervention in Egypt, noting to Reid, "I'm a little skeptical, because the neoconservatives in my party the year before wanted to fund Qaddafi and sell arms to Qaddafi." Here Paul was alluding to a 2009 meeting, divulged in WikiLeaks cables, where Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, among others, talked about approving the sale of military equipment to Libya. Soon enough, though, they were champing at the bit to depose the Libyan dictator. As Reid sees it, "Paul is forcing a conversation that the Republican party doesn't want to have—and with an interlocutor much of it considers to be a foreign policy lightweight."

But Paul tries to make it clear that he isn't an isolationist or an extremist. He's distanced himself from his father: "In April," Reid writes, "the elder Paul founded the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity and named Slobodan Milosevic apologists and 9/11 truthers to its board. Rand did not attend the think tank's opening." There's more. "If Germany wants to have their joint base with us and we want to have it, we could do it. Maybe we do it with, instead of fifty thousand troops, five thousand troops," he told Reid. Some of Reid's most interesting material concerns Israel. Unlike his father, Rand is going out of his way to speak to neocons and to suggest that he is not anti-Israel. In January Paul, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Israel, where he met with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. According to Reid,

the trip was designed not only to reassure the pro-Israel crowd but also to win over Christian supporters. For seven days, Paul and his wife, Kelley, rolled around the Holy Land on a bus full of American evangelical leaders. The fifty-three person tour was organized by David Lane, a born-again political activist from California.

Paul may be seeking some cover on Israel, but it won't be an easy issue to finesse. Already Netanyahu, clearly apprehensive that the issue of Iranian nuclear ambitions has been put on the backburner because of upheaval in Syria and Egypt—"there is no sense of urgency," he said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation"—is dismissing Iran's president Hassan Rowhani as a wolf in sheep's clothing and pressuring President Obama to demonstrate that he is serious about military action against Iran. Meanwhile, the administration is trying to buy more time.

Still, Paul has the luxury of playing the role of critic on the sidelines rather than making policy. He will be seeking to influence debate inside the GOP as much as attempting to take on Obama. Once the primary season heats up, Obama will most likely be a sideshow. The skill that Paul demonstrates in the next few years in attempting to set new terms of debate inside the GOP may have a pivotal impact not just on his own fortunes, but also the party's. Already, as Reid observes, Paul leads Florida Senator Marco Rubio by nineteen points in opinion polls in Iowa. He is a force that is not going away.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsThe Presidency

Edward Snowden Plays Monopoly

The Buzz

Anyone three hours into a game of Monopoly will tell you that one of two things predictably happens to end the misery: 1) everyone mercifully gives up or 2) someone cheats and it becomes a landslide victory. Based on Edward Snowden's email to Russian human-rights activists sent in the wee hours of Thursday morning, one might venture to say that he's a Monopoly player of the later variety. A Moscow-based Human Rights Watch researcher, Tanya Lokshina, published Snowden's email at full in Facebook about eight hours ago:

I have been extremely fortunate to enjoy and accept many offers of support and asylum from brave countries around the world. These nations have my gratitude, and I hope to travel to each of them to extend my personal thanks to their people and leaders. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world.

Unfortunately, in recent weeks we have witnessed an unlawful campaign by officials in the U.S. Government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The scale of threatening behavior is without precedent: never before in history have states conspired to force to the ground a sovereign President’s plane to effect a search for a political refugee. This dangerous escalation represents a threat not just to the dignity of Latin America or my own personal security, but to the basic right shared by every living person to live free from persecution.

I invite the Human Rights organizations and other respected individuals addressed to join me on 12 July at 5:00PM at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow for a brief statement and discussion regarding the next steps forward in my situation. Your cooperation and support will be greatly appreciated in this matter.

Sincerely,

Edward Joseph Snowden

Snowden seems to have an understanding of government that is actually child-like in its self-centeredness. Someone who breaks the law for what he thinks is right regardless of the consequences is, at best, a vigilante. What vigilante would ever logically then use the law as a shield? He has, by nature, already abandoned the values for which it stands. Like the monopoly "banker" who sneaks a large note and then dubiously questions where you got the money to buy your railroads, Edward Snowden doesn't want to play by the rules but at the same time is demanding the protection they afford. He comes off as pitiful as a board-game cheater. 

Snowden puts his own personal safety and the dignity of all of Latin America as more or less equally important: "This dangerous escalation represents a threat not just to the dignity of Latin America or my own personal security, but to the basic right shared by every living person to live free from persecution."

It's as if to whine: "It's not about Monopoly. It's about the fact that there's no way you had enough money to buy those railroads. I'm trusting you to be honest in this game. If I can't trust you to be honest in this game, how can I trust you to be honest in anything?!"

When a person breaks the law he has to face the consequences. Disobedience, even when civil, is risky. There is no Get Out Of Jail Free card for believing that breaking the law is justified. In order to enact change, one has to prove, through often-difficult trials, that such lawlessness is necessary to serve a greater moral good. This will be rather difficult for young Edward from his new condo in Siberia. (Perhaps the Russians will give him consolation kittens?)

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

TopicsHuman RightsEthicsPublic Opinion RegionsRussiaNorth America

The New Israeli Ambassador

Paul Pillar

Israel announced this week that its ambassador to the United States beginning in September will be Ron Dermer, a 42-year-old neoconservative political operative. Dermer grew up in the United States, once worked for Newt Gingrich, renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2005, and now works for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a speechwriter and adviser. The Obama administration evidently has granted agrément, which in the absence of any indication of malfeasance is probably the right thing to have done. The administration may see Dermer's close ties to Netanyahu as a practical advantage in communicating with the Israeli government.

There are other things to reflect on, however, about this appointment. Peter Beinart provides a description of Dermer's views based on extensive reading of a series of columns that Dermer wrote several years ago for the Jerusalem Post and that, in Beinart's words, “would have fit snugly in the pages of The Weekly Standard.” The picture that emerges is of an aide who exhibits the bad sides of his current boss, and then some. Dermer's writings feature characterizations of Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are dismissive and contemptuous. He also adheres to what Beinart terms a “cartoonish view” of Arab-Israeli relations that is filled with historical inaccuracies.

Beinart isn't bothered by the idea that this is someone with Republican associations who clearly preferred a Mitt Romney victory last year and may even have done some things toward that end. That's part of a longstanding reality, says Beinart, of mutual attempts in the U.S.-Israeli relationship to affect the other guy's elections. But we should ask what this appointment further indicates in terms of the nature of the relationship.

To put this question in perspective, imagine comparable selections being made for other ambassadorial jobs, including ones involving close allies. Suppose that the United States appointed today as its ambassador to Britain a 42-year-old who had started out working for Labour Party causes before renouncing British citizenship and becoming an American speechwriter. It would be interesting to see the reaction of the Conservative-led coalition government to that. Or suppose Britain appointed a British Dermer as its envoy in Washington, which would be just as much of a shock.

Of course, the United States in effect insults many of its allied governments by making campaign contributions or bundling of campaign funds a prime qualification for major ambassadorships. But at least that can be seen as a general defect in how American diplomacy operates rather than a statement about any one diplomatic relationship. The Dermer appointment is something different. It is a departure even for Israel; the outgoing Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, is an accomplished historian who has taught at premier universities in both the United States and Israel.

The naming of Dermer is a statement that manipulation, with a hard-right twist, of American politics is not just something that arises from time to time in U.S.-Israeli relations but instead is the main aspect of the relationship. It also is a statement by Netanyahu that he isn't bothered if the relationship is seen that way. Perhaps he wants it to be seen that way, which would be consistent with the principle that to sustain something like the fear-based power that Israel has in American politics requires that the power be repeatedly and blatantly exercised and that people be continually reminded of it.

We all knew that this relationship was highly abnormal, even for one between supposed friends and allies. This ambassadorial appointment is a reminder that it is abnormal in ways that ought to make Americans uncomfortable.

Image: Flickr/Ted Eytan. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsIdeology RegionsIsraelUnited States

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