August 1, 2013, at 1:41 PM

A corollary to the principle of "security through obscurity" is that acronyms and special languages add to the mystique of a privileged class with access to secret information. Since the documents given to the Guardian by Edward Snowden are replete with what people at the NSA call "Mothership speak," (see below), it's difficult for even informed observers who don't have the proper security clearance to understand what everything means. Here's a cheeky, if accurate, guide to NSA bureaucratese that the ACLU and Slate put together.

What follows is a brief guide to the four most important words and acronyms you need to know as you wade through the NSA files, past, present, and future.

F6 — Technically, it refers to the headquarters of the Special Collection Service, which is a joint field activity run by NSA and CIA that operates collection sites...  More»


For a moment, let's put aside the law. No FISA, no court, no inspector general, no nothing. If the law did not exist, what constraints, if any, would exist on the NSA leviathan?

I was thinking about this while I listened to Gen. Keith Alexander's presentation to Black Hatters. Because the debate has become so polarized, it seems as if you must choose to believe that laws provided either sufficient protection or none at all. I take a middle view, which doesn't make me very bookable on cable news. But as an exercise in thought, I wondered what it would mean if the U....  More»

August 3, 2013, at 10:57 PM

Looking through online job postings for open source information about defense programs is de rigeur, but there's a lot more in there than just the names of the largest NSA databases. When I began to report on intelligence, I set up several Google Alerts that included specific phrases or acronym/number combinations that, while unclassified, are only used for national security purposes. One is "TS//SCI" — as in TOP SECRET DOUBLE SLASH SCI, which is a baseline qualification for most of the open positions.

I've noticed two major trends in these job listings. There is an enormous appetite for cleared cyber-security technicians and for intelligence analysts with experience working on the Counter IED account. The first is easy to understand, given how voracious U....  More»


The Guardian's NSA files have awakened many a curiosity about the actual technological capacity of the government. What it does do is a most important question; what it can do is only slightly less germane.

Still, there's a lot we don't know about some basic questions. For example, is it true, as Edward Snowden boasted, that an analyst can "wiretap" anyone simply because he or she chooses to do so?

Here's the basic gist of an answer:

The NSA has the capability to wiretap anyone it targets. It does not have the immediate capability to target Americans at will, but it does have the capability to change capabilities — to a point — to allow it...  More»

August 5, 2013, at 8:03 PM

For a story Reuters wrote about the Drug Enforcement Administration's large-scale sharing of NSA-originated phone intercepts and tips with other law enforcement agencies, the news agency accepted the DEA's request not to reveal the location of the organization within the DEA responsible for the wiretapping. Reuters also several times referenced the group's secrecy. Most of the agency's activities are "classified," it said.

Well. The cases are, yes.

But the Special Operations Division itself is a well-known entity that holds press conferences.

The DEA SOD focuses on bringing down large transnational narcotics rings, some of whom may have a connection to terrorist groups. And, apparently, SOD wiretaps many a phone line to bring them down. These taps aren't warrantless, but they can be broader in scope than you might expect; a judge can order that any...  More»

August 6, 2013, at 10:31 PM

How close, really, was a state of actual war between the Soviet Union and NATO forces in 1983? The best documentary evidence sets the doomsday clock close to midnight. Viewed one way, 1983 saw a series of major escalations and provocations by both sides, each meant to respond to the other, all leading up to a genuine misapprehension about the goal of NATO's early November war games exercise, Able Archer. Or perhaps it was all bluster, a convenient fiction that both sides bought in to because neither had the imagination to see beyond it?

Since we're all still here, we can't say for sure. But we can, among other techniques, prioritize the actions and words of senior political leaders said in private. As seriously as Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech was taken by the Soviet Union, more telling was the then-secret decision by Reagan aides to rewrite...  More»


John F. Kennedy's last year in office was arguably his most personally tragic — his infant son Patrick died — but by November of 1963, his policy agenda was driving forward with force. A wonderful new book, Thurston Clarke's JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and his Presidency, reminds us of how unusual the usual was. Here are 10 strange facts about his last year in office.

1. He fretted openly about a military coup, and was so enchanted by, and scared by, the novel Seven Days In May that he left the White House for a weekend so filmmakers could shoot exteriors. JFK wanted that film made.

2. A month before his death, he created a fake James Bond movie, one depicting his assassination, complete with grieving widow (played by Jackie) and frazzled Secret Service agents, played by reluctant Secret Service agents....  More»


Even If Edward Snowden's leaks have caused irreparable harm to national security, those of us without security clearances only have the government's word to take for it. But this week's disclosure that a specific conference call between al Qaeda leaders was detected and recorded by the National Security Agency is precisely the sort of information that should not be in the public domain until the threat has passed, precisely the sort of secret that almost no one has a problem with the government keeping.

If it's true that al Qaeda leaders change their communication tactics to find a way around the NSA dragnet, they sure as hell are going to avoid the...  More»

August 12, 2013, at 12:55 AM

Of a million things President Obama could use his second term in office to fix, he has maybe 10 slots — 10 real chances to advance the debate about a topic, even to advance policy, even while Washington is at its sclerotic worst. Drug law reform has always been on the president's to-do list. This I know from a series of conversations with some of his senior policy advisers during the first term. Because Obama's Justice Department has not stopped enforcing federal drug laws even as Americans are evolving quickly on the issue, and because Obama himself has not yet used one of those presidential attention-getting arrows he has, my prediction that he would move in his second term to attack the prison-drug-race nexus has been dismissed as wishful thinking, or, worse, something I just made up....  More»


My black friends in New York, particularly those who don't live in the fancier precincts of Manhattan, have been harassed by the NYPD in a way that I, as a white guy, will never experience.

They've been stopped and frisked, for reasons known only to the officers. Almost every young black male I know has a story to tell.

The news today that a federal judge found this deliberate policing policy to be unconstitutional is a welcome one.

If you have never been stopped and frisked by a cop, it might not seem like a big deal.

So you lose, what, a few minutes of your time.

![endif]-->...  More»
August 12, 2013, at 9:29 PM

If capital-C Change comes to the NSA, it will take two forms.

The first is this: What it does will be more transparent to the courts and to Congress, as well as to interested Americans. The second is that the agency's definition of accountability will be gutted, replaced by one that more closely approximates a legitimate accounting and reckoning of mistakes, both deliberate and unavoidable. What won't change: what the NSA actually does.

That's why, as Shane Harris, one of the best reporters on the NSA beat observed Friday, President Obama wants Americans to be "comfortable" with the NSA at it is.

As much as the intelligence community complains about the quality of the public debate about the NSA revelations, victory will be theirs, in the end. The reformers, like the ACLU and the Electronic Freedom Foundation, have one significant power....  More»


With scores murdered and thousands injured, it is hard to square the United States's deciding to cancel a military exercise along with lukewarm language condemning violence with anything resembling a noble and liberal strategy for Egypt. One reason for this is that whatever the U.S. strategy may be, our hard and soft power spheres don't correspond with the fundamental disputes that drove the military coup and the earlier ouster of Hosni Mubarak. On a deeper level, President Obama believes that secular Arab nationalism ought to take root without the hidden hand of a Western power....  More»

August 15, 2013, at 6:20 PM

If you're an instructor in cover — how to pass as someone you aren't — at the CIA training facility near Williamsburg, Va., what the hell do you tell your students about life in the field?

Edward Snowden's exploitation of the NSA's surprisingly penetrable firewalls, Bradley Manning's large-scale collection of State Department cables, and the inability of the U.S. government to contain secrets are of course features of the open-source revolution that is changing how citizens interact with their government. We can hold our government more accountable. And that's good.

A caveat in honor of Evgeny Morozov goes here: That interaction may not be for the better, of course; the flip side is the ease with which political dissidents can be tracked, imprisoned, and killed....  More»

August 16, 2013, at 1:20 PM

If the leak of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon to provide the FBI and NSA with millions of call records was the most important in advancing the debate about privacy and surveillance, Barton Gellman's report in the Washington Post about NSA's internal compliance audits should count as a close second.

For the first time, albeit inadvertently, the NSA has acknowledged the scope and depth of the agency's privacy violations and explains, in some detail, why these errors happened, how they were caught, and what might be done to correct them....  More»


Sometimes, the news isn't new.

Although the secret history of the U2 surveillance program adds plenty of significant detail to our knowledge of the spy plane, the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency decided not to redact the location established for testing the U2 — a dry lake bed known to the U.S. government in 1956 as Area 51 — has become an international news story. The U.S. Government Admits That Area 51 Exists! Alas, news managers have short memories. Or maybe the allure of the "Buried Aliens!" trope was irresistible.

The CIA and the Air Force ran Area 51 jointly for decades, and the Air Force has declassified several formerly secret programs that were tested at the site, and has permitted those who participated in those operations to talk to the media....  More»

August 19, 2013, at 1:28 AM

My gut reaction to the news that Glenn Greenwald's partner was detained by U.K. authorities for 9 hours was appropriately tribal. Greenwald is doing journalism these days, and harassing his spouse seemed to me stupid, unnecessary, and counter-productive. As I tweeted out my frustrations Sunday afternoon, more facts came in, and I changed my mind about half the story.

First, the U.S. government had reason to believe that David Michael Miranda was carrying classified documents, information that was stolen from the U.S. government by Edward Snowden....  More»

August 20, 2013, at 10:10 PM

I really do think tribal feelings determine how you view the significance of Edward Snowden's revelations. It is almost impossible not take into account everything associated with the manner that they were released: the dramatic flight to Hong Kong, then Russia; the dramatic differences in press freedoms in the U.S. and U.K.; the detention of David Miranda and the destruction of hard drives inside the headquarters of a newspaper. No matter how hard we try, we can't help but fail to segregate our judgment of the NSA's actions. We want to side with the side we identify with: civil libertarians, journalism, or with the intelligence community, with policy-makers. We accept their assertions and their evidence more than we do the assertions of the "other" side, even though this type of controversy does not lend itself to binary divisions....  More»

August 20, 2013, at 11:34 PM

Having laid out some reasons why there is less to the NSA scandal than meets the all-hearing hear, I turn now to several reasons why the agency's actions might merit the "scandal" designation.

1. The NSA is the most powerful single institution in the world. It can collect more information, more quickly, and cause action from that information, more efficiently than any company, country, or intelligence entity. Even if no one accused the NSA of doing anything wrong, it is the interest of a freedom-seeking society to layer in as much transparency as possible for no other reason than that there is really no historical precedent for an organization that large with that much power not abusing it, whether incidentally or deliberately. See here.

2. To say that NSA collection does not infringe upon real rights is naive at best....  More»

August 21, 2013, at 8:52 PM

Boiled down to its essence: The internet does not work the way the all-powerful National Security Agency needs it to work. The intelligence agency discovered at some point between 2008 and 2011 that the aperture at the end of one of its collection programs was too wide, and was vacuuming up detritus in the form of your emails and mine, and that there was no way to fix this without cutting off a source of valuable foreign intelligence. And this would be okay if the NSA made a good faith effort to identify and destroy the "dirty" communication after the fact.

But NSA did not. So focused were they on their foreign intelligence mission that they — and I'm talking about the leadership here — placed a lower premium on following the spirit of the law, much less its actual wording....  More»


The American public has a much better understanding of how the National Security Agency does its work, how it monitors itself, and how it interacts with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. We should avail ourselves of the opportunity to understand these issues as much as possible.

For example, the director of national intelligence tells us about the two major overcollection/underestimation problems the NSA discovered in 2009.

One involved bulk telephone records, and the other involved the now-discontinued email metadata collection program. The DNI insists that the technical complexities of the collection were such that the agency did not for some time have a clear sense of precisely how its own programs were working. At the same time, when these two major problems were identified, the NSA realized that its compliance architecture had...  More»

August 23, 2013, at 12:30 AM

I agree with many of the points that Conor Friedersdorf makes in his rebuttal to my unfiltered arguments about why the NSA scandal is no such thing.

Mainly: Powerful organizations tend to abuse their power. The NSA has a history of abusing its power. And there exists no truly independent check on NSA's activities, so the public has no way to know whether anything NSA says is actually true.

He dissects my bite-sized points rather cleverly, although his argument almost always hinges on a presumed nefarious application of capabilities rather than a deliberate assessment of actual activities and actions....  More»

September 10, 2013, at 2:50 PM

Speaking at the Center for American Progress this morning, National Security Adviser Susan Rice encapsulated the Obama administration's transitive theory of Syria strikes in a single sentence:...  More»

September 10, 2013, at 3:17 PM

When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is your biggest dove, and a man who made his reputation by protesting unnecessary wars becomes your biggest hawk, it's safe to say the military action you intend to pursue is not an easy call. And boy, were mistakes ever made! Since blunder-listing is en vogue, though, maybe it's time to list the blunders that those reveling in President Obama's blunders might themselves make about the way forward.

1. Assuming that a chastened Obama will be less inclined to facilitate or directly participate in a strike against Iran if Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons. The opposite is probably the case. The White House may over-learn from Syria, and simply commence military actions when its real red lines are crossed....  More»


1. "100,000 people have been killed, and millions have fled the country. I have resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else's civil wars with wars."

2. "That abruptly changed on August 21. Assad's government gassed to death over 1,000 people."

3. "Chemical weapons are different."

4. "No one disputes that chemical weapons were used in Syria.... We know the Assad regime was responsible. We know that Assad's chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mixed sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops."

5. "When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until the pictures fade from memory. These things happened. The question now is: What will the U.S. and the international community [be] prepared to do about it?...  More»


That sound you just heard is a whole warren of bleeding hearts exsanguinating. Every relationship hits a rough patch, but the bond between President Obama and a certain breed of liberal intellectuals — think pragmatic, explanatory, unsure of all the answers themselves — has been unbreakable. Sure, these analysts have criticized Obama in the past, but it was in the spirit of good-natured and helpful chiding. And their assistance in explaining Obama's health care plan better than he could was invaluable in convincing some Democrats to support it....  More»

September 12, 2013, at 12:56 AM

Lest anyone get the impression that the National Security Agency has time to do anything but aggressively violate Americans' rights, the Guardian fronted a story about a draft memorandum of understanding between the NSA and Israel's signals intelligence agency. Notwithstanding the context, or a close reading of what the MOU actually permits, which you can read about here, the story is useful because it points to one of the reasons why the NSA has a lot of trouble figuring out just what the hell it is doing with all of its nodes and devices and satellites and fiber lines and servers.

With every NSA document dump, as Benjamin Wittes points out, you can read it as a case of an agency struggling with technological problems, identifying its own mistakes, conceding them, and rectifying them — or evidence of a continued, deliberate, unquenchable ...  More»

September 15, 2013, at 5:26 PM

It's too early to say for sure why Larry Summers decided to take himself off President Obama's list of possible contenders for Fed chair. He seems to have cut some sort of implicit deal with Obama years ago: He'd take a position that was beneath him, and when Ben Bernanke's term was up, Summers would easily be nominated. And not without warrant: Summers has all the right credentials.

It turns out that history has saddled with him several of the wrong credentials, too. Over time, and not too fairly, he's been blamed by a lot of powerful people for tilting Obama recovery plan toward the financial sector, and for fighting other appointments of more liberally...  More»

September 15, 2013, at 8:59 PM

Here is my second iteration of the National Security Agency's organization chart, which is now as up to date as possible, and includes a significant number of additions. I have also tried to organize the names of NSA databases and tools by function, and you can see the flow of where data comes from, what is, and can be, done with it once it resides inside the NSA's brain. I am not a visual artist, and I am certain that one of you can make this chart sing and shine in a way that I cannot.

(Click on the image below to see a larger version.)

You can find the first version at Defense One, a publication of National Journal.

September 19, 2013, at 1:32 PM

Gun violence in America confounds me, even though I am sure of many things:

I am sure that there are too many guns, and also that there is no way to get rid of them.

It's obvious that guns, and their availability, play a huge role in routine gun violence, which is less shocking but more prevalent and destructive than mass shootings.

I am sure that most people with mental health issues can hold a security clearance and be functional and trusted to perform key jobs.

I am certain that the vast majority of people with schizophrenia will not resort to gun violence....  More»

September 22, 2013, at 2:50 PM

Seems like everyone has found the SAME "Top 10 hidden iOS7 features" already, so they're not really all that hidden anymore. Here are MY favorite semi-hidden features — ones that I find useful.

1. Turn Siri into an English butler. Ask him to "Call Josh," and he'll respond, "Ringing Josh." His confused responses to your silly questions seem downright charming. General --> Siri --> Language --> ENGLISH (UNITED KINGDOM).

2. A special sub-tip: Siri can now read you any bit of text you select. Accessibility --> Speak Selection --> (On), Voices --> Select. And choose the speed, too. Then, when you select text, you move the black bar to the left until you see the "Speak" selection.

3. Want a more Android-like interface? Though it's possible to adjust the size of the default font (Accessibility --> Larger Type), you can also invert...  More»

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