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American Spies in Germany: The End of Trust

The question to bear in mind, when reading this whole sorry tale, is this. If Americans are, on average, no stupider than Germans, then why are their intelligence services so stupid?

After the most recent revelations about American spying in Germany, there was considerable speculation among members of the Bundestag (parliament) that Germany might “get even” by inviting US whistleblower Edward Snowden to leave his Moscow exile and come to Berlin instead. But last weekend Chancellor Angela Merkel, at her traditional pre-summer vacation press conference, rained all over that idea.

“We learned things (from Snowden) that we didn’t know before, and that’s always interesting,” she said – but “granting asylum isn’t an act of gratitude.” Given that one of the things she learned from Snowden was that the US National Security Agency was bugging her mobile phone, this showed admirable restraint on her part, but even Merkel’s restraint only goes so far.

Only a week before, her patience with persistent American spying even after Snowden’s revelations snapped quite dramatically, when she ordered the US Central Intelligence Agency’s “chief of station” at the American embassy in Berlin to leave the country. German media reports stressed that such drastic action had only been taken previously when dealing with “pariah states like North Korea or Iran.”

Clemens Binninger, the chair of the parliamentary committee that oversees the German intelligence service, explained that the action came in response to the US “failure to cooperate on resolving various allegations, starting with the NSA and up to the latest incidents.” The “latest incidents” were the arrest of two German citizens, accused of spying for the US – whose key contact was the CIA station chief in Berlin.

The United States has never formally apologised for tapping Merkel’s phone. It refused to give her access to the NSA file on her before she visited Washington in April. And it went on paying a spy who worked for the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND – Federal Intelligence Service) right down to this month.

“One can only cry at the sight of so much stupidity,” said Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, insisting that the information given to the US by the spies was of no real value. That’s probably true – yet the American controllers paid their spy in the BND almost $40,000 in cash for 218 secret German documents downloaded to computer memory sticks and handed over at secret locations in Austria.

Some of those secret documents were even about the discussions of the German parliamentary committee that was investigating the earlier American spying efforts, including the bugging of Chancellor Merkel’s phone. The American spy agencies simply don’t know how to stop spying, even when they have been caught red-handed.

They only got away with such brazen behaviour for so long because the Germans naively trusted them. The spy from the BND, for example, simply sent the US embassy an email asking is they were interested in “cooperation”. The German authorities didn’t pick up on it because they didn’t monitor even the uncoded communications of a “friendly” embassy.

The spy was caught only when he got greedy and sent a similar email to the Russian embassy. Russian communications are monitored as a matter of course in all Western countries, so the German authorities put the spy under surveillance, and almost immediately they discovered that he was already selling his information to the Americans.

“We must focus more strongly on our so-called allies,” said Stephan Mayer, a security spokesman of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, and one of the first consequences will be the cancellation of Germany’s “no-spy” agreement with the United States. In future, US activities in Germany will be closely monitored by the German intelligence services.

What is clear from all this is that the American intelligence agencies are completely out of control. They are so powerful that even after the revelations of massive abuse in the past year very few politicians in Washington dare to support radical cuts in their budgets or the scope of their operations. They collect preposterous amounts of irrelevant information, alienating friends and allies and abusing the civil rights of their own citizens in the process.

The German intelligence agency (there’s only one) doesn’t behave like that. It chooses its targets carefully, it operates within the law, and it doesn’t spy on allies. Why the big difference?

It’s because the annual budget of the Bundesnachrichtendienst is just under $1 billion, and it employs only 6,000 people. The United States has only five times as many people as Germany, but its “intelligence community” includes seventeen agencies with a total budget of $80 billion dollars. There are 854,000 Americans with top-secret security clearances.

The American intelligence community grew fat and prospered through four decades of Cold War and two more decades of the “War on Terror”. It is now so big, so rich, so powerful that it can do practically anything it wants. And often it does stuff just because it can, even if it’s totally counter-productive.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Clemens…Berlin”; and “We…services”)  Please note that this is the second and last article for this week. The first was sent early, on Friday, in response to the MH17 incident.

Opportunity Costs

If Russia spent as much on intelligence agencies as the United States does—$52.6 billion in 2013, according to the “black budget” published by the Washington Post last August—would it have been able to stop the suicide bombers who killed 31 people in two attacks in Volgograd early this week? Can you solve the problem just by throwing money at it? And how big a problem is it, anyway?

 Russia doesn’t really have that kind of money to spend on “intelligence”, so let’s narrow it down to the $10.6 billion that the US National Security Agency spends each year. Of the sixteen intelligence agencies working for the US government, the NSA is the one that places the most emphasis on its alleged ability to stop terrorist attacks through monitoring everybody’s communications.

Would the NSA’s $10.6 billion, spent in the same way by the Russians, have stopped the Volgograd bombers? We cannot know for sure, any more than we can know if another billion dollars spent in the United States would have stopped the Boston marathon bombers last June. So maybe we should reformulate the question.

A total of 785 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Russia in the past ten years, and Moscow does not pay for an operation remotely comparable to the NSA. In the US, a total of 26 people were killed by terrorists in the same period. So does this mean that the NSA has saved 759 American lives in the past decade?

Probably not. Russia has a far worse terrorism problem than the United States, because some 6 million citizens, living in the Muslim-majority republics of the northern Caucasus, belong to various ethnic groups who see themselves as living under Russian occupation. The United States has no comparable domestic groups, and its ferocious border controls make it very hard for foreign-based terrorists to slip into the country.

There was one exception, twelve years ago, when foreign terrorists did manage to get into the United States and carry out an attack. However, the 9/11 attackers were using a brand new technique. Such innovations are very rare, and are only a surprise the first time. No subsequent terrorist attack, in the US or anywhere else, has been remotely as ambitious.

The NSA has certainly not prevented ten 9/11s in the past decade; it’s very unlikely to have prevented even one. But let us accept, for the sake of the argument, that the NSA’s activities have really saved 759 American lives in the past decade. In fact, let’s round it up to 1,000 lives, to make the calculations easier.

That would mean that over the past decade the NSA has spent around $100 billion to save 1,000 American lives. That works out at $10 million per life saved (on the heroic assumption that without the NSA the American terrorism problem would have been even worse than the Russian).

Economists talk about “opportunity cost”: when you spend the money on one thing, you are foregoing whatever benefits you might have got from spending it on something else. Are there other ways of spending that $100 billion that would save more than a thousand American lives?

Consider spending some of it on better pre- and post-natal care for poor Americans. Just a billion dollars a year—an extra $250 per baby—would enable the US to get its infant mortality rate down below Cuba’s, maybe even as low as Portugal or South Korea. Over ten years, that would be 60,000 more American kids who lived to grow up.

Or take highways. Highway engineers can estimate how many people will die each year on a given stretch of highway fairly accurately. It depends on the width and surface of the road, how many sharp curves and blind hills there are, whether there are guard rails, etc. All those things depend on how much money you have to spend on that stretch of highway.

Around 34,000 Americans died on the roads in 2012. Another $5 billion a year, spent on making highways safer, would probably reduce that toll by an extra thousand people each year. Over ten years, it would save around another 60,000 lives.

That’s 120,000 lives saved, and there’s still $4 billion a year left to spend on other life-saving improvements. You almost certainly end up saving at least 150,000 American lives with your $100 billion investment. That’s at least 150 times better than your return on investing the money in the NSA—and we haven’t yet even considered the cost in alienated allies and violated civil rights of giving the NSA all that money.

Unfortunately, Americans dying in infancy or on the highways don’t make headlines, whereas victims of terrorism do. Politically, their lives are much more important, and so that’s where the money goes. Indeed, even making calculations of this sort about the relative value we assign to human lives is thought to be in poor taste.

Never mind. As Herman Kahn, the dean of American nuclear strategists, said when people criticised him for making cold-blooded estimates of how many millions of Americans would be killed as a result of various different US strategies for fighting a nuclear war: “Would you prefer a nice, warm mistake?”

The Downfall of the NSA

26 October 2013

The Downfall of the NSA

By Gwynne Dyer

Politicians and government officials rarely tell outright lies; the cost of being caught out in a lie is too high. Instead, they make carefully worded statements that seem to address the issue, but avoid the truth. Like, for example, Caitlin Hayden, the White House spokesperson who replied on 24 October to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s angry protest at the tapping of her mobile phone by the US National Security Agency.

“The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel,” she said. Yes, Caitlin, but has the US been listening to Merkel’s mobile phone calls from 2002 until the day before yesterday? “Beyond that, I’m not in a position to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity.”

By 27 October, the argument had moved on. The question now was: did President Barack Obama know the Chancellor’s phone was bugged? (The German tabloid Bild am Sonntag reported that General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, told Obama about it in 2010. Obama allegedly said that the surveillance should continue, as “he did not trust her.”)

Now it was the turn of the NSA spokesperson, Vanee Vines, to deny the truth. “(General) Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel,” she said. But she carefully avoided saying that Obama had not been told at all.

The ridiculous thing about these meticulously crafted pseudo-denials is that they leave a truth-shaped hole for everyone to see. Of course the United States has been listening to Angela Merkel’s phone calls since 2002, and of course Obama knew about it. It would have been quite easy to deny those facts if they were not true.

The NSA is completely out of control. Its German outpost was brazenly located on the fourth floor of the US embassy in Berlin, and leaked documents published by Der Spiegel say that the NSA maintains similar operations in 80 other US embassies and consulates around the world.

The Guardian, also relying on documents provided by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, reported recently that a total of 35 national leaders have been targeted by the NSA. We know that the German, Brazilian and Mexican leaders were bugged, but it’s almost certain that the leaders of France, Spain and Italy, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Japan, India and Indonesia were also targeted. Not to mention Russia and China.

The only one of the NSA’s high-level victims to speak out yet, apart from Angela Merkel, is President Dilma Roussef of Brazil. Last month she told the UN General Assembly: “Personal data of (Brazilian) citizens was intercepted indiscriminately. Corporate information – often of high economic and even strategic value – was at the centre of espionage activity….The office of the president itself had its communications intercepted.”

“Friendly governments and societies that seek to build a true strategic partnership… cannot allow recurring illegal actions to take place as if they were normal,” Roussef concluded. “They are unacceptable.” And you wonder how the brilliant, power-drunk fools at the NSA could possibly have believed they could get away with this kind of behaviour indefinitely.

The 4.9 million (!) Americans with access to classified information include 480,000 civilian contractors with the same “top secret” security clearance as Snowden. Even if all the military and public servants could be trusted to keep the NSA’s guilty secret forever (unlikely) and only one in a hundred of the contractors was outraged by it, then there were still 4,800 potential whistle-blowers waiting to blow. If Snowden hadn’t, somebody else would have.

When the astounding scale and scope of the agency’s operations finally came out, it was bound to create intense pressure on Washington to rein in the NSA. The agency can deflect the domestic pressure, to some extent, by insisting that it’s all being done to keep Americans safe from terrorism, but it can’t persuade the president of South Korea or the prime minister of Bangladesh that she was being bugged because she was a terrorist suspect.

The NSA’s worst abuse has been its violation of the privacy of hundreds of millions of private citizens at home and abroad, but it’s the pressure from furious foreign leaders that will finally force the US government to act. “Trust in our ally the USA has been shattered,” said German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich on Sunday. “If the Americans have tapped mobile phones in Germany, then they have broken German law on German soil.”

This will end up in the German courts, and probably in those of many other countries as well (and Snowden may well end up being granted asylum in Germany). To rebuild its relations with its key allies, the White House is going to have to radically curb the NSA’s powers. Good.

We don’t have to listen to the spooks and their allies telling us that since the new communications technologies make total surveillance possible, it is therefore inevitable. “If it can be done, it will be done” is a counsel of despair. Most of the NSA’s ever-expanding activities over the past ten years have served no legitimate purpose, and it’s high time that it was forced to obey both the letter and the spirit of the law.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“The only…have”)

 

Big Data

27 August 2013

Big Data

By Gwynne Dyer

Over the past two weeks we have seen the following computer system crashes:

a three-hour network shutdown on 22 August that paralysed the NASDAQ stock exchange, crippled others, and caused a one-third drop in the daily total of shares traded on American exchanges;

also on 22 August, a blackout of Apple’s iCloud that lasted for 11 hours for some customers;

a trading glitch in the Goldman Sachs computer on 20 August that resulted in a large number of erroneous stock and options trades and cost the firm up to $100 million;

a shutdown of Amazon’s North American retail site on 19 August that lasted almost an hour and resulted in an estimated $2 million in lost sales;

on 16 August, a four-minute global outage of Google’s services, including email, YouTube and its core search engine, that led to an 40 percent drop in global internet traffic;

And last month, in another part of the forest, we had the director of the US National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, admitting that he still did not know exactly which files whistle-blower Edward Snowden had downloaded and taken with him when he fled the country two months before.

Well, General Alexander didn’t exactly admit it; he just declined to say whether he knew, but that comes to the same thing. Two months after Snowden flew the coop, the NSA still doesn’t know how many more of their embarrassing secrets are out there waiting to be revealed.

This may explain something quite puzzling that happened last week. A Brazilian citizen, David Miranda was changing planes in London when he was stopped by British police under the Terrorism Act, questioned for nine hours, and then released – but the police kept his computer, two pen drives, an external hard drive, and various other electronic items.

Miranda is the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been working on Snowden’s documents, but the police wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble just to harass him, particularly since their actions were probably illegal: all their questions were about Snowden and the NSA files, not about terrorism. And why would they even bother to confiscate Miranda’s electronics? Don’t they realise there are bound to be copies elsewhere?

It’s less puzzling if you assume that the NSA asked for the operation (of course it did), and that its goal was actually to find out just how much Snowden knows, and can prove. Maybe it found out, maybe it didn’t – but what it tells the rest of us is that the NSA is not really in control of its own data. If Snowden can take it away with him, so can others.

There are 850,000 potential “others” – Americans with top secret clearance and access to the data – and some of them will not have the same high motives as Snowden for stealing the data. In fact, the NSA even catches an average of one employee a year who has been using the system to track a lover or spouse they suspect is straying. God knows how many it doesn’t catch – but if its inability to figure out what Snowden took is any guide, probably a lot.

What the NSA has built is a system that is too big to monitor properly, let alone fully control. The system’s official purposes are bad enough, but it cannot even know the full range of illegitimate private actions that it permits. And this is not a design flaw. It is inherent in the very size of the system and the number of people who have access to it. Which brings us back to NASDAQ, Apple, Goldman Sachs et. al.

If it can be done, it will be done. Algorithms will be written for automated trading at speeds measured in fractions of a microsecond, and the competition will have to follow suit. It will become possible to store immense amounts of data in a virtual “cloud”, and the cloud will take shape. It will become theoretically possible to listen in on every conversation in the world, and the surveillance systems to do it will be built.

Every step onward increases the scale and complexity of the systems, until they are too big and complex for any one person to understand. They will run without supervision, for the most part, and when they fail (as they must from time to time) the failure will also be hard to understand. And if you give hundreds of thousands of people access to the system, your secrets will not stay secret for long.

The volume of date moving on the internet and private networks is expanding very fast at the moment – from 6 gigabytes for each person on the planet this year to 16 gigabytes per person per year by 2017 – and system design is just not keeping up. Given time, it may be possible to catch up on that front, if the rate of expansion eventually slows. But it will be much harder, maybe impossible, to build leak-proof surveillance systems.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 8. (“Also…customers”; “A shutdown…sales”; and “Well…revealed”)