When I was an NSA officer my co-workers and I always found it amusing to laugh at the high-silliness Hollywood portrayals of No Such Agency (as we used to call it), monitoring average Americans in the minutiae of their daily lives. Enemy of the State may have been a serviceable action flick but it was a deeply misleading portrayal of what NSA actually does.

After 9/11 NSA got mired in the so-called wiretapping scandal, something which the left got quite hot and bothered about during George W. Bush’s second term; yet as with drones, we’ve heard minimal civil liberties yelping from the MSNBC crowd now that their guy is in charge.

I have to confess the post-9/11 kerfuffle never moved me much, since I knew what was actually going on, and that it bore scant resemblance to what the media portrayed as gross civil liberties violations. Moreover, it all looks different when you’re on active service, charged with protecting the nation and its citizens from terrorists bent on mayhem and murder. You don’t have the luxury of pontificating quite the same way you do as when you’re blogging with bunny slippers on.

That said, huge changes in telecommunications in the last decade-plus have thrown up a very different intelligence playing field. Simply put, everything is out there in the online world, in the ‘trons somewhere, just waiting to be picked up and exploited. And you don’t have to be a hardcore civil libertarian, as I am not, to be a tad concerned about the implications of all this. In the borderless online world, what exactly are the boundaries? It was all a lot clearer back in 1993 when U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18, USSID 18 to the cognoscenti, was promulgated. But that was a long, long time ago in telecom. Now it’s … murky.

In recent years several NSA whistlebowers have come forward to explain how Big Brother really is listening in on you, reading your emails, snooping on your chats, et al. Most of those speaking out are individuals with agendas and sometimes failed careers behind them.

But Bill Binney was different. One of the finest Agency crypto-mathematicians of his generation – these being the scarily brilliant geeks who develop the code-cracking algorithims that allow NSA to protect you, dear citizen, while you sleep – Bill resigned in 2001 in disgust over what he believed to be the Agency’s misuse of his pet project, THINTHREAD, to spy domestically.

Bill has kept chugging along, explaining repeatedly that domestic espionage is out of control, and now he’s stated that NSA is collecting information on practically every American. Mincing words, not so much:

 “They’re pulling together all the data about virtually every U.S. citizen in the country … and assembling that information,” Binney explained. “So government is accumulating that kind of information about every individual person and it’s a very dangerous process.” He estimated that something like 1.6 billion logs have been processed since 2001.

I simply don’t know if this is true. And if I did, I wouldn’t be stating it openly on a blog anyway. But I will say is that this statement, if accurate, runs deeply contrary to the training about privacy protection which I had rammed into me received as a larval intelligence analyst some years ago. Moreover, Bill Binney is not a crank, a weirdo, or a charlatan. He is a very gifted man and a patriot who believes NSA, presumably on orders from “the top,” is misusing its enormous technological prowess. Certainly some public debate about espionage and privacy in the digital age – something which of course NSA and the Intelligence Community but also very much the Bush and Obama administrations have avoided at every turn – seems overdue.

NSA’s historical record in this arena can be considered less than stellar. During World War Two the U.S. signals intelligence service, NSA’s forerunner, began collecting drop-copies of every telex – you can explain to the kids and grandkids what those were – going in and out of the United States. This huge undertaking, which sucked up on average 150,000 messages per month, continued for 30 years as Operation SHAMROCK until it was shut down by the NSA director just before Congress got overly interested. Worse, beginning in 1967 – yes, under LBJ, not Tricky Dick – NSA started Operation MINARET, the listening in on several thousand domestic individuals and groups considered hostile or subversive.

This Congress did get pretty worked up about during the Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s, which led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, as well as the construction of “the wall” between law enforcement and intelligence which worked quite well at protecting civil liberties but was rather less effective at thwarting terrorists bent on their “big wedding” …. as we found out on 9/11.

More than a few NSAers were unhappy with the misuse of their Agency during the Johnson and especially Nixon years. One of them was my father, a career NSA officer (full disclosure: both my parents were career NSAers – it was an interesting childhood; I was “born with clearances” in insider jargon) who felt that his Agency had exceeded its mandate and was acting unconstitutionally. He voiced his concerns “up the chain” as they say. Back in the early 1970s the Agency still lived by the mantra of Never Say Anything so going to the media was unthinkable. Even limiting one’s protest to internal channels was not, shall we say, a career-enhancing move for a few years, until Congress changed everything, but it was a principled stand. A few years later, NSA would get very concerned about protecting the country from foreign threats in a manner consistent with the Constitution and our values: a balance which can be difficult to achieve consistently in the real world.

That terrible day in late summer 2001 rightly changed a lot about how U.S. intelligence fights terrorism. The infamous “wall” got lowered and even moved around a bit. If what Bill Binney says is true it has been lowered considerably more and may have been chopped down altogether, and that is something we should all be discussing.

Droning on …

Being older than my mid-20s I can remember when drones – the popular term for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – were considered somewhat controversial. Since, let’s face it, using little planes without pilots to watch the world and kill people is a bit edgy.

However, since Barack Obama became president US use of killer drones has expanded enormously in prosecution of what used to be called the Global War on Terror (GWOT: which is now very Old Think and perhaps needs to be replaced by a nifty symbol – where’s Prince when you need him?). I won’t delve into partisan politics here except to note that

Meet “The Hand of Allah” … because “Death from Above” sounds so 1967.

the left would be beside itself if any GOP president, especially George W. Bush, had standing Tuesday “kill” meetings where the West Wing Kool Kids congregate to decide who’s getting vaporized this week. I’m never gonna join the ACLU and I customarily err on the side of killing terrorists, and the whole thing creeps me out.

None can deny that UAVs are a valuable weapon in the GWOT/whatever, and in places like Waziristan and the back-of-beyond of Yemen they are probably the only real option we have. And – let me say it – blowing away enemies of mankind like Al-Qa’ida fighters is a good and necessary thing.

Certainly the bad guys get the message. They are terrified of drones – so much so that the meme has reached comedy films about the mujahidin (yes, there are such things) – which they call the “Hand of Allah.” Because, let’s face it, it’s way creepy and upsetting when, all of a sudden, for no reason – because you can’t see or hear that Raptor way up there – the fifty-foot radius around you explodes in a wall of flame interspersed with metal shards. That kind of thing can ruin your whole day.

The bad news is that UAVs kill civilians. No matter how hard we try – and we surely do – to avoid what we nicely term “collateral damage” it cannot be avoided. Our intelligence, impressive as it is, will never be good enough to rule out the deaths of people, kids even, who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And locals understandably feel differently about their own dead kin than we do. Debating whether this is worth the political cost is something America has largely punted on over the past decade, as drone kills have become an utterly routine thing. Certainly the current administration has accepted the costs of the drone campaign without real reservation and without any public debate.

But is it, well, moral? The New York Times in a new piece says it is, so I suppose that is the current bien-pensant position. The article is actually worth a read and points out, in an important-if-true moment, that even drone skeptics concede:

 a notable drop in the civilian proportion of drone casualties, to 16 percent of those killed in 2011 from 28 percent in 2008. This year, by the bureau’s count, just three of the 152 people killed in drone strikes through July 7 .

NYT goes further down the road of drones-are-now-officially-cool by citing Bradley Jay Strawser, a junior professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, a sister institution to my own, who asserts that using UAVs to blow people up is a-ok with the statement, “using them to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.”

Really, Brad? This seems to me the sort of thing you need to have a Ph.D. to believe. I don’t doubt for a second that using Predators and Raptors against mujahidin is ethically ok, generally speaking. I’m questioning whether, strategically speaking, it’s worth the political cost. In real-people speak: Is it smart?

Analysts of our drone war in Pakistan say that the “collateral damage” (AKA “we killed the wrong people” ) rate ranges between four and 20 percent. Which seems low, especially when compared to the recent Israeli operations against HAMAS, using more traditional methods of delivering high explosives, which 41 percent of the time killed innocents. Furthermore, the Pakistani military took out non-combatants a whopping 46 percent of the time in its operations against domestic terrorists.

So drones are totally awesome and even nice by comparison, right?

In a very bean-counting way, they are. But the cool, numbers-based analytic approach beloved by many academics and defense wonks leaves out two critical facts which are well understood by people on the receiving end of the “Hand of Allah.”

First, our enemies view drones as sneaky, nasty, and deeply unmanly. We may laugh at this, but it is true. Blowing up people from 10,000 feet, remotely (in every sense) is viewed by Pashtuns and many others as simply creepy and girly. Especially when they blow up kids – your kids. Drones inspire a special kind of rage in much of the world.

Second, when the Pakistanis kill their own people it inspires a lot less Pashtun rage than when we – yes, we interlopers, foreigners, and infidels – do it. Outsiders doing the killing always goes down worse, even when we’re frankly soft-touch compared to the bumbling and sometimes brutal local government. This is universal.

The drone campaign is clearly going to continue as long as Obama is president, and perhaps well beyond. We’re going to keep using them to kill bad guys. But it’s time to have a public debate about using UAVs as the default weapon of choice in counterterrorism. Particularly before other countries, including some we don’t like and they don’t like us either, have their own impressive UAV capabilities.

Algeria – The Ugly Truth

What if everything you know is wrong? What if what you’ve been told is international terrorism, Al-Qa’ida even, really …. isn’t?

The world is a complex place. More complex than the media usually allows. Seldom does the MSM deal with the unpleasantness of the real world of terrorism and, especially, counterterrorism: the operations, the penetrations, the provocations. Not something the Big Terror industry talks about much.

I’ve got an op-ed in today’s National Interest Online which pulls back the curtain a bit on the Algerian unpleasantness of the last twenty years – one of the world’s nastiest wars in recent memory, and one of the least understood.

If you like this kind of thing, you like this kind of thing.