The Culture of the Intelligence Community and the Chelsea Manning Debacle

This video is an interesting take on the Manning/Snowden leaks by Joshua Foust. Foust says that Manning’s actions jeopardized a number of diplomatic and military undertakings. It sounds very well reasoned.

Whenever the criticism of Chelsea Manning’s actions flows, the first question that I ask is “What operations were compromised?” followed up by “Tell me just one person, by name, who was put at risk.” I ask this because the leaked materials were 6 or more months old, and Wikileaks states that steps were taken to not endanger people.

I also ask what was compromised because most who criticize the leaks aren’t familiar enough with the materials to have a an answer (certainly not me). I am also fairly confident that no one except for a few high ranking members of the intelligence community can actually answer that question definitively, and those few are not authorized to answer. Such is the nature of state secrets. The logic of our government and military is that we should just take their word for it that they have to operate in secrecy and with impunity because it’s for our own good. This is the crux of the issue: with no sharing of information, how are we to verify these claims? This is also why a national dialog cannot be had on the subject. The Executive Branch is simply unable to level with the American people about the things that they do to keep us safe, and about the things that they keep us safe from.

We, the American people are worried about our Constitutional rights to privacy, to free speech, our rights to due process under the rule of law, and in the case of Muslim Americans, our freedom of religion. The Executive Branch has been steadily over reaching and possibly abusing its power to surveil and detain, and thereby eroding our Constitutional rights under the guise of national security.

Having heard countless talks by federal types at places like Defcon, I have heard over and over again that our concerns are unfounded. The gist of most of it is that there are countless active threats, of a non-specific nature, that cannot be named. While I don’t think that the Executive Branch is lying to us so that it can hurt us, it would be very naive to say that there aren’t budgetary, political, and career management pressures on it to exaggerate the scale of the threats that we face. It is also naive to think that while the Executive Branch means well, there are those within it who would abuse these powers. This is why leaks and whistle blowing are so important, because the military, the intelligence community, and federal law enforcement agencies are bound by law to not discuss these matters.

My argument isn’t that there should be no such thing as national security. Of course there should be. My argument is also not that state secrets are by nature evil. Of course they aren’t. My argument is that there are laws in place to support the mandates for secrecy by the Executive Branch. These laws make a candid and honest discussion about what they are doing and why impossible. The act of facilitating an this sort of discussion is, by design, against the law.

Just because the conversation is illegal, doesn’t mean that it’s not still the right thing to do. Obviously the laws that prevent the conversation have to change, but some of those laws, particularly those that govern surveillance, are actually state secrets as well. If the laws themselves are secret, how are We The People supposed to work to change it?

This is why leaked documents and whistle blowing are important. I call it the “Watchmen’s Dilemma.” In business, there is a phenomenon called the “Innovator’s Dilemma” where a new idea will make a current product or business model obsolete, and so established businesses and markets have make a tough choice: do they endanger their established and profitable businesses with a new innovation, or do they keep doing what works for them, only to lose their share of the new market?

When it comes to national security, the culture of secrecy creates a similar dilemma. Should the Executive Branch (the watchmen) continue to keep the American people in the dark, thereby increasing the public’s mistrust? Or, does the Executive Branch level with the American People, and sacrifice some or possibly all of its advantage when it comes to protecting American interests? It’s a tough decision.

At one point in the video, Foust talks about how the NSA doesn’t have access to the content of our telephone calls, and then sort of glosses over the intelligence significance of mobile phone metadata. Faust is ex-military intelligence and has probably heard of traffic analysis. As a hacker and veteran who served with military intelligence my entire active duty career, I know a little about traffic analysis, but I am including a video of someone who knows significantly more about it than I do, particularly with regards to intelligence services and mobile phones. The video tells the story of how American operatives took a Muslim cleric captive, most likely as an extraordinary rendition. When you consider how much of the story can be told with just mobile phone metadata cross referenced with a paper trail, it makes me want to get a tinfoil hat and become Amish.