A Window Into Congressional Intelligence Oversight

San Francisco, California- 4 July, 2013: Protester displays sign at the A protester displays a sign at the “Restore the Fourth” protest at AT&T headquarters in San Francisco, California – a former site of secret NSA room – on July 4, 2013. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

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Jane Harman’s recent essay in the March/April 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs, “Disrupting the Intelligence Community: America’s Spy Agencies Need an Upgrade,” affords insight into the orientation of those who provide institutional supervision of agencies that have ceaselessly, fearlessly violated domestic constitutional liberties and international human rights standards, essentially since their inception. Harman, a nine-term House representative from California and ranking Democrat on the US House Intelligence Committee from 2002 to 2006, argues that for our intelligence services, “change will come rapidly … it may well be time to accept reality and steer into the skid.” She contends that minor restructuring of individual agencies will not prepare us for the distinct challenges of the future.

Her answer is restructuring, including CIA covert action specialization, significant disinvestment from and outsourcing of human intelligence, and advanced social media monitoring. Harman’s “alternative vision of the future” is a world in which malfeasance is not marked by violations of privacy and human rights, but rather an intelligence apparatus that could more effectively surveil the world’s communications and control its behavior for the benefit of US hegemony. Her essay’s arguments, and similar perspectives from the national security elite charged with intelligence oversight, cast into doubt the US system’s ability to effectively protect electronic privacy and personal sovereignty from the national intelligence apparatus.

Insufficient, Ineffective Oversight

Harman begins by lauding advancements marked by the Church Committee, but ignores that in contravention to the committee’s findings, US intelligence continues to execute dramatic mass privacy rights violations, stoke coups against foreign leaders and attack civil rights movements in tactics analogous to the FBI’s infamous Cointelpro.

She cites the creation of congressional intelligence committees, of which she was a ranking member during the formative years of the war on terror. These committees are subject to CIA spying when they investigate misconduct, and are further rendered impotent when elites like the national intelligence director unambiguously perjure themselves in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee without facing indictment. Those with the courage to ask why leaders like James Clapper are not criminally prosecuted, like Shahid Buttar, director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, are themselves escorted from the hearing and arrested while Clapper remains free.

CIA’s Got Talent

More disturbing is Harman’s praise for the CIA’s “targeted killing” drone program, which she agrees falls under Executive Order 12333’s prohibition against assassination, falling under “‘special activities’ to protect national security.” Her argument is that the CIA has outperformed the Defense Department, despite a lack of transparent metrics proving this. The CIA, according to Harman, has “gotten extremely good at killing terrorists.” Which is an interesting argument given that the entire program has killed thousands of innocent civilians in the process of eliminating little more than 100 confirmed actual US targets. She quotes Michael Hirsch’s article in the National Journal, in which Hirsch wrote that the CIA is better than the military at, “ensuring the bad guys they’re getting are really bad guys.” And if by “ensuring,” he means that only 28 civilians are killed by drones for every US target, then sure.

Harman then calls for all drone warfare to be transferred to the CIA, officially designating them a paramilitary force, a pejorative term from any reasonable liberal democratic perspective. Given the CIA’s brutal history of overreach, incompetence and pervasive scorn for constitutional liberties, codifying a paramilitary mandate is a poor idea. Harman’s thesis on the CIA: They’re really bad at doing their job, but they’re good at killing people with drones, so let’s just have them mostly do that.

With Friends Like These…

Harman further argues that the CIA’s ability to conduct traditional human intelligence operations – their traditional mandate – suffers from archaic internal regulations and recruiting practices, and an American people understandably wary of ground wars, the CIA’s predilection for torture, and detention of persons without trial. She might as well add extraordinary rendition, and the common knowledge that the illegal US invasion of Iraq is responsible for the kleptotheocratic cancer known as ISIS. Her solution to the CIA’s HUMINT woes? Outsourcing the collection of human intelligence to Israel, Jordan and the United Kingdom, leaving the United States to merely sort, analyze and derive policy from their offerings.

While we certainly give Israel enough military aid annually – $100 billion – to feel entitled to some intelligence in return, Israel would perhaps not be the best intelligence ally, having been identified by the National Security Agency (NSA) as one of the most serious spy threats to the United States. According to documents released by Edward Snowden, Israel conducts “espionage/intelligence collection operations and manipulation/influence operations … against U.S. government, military, science & technology and Intelligence Community.” That in addition to the fact that the International Criminal Court is currently investigating Israel for war crimes made possible by US aid.

Jordan’s theocratic monarchy is certainly a close ally with the United States already, with their General Intelligence Department (GID) having worked closely with the CIA since the inception of the war on terror. GID has also been criticized by human rights groups for fierce torture and rendition programs executed in close concert with the United States.

The UK is having a hard enough time just preventing hundreds of their citizens from joining ISIS, let alone harnessing them as intelligence assets. And British intelligence oversight may be even less effectual in protecting electronic privacy and personal sovereignty than that of the United States.

Harman’s proposal to outsource intelligence to Israel, Jordan and the UK is regressive and would likely lead to perpetuation of ugly foreign policy practices that have fanned the flames of radicalization across the world – as well as intelligence distorted by interests not necessarily shared by the United States.

NSA Public Relations

Harman shifts her attention to assessment of the NSA’s image and future. She describes dragnet surveillance operations: “They have never been as sweeping as its most vocal critics like to insinuate …” Dutifully Harman has clearly obeyed the government’s directive forbidding government employees to read leaked information, even if posted on mainstream news outlets. But perhaps since she’s out of Congress, she should begin researching the actual, startling extent of the total surveillance systems, including X-Keyscore, the NSA has been caught developing.

Harman contends that the future of the NSA is dependent upon, “its relationship with Silicon Valley – one in which the agency is fast becoming a junior partner.” She fears the “encryption drag race” tech companies are competing in. She worries about the “growing gap between the technical capacity of the public sector and the private sector.” And Harman correctly concludes that, “the agency lies on the wrong side of a generational divide on privacy …”

What she fails to include in her assessment is the extent to which Silicon Valley is actually under attack from the national intelligence apparatus. Harman writes, “True, the NSA could look for ways to get around technology companies’ defenses, but any botched attempts would carry a high political cost.” Turns out the NSA is way ahead of her, engaging in wide-scale SIM card encryption code thievery in concert with Britain’s GCHQ. Both agencies hacked into Gemalto’s network to steal encryption keys intended to provide secure cellphone communications for 450 multinational wireless providers around the world. According to The Intercept, the CIA has worked to “get around technology companies’ defenses” as well, expending significant effort to decrypt Apple’s firmware, “poison” Apple’s proprietary software development tool Xcode and subvert Windows’ encryption system Bitlocker.

So what are the political costs of these botched attempts?

Retweeting Teen Jihadists

Harman’s final concern is the reticence of intelligence agencies to collect and analyze social media data. “Too often the preference is to tap terrorists’ phones and send spy satellites in search of hidden training camps, not to read the tweets of a 19-year-old jihadist.” She also applauds the State Department for creating a Twitter account, as if that were equivalent to ISIS’s brilliant use of social media persuading thousands of Westerners to join their utopian theocracy.

Harman neglects to account for the distortive effects of intelligence intervention in social media, as if it weren’t occurring in more sophisticated ways already. The US government demands personal data from social media companies – almost 30,000 requests to Facebook in the United States in 2014 alone – who are then prohibited from disclosing the government’s request to their customers.

Social media feeds will also be manipulated by the intelligence apparatus to surveil, predict uprisings and control the ideas exchanged by those who threaten US hegemony, both domestically and internationally. As Robert Sheer writes in They Know Everything About You, “… if the next logical step is taken, (social media) can be manipulated through deletion, addition, or changes in algorithms to block the spread of dissenting or ‘dangerous’ ideas.” Intelligence has reverse-engineered the Arab Spring, and will deploy the resulting methodology to stoke or quell rebellion as it sees fit. These new tools will prove useful as climate change, declining resources and economic fallouts stimulate political resistance.

What Truly Hobbles the US

Harman concludes with a critique of intelligence inflexibility: “The challenge lies instead with a system that is less adaptable than the enemies it confronts, hobbled as it is by conventional thinking.” Certainly the intelligence apparatus is crippled by “conventional thinking,” but the foundation of that thinking is the issue – US hegemony at the expense of international human and privacy rights – with organizational methodology being of secondary importance.

Harman argues for further paramilitarization of the CIA without taking account of the tremendous enmity US drone campaigns and covert actions have inspired worldwide. She advocates outsourcing traditional human intelligence to governments whose intelligence operations have committed grave violations of human rights, and will certainly continue to do so, especially were we to contract their services. Harman predicates future success of the NSA on collaboration with the very technology companies whose systems it has repeatedly attacked, violating the trust of their customers and undermining business models resting on an assumption of electronic privacy. And she argues that the intelligence apparatus take a more active role in social media, an anachronistic proposition that fails to conceive the terrifying consequences of social media engineering and the suppression of popular dissent.

Harman’s arguments do not inspire confidence in congressional intelligence oversight.