State Secrets Culture and Warrantless Wiretapping

Sunday 30 September 2012

In the days following 11 September 2001, many things changed in the United States. The terrorist attacks that took place on that day quickly prompted tightened security and, crucially, heightened use of surveillance tactics.

It is now well documented how eavesdropping agency the National Security Agency (NSA) was given unprecedented authority to intercept communications flowing to and from the country after 9/11. As the New York Times reported in its 2005 exposé: "The international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible 'dirty numbers' linked to al Qaeda."

This revelation led to a lawsuit (Jewel v. National Security Agency) which alleged the US government was engaged in "the biggest fishing expedition ever devised, scanning millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls and emails for 'suspicious' patterns." The lawsuit was originally dismissed back in 2010 on the grounds that it didn't sufficiently allege "personal injury" was caused by the warrantless snooping. However, this decision was later reversed and now an appeals court is taking another look at the case.

As it has done previously, the US government is asserting its state secrets privilege as part of an attempt to stop the case moving forward. In a motion to dismiss submitted to the appeals court earlier this month, the government said that invoking the privilege was necessary "in order to prevent exceptionally grave damage to national security." It denied the allegation that it had "indiscriminately collected the content of millions of communications sent or received by people inside the United States." But added that it could not prove this before a court because doing so would "risk or require the disclosure of highly classified NSA intelligence sources and methods."

Such claims from the NSA are not new. The agency has a track record of arguing it is entitled to avoid public scrutiny because doing so would pose some sort of grand danger. Back in 1998, for instance, the agency admitted it had spied on Princess Diana and was holding more than a thousand pages of documents in a "Diana file." But the NSA declined to disclose the information held about the Princess because it would reveal — you guessed it — "sources and methods."

The problem with the NSA's position is that it is questionable. The NSA seems to think that disclosing even the slightest detail about what it is doing would aid people who are engaged in plotting against the US. But organised terror groups or oppositional foreign government agents will already presume that every phone call they make and email they send can be intercepted by agencies like the NSA. And besides this, many of the NSA's clandestine methods can be learned by anyone with access to Google because of details made public by whistleblowers. A sworn 2006 declaration by a former engineer for the AT&T telecom firm, for example, stated the NSA was routing AT&T communications through a secret "secure room" where they could be intercepted. This, a former NSA employee said earlier this year in his own sworn declaration, involved the use of a "Semantic Traffic Analyser," which would allow the NSA to mine "addresses, locations, countries, and phone numbers, as well as watch-listed names, keywords, and phrases" from within the data flowing through communication networks.

So given that such detailed information is already in the public domain about the NSA's snooping activities, the "sources and methods" justification for secrecy seems at best naive, at worst disingenuous.

The knee-jerk reaction of governments and groups with power is often to resort to secrecy in order to avoid controversy, to protect reputations, and to ultimately avoid accountability. That's why the use of state secrets to protect the NSA's wiretapping program from public scrutiny in a court looks suspect — particularly as the US government has form abusing official secrecy to conceal scandals.

As was revealed by the British politician David Davis during an astonishing speech in the UK parliament in March this year, the very same state secrets privilege currently being put forward to protect the NSA from court was previously used as part of an extraordinary cover-up involving US intelligence agencies (including the NSA).

In the late 1990s, as part of a covert effort called Operation Foxden, the FBI, the NSA and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were working with three businessmen — one Afghan-American citizen, two British — to introduce telecommunications infrastructure into Afghanistan. They planned to rig it with extra circuits in order to listen live to every landline and mobile phone call across the whole of the country. But there was a turf war between the three US agencies, which led to Operation Foxden being delayed some 20 months. It is believed, had it been introduced earlier, it may have helped gather intelligence about the 9/11 terror plot — possibly preventing it from ever happening.

The businessmen involved in helping set up the Afghan network later had a dispute over money, which in 2002 ended up being taken to a court in New York. A year later, the case was suddenly shut down by a judge who cited the state secrets privilege. It turned out that the two British men involved in the deal — Stuart Bentham and Michael Cecil — were being defrauded by the Afghan-American, Ehsanollah Bayat. But they were not allowed to have their case heard in court because the US government did not want its secrets laid bare — in this case showing that a dispute between the intelligence agencies had delayed a massive spy project that might have helped prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack.

Last year, a Vanity Fair writer found out some details about Operation Foxden and approached the CIA for comment about it. Surprisingly, given the previous iron-fisted attempt to keep the story secret and out of courts, the CIA made no attempt to suppress Vanity Fair's report. Why? According to a US source quoted by David Davis in his speech to the British parliament on the subject: "Ten years have passed since 9/11, and the culpable people have moved on, so it’s no longer embarrassing."

The short remark was as shocking as it was revealing. As Davis noted:
This demonstrates only too clearly that although the aim of the American state secrets privilege is to protect national security, in practice it is often used to eliminate embarrassment — political, bureaucratic, organisational or individual embarrassment at past failures ... It also shows how giving a government agency an absolute right to secrecy encourages bad behaviour. The American agencies could easily have stopped the defrauding of British citizens without the matter going to court, given their enormous leverage in the matter. Instead, they chose to suppress justice.

Could the current attempt to stop the case against the NSA over the domestic surveillance programme be a similar bid to "suppress justice" and protect reputations? It is not a far-fetched possibility. One key figure in the warrantless wiretapping saga has even openly gloated about how he is pleased state secrets privilege is being used to shield him. General Michael Hayden, who was the director of the NSA between 1999 and 2005, said with a smirk a few weeks ago that he was "personally grateful to Obama for using the state secrets argument to stop some of these court proceedings — because I am personally named in some of these courts."

Perhaps most alarming, though, is the bigger picture at play here. When any democratic government repeatedly resorts to secrecy to protect the disclosure of information the public has a right to know, it has lost its way. It is broken, existentially fractured. In my own experience as a journalist, the US has a stronger culture of freedom of information than the UK does, but at the highest echelons of power there remains a definite absence of transparency and accountability. The ongoing surveillance case, and the aggressive bid to suppress it, is only the latest example.

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