In recent weeks the UK Guardian broke wide open a story that had previously lurked in the shadows. No pun intended. Now, Edward Snowden is a household name worldwide.
Snowden, an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton–an NSA sub-contractor–leaked information about the spying habits of the National Security Administration. As the accusation goes the NSA is intercepting, recording and storing every piece of electronic data communicated inside the United States, entering the United States and exiting the United States. It is suspected the U.S. borders do not really make a difference.
The former administrator had been hiding in Hong Kong when the Guardian story went to print. Edward Snowden has been characterized as both a hero and a traitor. He has since flown to Moscow from whence he will go to Iceland, Venezuela, Ecuador or Cuba, depending on who you believe. Or, perhaps the embassy of one of those countries in yet another country.
Yesterday he successfully fooled 20 or so reporters into boarding a flight to Havana sans Snowden himself.
Immediately upon Edward Snowden's revelations, and far too late I might add, an uproar was released from those concerned about privacy. Why, without warrant, probably cause or permission, is the government recording data formerly believed to be private? Within a phone call, email or text message, do I not have a reasonable expectation of privacy?
The Bush and Obama administrations did and do not think so, while some politicians have boarded the "necessary for national security" bandwagon. President Obama is laughable in his self-contradictions. Once again candidate Obama has been shown as opposing president Obama. The straight-face with which his administration claims transparency while prosecuting whistleblowers would be Comedy Central gold if not so serious.
Civil liberties groups, along with sane American citizens, have been crying "foul" since these revelations. It is as if we awoke in the middle of the night to see the local sheriff's deputy's squinting eyes at the living room window. All of our living room windows.
Rights to privacy have been a very nebulous thing in American life. We have had a 4th Amendment to protect us from unreasonable searches and seizure. Our form of government was once to be of the people, by the people and for the people. That government is a distant, yeaspectral, memory.
Violations of privacy rights are egregious when committed by armed thugs, rogue cops or a bespectacled analyst in a Fort Meade cubicle. We had constitutional protections. We have lost them at a rate that brings "disemboweling" to mind.
On June 12, 2013, WIRED magazine published "The Secret War," an exposè on 4-star General Keith Alexander. Explaining his power at the behemoth Fort Meade, Maryland NSA complex, James Bamford writes:
"This is the undisputed domain of General Keith Alexander, a man few even in Washington would likely recognize. Never before has anyone in America's intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign, or the depth of his secrecy. A four-star Army general, his authority extends across three domains: He is director of the world's largest intelligence service, the National Security Agency; chief of the Central Security Service; and commander of the US Cyber Command. As such, he has his own secret military, presiding over the Navy's 10th Fleet, the 24th Air Force, and the Second Army.
Inside the government, the general is regarded with a mixture of respect and fear, not unlike J. Edgar Hoover, another security figure whose tenure spanned multiple presidencies. "We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander-with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets," says one former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. "We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else."
What could Alexander get? Well,
"In May, work began on a $3.2 billion facility housed at Fort Meade in Maryland. Known as Site M, the 227-acre complex includes its own 150-megawatt power substation, 14 administrative buildings, 10 parking garages, and chiller and boiler plants. The server building will have 90,000 square feet of raised floor-handy for supercomputers-yet hold only 50 people. Meanwhile, the 531,000-square-foot operations center will house more than 1,300 people. In all, the buildings will have a footprint of 1.8 million square feet. Even more ambitious plans, known as Phase II and III, are on the drawing board. Stretching over the next 16 years, they would quadruple the footprint to 5.8 million square feet, enough for nearly 60 buildings and 40 parking garages, costing $5.2 billion and accommodating 11,000 more cyberwarriors.
In short, despite the sequestration, layoffs, and furloughs in the federal government, it's a boom time for Alexander. In April, as part of its 2014 budget request, the Pentagon asked Congress for $4.7 billion for increased "cyberspace operations," nearly $1 billion more than the 2013 allocation. At the same time, budgets for the CIA and other intelligence agencies were cut by almost the same amount, $4.4 billion. A portion of the money going to Alexander will be used to create 13 cyberattack teams."
Hearkening back to the Bush era eavesdropping days we find "Alexander the Geek," as his detractors call him, at the center of things:
"In 2001, Alexander was a one-star general in charge of the Army Intelligence and Security Command, the military's worldwide network of 10,700 spies and eavesdroppers. In March of that year he told his hometown Syracuse newspaper that his job was to discover threats to the country. "We have to stay out in front of our adversary," Alexander said. "It's a chess game, and you don't want to lose this one." But just six months later, Alexander and the rest of the American intelligence community suffered a devastating defeat when they were surprised by the attacks on 9/11. Following the assault, he ordered his Army intercept operators to begin illegally monitoring the phone calls and email of American citizens who had nothing to do with terrorism, including intimate calls between journalists and their spouses. Congress later gave retroactive immunity to the telecoms that assisted the government.
In 2003, Alexander, a favorite of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was named the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, the service's most senior intelligence position. Among the units under his command were the military intelligence teams involved in the human rights abuses at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. Two years later, Rumsfeld appointed Alexander-now a three-star general-director of the NSA, where he oversaw the illegal, warrantless wiretapping program while deceiving members of the House Intelligence Committee. In a publicly released letter to Alexander shortly after The New York Times exposed the program, US representative Rush Holt, a member of the committee, angrily took him to task for not being forthcoming about the wiretapping: "Your responses make a mockery of congressional oversight."
How effective is the offensive capability of Alexander's cyberforce? Consider the attack on Iran's centrifuge operation.
"They set about remotely penetrating communications systems and networks, stealing passwords and data by the terabyte. Teams of "vulnerability analysts" searched hundreds of computers and servers for security holes, according to a former senior CIA official involved in the Stuxnet program. Armed with that intelligence, so-called network exploitation specialists then developed software implants known as beacons, which worked like surveillance drones, mapping out a blueprint of the network and then secretly communicating the data back to the NSA. (Flame, the complex piece of surveillance malware discovered by Russian cybersecurity experts last year, was likely one such beacon.) The surveillance drones worked brilliantly. The NSA was able to extract data about the Iranian networks, listen to and record conversations through computer microphones, even reach into the mobile phones of anyone within Bluetooth range of a compromised machine."
Get that? A virus infected machine can have its microphone controlled by the hacker. As if that was not enough, a cellphone with active Bluetooth connection can also serve as a transmitter from the unsuspecting user.
In light of the PRISM revelations, the IRS revelations and the Utah storage facility revelations, those who still think our government would not use this technology to suppress otherwise legal dissent within U.S. borders are afflicted with an unsurpassed naiveté.
In no way do I fear the government of the United States or anywhere else. I do not fear that my personal information is being stored for future access. This was certainly inevitable since absolute power corrupts absolutely. It also underscores John Adams' observation that our government only works when engaged by a morally upright people.
Although I do not fear the government I do think we should be aware. The ostrich is not our national bird; the eagle is. Vigilance has always been the price of freedom. If we are too far gone to retrieve it, at least let us navigate the future facing forward and with eyes opened.
Whether Edward Snowden is a hero or not history will decide. I do believe his exposing of Prism is heroic. Nor does question that remains find an easy answer: "Are we?"