A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a news story in which it was reported that the NSA had “built a surveillance system capable of recording “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place.”
The identity of the country was not revealed and that led to various speculations (including in the comments to my post) as to which one it was. But last week came a report in the Los Angeles Times in which the just recently retired top civilian at the NSA John Inglis revealed that in Iraq, the US was “able to collect, sort and make available every Iraqi email, text message and phone-location signal in real time.”
Is Iraq the lucky country to have all its phone calls completely under US surveillance? (If so, the prize for guessing right goes to Steve Cameron.) It is not quite clear. The earlier report said that the NSA was recording and storing a full month’s worth of the country’s phone call conversations while the new report says that it recorded just who called, who was called and when and where. But it seems likely that it is referring to the same program.
Glenn Greenwald says that the LA Times story shows how the NSA decries as practically treason when others reveal its activities, but when it wants to make itself good, it reveals official secrets without a qualm. Greenwald says that the LA Times reporter Ken Dilanian is one of the most pro-NSA people around and a favorite outlet for the government when they want to get something they want in the media, and this story reveals why.
The program, noted the Post, has been in use in one country since 2011, and “planning documents two years later anticipated similar operations elsewhere.” Specifically, the fiscal year 2013 intelligence budget identified “five more countries” in which the agency planned to implement the system.
The Post did not report the names of any of those five countries, nor did it name the one where MYSTIC is already operational. Instead, “at the request of U.S. officials, the Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned.” The paper posted a short excerpt from the budget document’s discussion of MYSTIC but withheld and redacted the passages that revealed the names of these countries.
He then goes on to explain why the claims of government officials that revelations of such covert activities danger security should be treated with a great deal of skepticism because they exploit the very safeguards that journalists have put in place to advance their own agenda.
John “Chris” Inglis just revealed to the world that the NSA was–is?–intercepting every single email, text message, and phone-location signal in real time for the entire country of Iraq. Obviously, the fact that the NSA has this capability, and used it, is Top Secret. What authority did Chris Inglis have to disclose this? Should a Department of Justice leak investigation be commenced?
This demonstrates how brazenly the NSA manipulates and exploits the consultation process in which media outlets are forced (mostly by legal considerations) to engage prior to publication of Top Secret documents: They’ll claim with no evidence that a story they don’t want published will “endanger lives,” but then go and disclose something even more sensitive if they think doing so scores them a propaganda coup. It also highlights how cynical and frivolous are their claims that whistleblowers and journalists Endanger National Security™ by reporting incriminating information about their activities which they have hidden, given how casually and frequently they disclose Top Secret information for no reason other than to advance their own PR interests. It’s the dynamic whereby the same administration that has prosecuted more leakers than all prior administrations combined freely leaks classified information to make Obama look tough or to help produce a pre-election hagiography film.
That’s because, as always, secrecy designations and condemnations of leaks are about shielding those officials from scrutiny and embarrassment, not any legitimate considerations of national security or any of the other ostensible purposes.
The government will lie, lie brazenly, and lie repeatedly to advance the agenda of the government or even that of individuals in the government. In the absence of actual documentation showing that they are lying, people are left with competing narratives but tend to side with the official sources. This is why leaks of the type provided by Edward Snowden in the form of actual documentation is so important.
It’s much harder to lie when there is an official paper trail to contradict you.