Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Clara Spera
Thursday, October 10, 2013, 1:55 PM

The United States Government has announced that it will withhold certain military and economic aid from Egypt until substantive democratic progress is made in the country. Here is the text of a State Department background briefing yesterday. The U.S. will continue to furnish some kinds of aid, such as “assistance that advances our vital security objectives like countering terrorism, countering proliferation, and ensuring security in the Sinai.” But State made this clear during the briefing:

What we will not be doing is we will not provide cash assistance to the interim government. We’ll repurpose that, as we can explain in greater detail. And we’ve decided to hold delivery of certain of the large-scale military systems. These would include, for instance, […] the F-16s. It also includes the M1A1 tank kits, Harpoon missiles, and Apaches.

As Congress continues to mull the National Security Agency's surveillance practices, some are skeptical of Administration and NSA officials' statements----which have suggested an openness to change.  In particular, Senator Ron Wyden warns that intelligence officials will “try mightily to fog up the surveillance debate and convince Congress and the public that the real problem here is not overly intrusive, constitutionally flawed domestic surveillance, but sensationalistic media reporting[.]” He also questions the Obama’s Administration’s commitment to ensuring greater transparency within the Intelligence Community. (We pause to mention the stalling of the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, another government shutdown casualty.)

Senator Wyden’s warnings may not be far from the truth, according to Time’s Matthew Crowley.  The reporter compares promises President Obama made in regards to NSA reforms, to his administration’s actions in the past two months. Suffice it to say: Crowley is not impressed by the President’s seeming inaction.

Meanwhile, more Congressmen are trying their hands at re-tooling NSA's approach to bulk collection of telephony metadata. The Hill is reporting that Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), an original author of the USA PATRIOT Act, has announced that he will introduce his own bill restricting NSA’s metadata surveillance power. Ever the fan of catchy legislative titles, Sensenbrenner has entitled this upcoming bill the “USA Freedom Act.”

This Politico piece casts doubt on the executive branch’s insistence that members of Congress---as the article puts it---“knew full well” about NSA programs that some members now criticize.  The article argues that White House exaggerated claims of transparency and information sharing with Congress regarding NSA:

A [FISA] judge in 2011 faulted the NSA for unlawfully lapping up some Americans’ online communications over a three-year period, and forced the agency to change its data collection and retention practices. The mishap had been classified until the Obama administration — under pressure to be more transparent — revealed at the end of August the redacted court orders and opinions. Top White House intelligence officials at the time insisted it wasn’t a “back door or a surprise,” as Congress had been properly informed about the program’s risks from the start.

The House and Senate’s Judiciary and Intelligence committees had access to all of the related NSA court documents and decisions, according to James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, who explained the process in a memo also released in August. In addition, he said the administration in May 2012 furnished a white paper to the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which were explicitly asked to make it available to all members of Congress. That document detailed the government’s checks and balances at the NSA.

The Obama administration’s communication with the Hill, however, didn’t tell the story of an agency rebuked by the FISA court in 2011 for “a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program.”

Instead, lawmakers got only one paragraph about the mishap, which had been obscured with technical details about “multi-communication transactions.” Meanwhile, the administration touted the incident as a case study defending the NSA’s existing oversight mechanisms.

Talk of NSA surveillance reform has not prompted the agency's Director, General Keith Alexander, to back away from his staunch defense of NSA's data-getting practices. In remarks at the Telecommunications Industry Association yesterday, Gen. Alexander insisted that protecting the U.S. from cyber threats depends on a “better understanding of government surveillance.” He urges more understanding and trust between the government and public.

But, in an apparent blow to NSA, United States District Court Judge Jeffrey White has denied the Justice Department’s request to suspend legal action in the case of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. National Security Agency.  The United States had requested a stay in lieu of the government shutdown; the Electronic Frontier Foundation, representing the 22 plaintiffs, had opposed the move.

The New York Times sat down with Ladar Levison.  The latter ran Lavabit, a secure email service that prioritized users' privacy. Levison felt compelled to shutdown Lavabit last July, instead of complying with a (seemingly Snowden-prompted) government request for access to his users' information and communication history. The Times interview is Levison's first; he was silenced by a court order until last week. 

The new Director General of the MI5, Andrew Parker, made his first public appearance since his appointment as head of the British intelligence agency. He focused mainly on internet security, and implicitly denounced Edward Snowden when addressing leaked security documents: “It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists […] It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will.” The Times also covers Parker's recent remarks.

Apropos of Snowden, he was yesterday honored by four prominent American whistleblowers, as his father arrived in Moscow. Here's the Post's Kathy Lally.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is reporting that Australia knew about NSA’s PRISM program two months before the press revealed its existence. A FOIA request made by ABC confirms that the Attorney General’s office had prepared a briefing on PRISM in March 2013.

Can't make this stuff up: militia members kidnapped Libya's Prime Minister---in retaliation for the Libyan government's possible consent to the United States' grabbing of suspected terrorist Abu Anas Al-Liby---but then released the Prime Minister almost immediately.   The Times has this story, from David Kirkpatrick and Gerry Mullany.

The United States and Vietnam have signed a nuclear trade treaty. The agreement would allow the “transfer of nuclear technology” from Vietnam and allow American investment in Vietnam’s nuclear industry.  The Globe and Mail has the story.

And yet another casualty of the government shutdown: the agency that oversees safety procedures at the United States’ 100 commercial nuclear reactors is furloughing 90 percent of its staff, starting today. Politico has the story.

Microsoft denies claims that its new gaming console includes hardware which could be used to harvest advertising and marketing data from users. Although the Xbox One is still a month away from release, a report quoted a Microsoft official as saying that the console will “bridge some of the world between online and offline. […]That's a little bit of a holy grail in terms of how you understand the consumer in that 360 degrees of their life.” Microsoft says the remarks were misinterpreted, and not made with marketing in mind.

Forbes has a fascinating profile of Alex Karp, the founder of Palantir, a data mining software company whose customers include NSA, FBI and CIA.

Email the Lawfare Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Visit the Lawfare Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings at the Lawfare Job Board.