The Mensch

How Chuck Hagel went from 'Jewish lobby' target to Israel's buddy.

Weeks before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was sworn in, he got a homework assignment from the man sitting in the E-Ring office he would soon occupy. During a private dinner of filet mignon, corn chowder, and chocolate cake, the serving SecDef, Leon Panetta, told Hagel of an up-until-then secret, $10 billion arms deal between the United States, Israel, and two Arab countries that could amount to a strategic game-changer in the region. The terms of the deal were all but settled, but Hagel would need to be the closer, Panetta told him. Hagel's job was not only to seal the arms deal with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, but in so doing help put the "special relationship" the United States and Israel have long enjoyed back on track.

After getting that tasker from Panetta, Hagel dove in. Amid crises in North Korea, Syria, and Egypt, and fights among his top brass over an ever-shrinking piece of budgetary pie, Hagel has kept his eye on the prize: using the arms deal to rebuild a relationship with Israel that has foundered over the years. That triggered a series of "firsts," as senior U.S. defense officials call them: Hagel's first trip to an ally, after Afghanistan, was to Israel; the first foreign defense minister he called after being sworn in at the Pentagon was Israel's, the gregarious Ehud Barak; Hagel called Barak's successor, Moshe "Boogie" Ya'alon, on the Israeli's first day on the job; Ya'alon's first overseas trip as defense minister was to Washington. And as Hagel and Ya'alon sat beside one another on a helicopter tour of Israel earlier this year, the two former soldiers called each other "Chuck" and "Boogie."

All this has pushed the arms deal, which includes high-tech missiles, radar systems, aerial refuelers, and, perhaps most importantly, advanced V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, up very close to the finish line. Pentagon officials insist it's basically a done deal; other individuals close to it say there are some details still on the table. Either way, when Hagel does get it across, the Obama White House will have fresh leverage in a region that's once again engulfed in turmoil. Exactly how much leverage is unclear; Hagel is also seen as the singular channel to Egyptian General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi -- who took over in Cairo despite Washington's wishes, and whose troops have begun massacring its enemies in the streets.

What really animates the arms deal is the degree to which it strengthens not only Israel's capabilities, but those of two other Arab countries against the region's biggest danger: Iran. That has thrust Hagel, already acknowledged as the administration's messenger to Egyptian leaders during that turmoil, to the fore as someone who has enough gravitas to anchor a new coalition between Israel and Arab countries.

"There's just a strategic opportunity, given Iran's threat, and given the instability in the region that we can try to help try to build a new strategic coalition, with the U.S. acting at the center, and the role Hagel has played is the strategic thinker," said one senior defense official. "I think there is a real amount of engagement and personal diplomacy that he has taken on from the beginning in really less than six months into his time as secretary of defense."

Hagel's success at courting the Israelis is counterintuitive to those who watched Hagel's bruising confirmation battle, in which his allegedly-unkind views on Israel figured prominently.

That narrative, for people who know Hagel, and even for some who don't, never seemed to ring true. Yet it set the bar low for the new defense secretary and may even contribute to him enjoying relative success in the relationship today.

It's all set the stage for what officials in Washington like to call an "unprecedented" level of cooperation between the two countries. It's led to higher level intelligence-sharing between Israel and the United States. And it may also contribute indirectly to Secretary of State John Kerry's peace process, as it gives Israelis greater confidence that the United States is on their side -- even as it seeks a resolution with the Palestinians.

The Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman had been critical of Hagel in the run-up to him being confirmed for his past statements on Israel. At the time, Foxman issued a statement saying dryly that Hagel would not have been his first choice as defense secretary and that he was eager for Hagel to explain his past statements about "the Jewish lobby." Today, he said the "unprecedented" rhetoric for the U.S.-Israeli relationship rings true for him and his Israeli friends.

"To some extent, we were concerned if Chuck Hagel would continue the relationship, or would enhance it," Foxman said. He's now convinced he has moved it in the right direction. "Hagel seems to be committed, not only to continue the good relationship, but to enhance it."

A senior defense official declined to discuss the nature of the intelligence the two countries share, citing the need for discretion, but talked about the way in which, through Hagel, the relationship has amplified the U.S. ability to serve as a bridge between Israel and Egypt.

Others are more leery of the narrative. Many Hagel watchers were underwhelmed by Hagel's first trip to Israel in which he was thought to have said very little publicly. But American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka said that if Hagel was "chastened" by his confirmation process, that's a good thing. "I know who he was before and I know what he said, I know what he thought," she said. The Obama administration has not proven itself to be a reliable partner to any ally, she said. But she was willing to concede that Hagel may have made some inroads with the Israelis. "If in fact he has worked to ensure that the United States is a reliable ally to Israel, marvelous," she said.

Hagel's stature in Israel -- good but unremarkable, a second group of observers say -- is due to the work of underlings and the red eye diplomacy in which they've engaged. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter just returned from Israel last week; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey is headed there this month. Senior staffers have travelled there repeatedly. Matt Spence, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East affairs, has been to Israel six times since Hagel arrived in office in February; 14 times since Spence was appointed to his current job in February 2012.

In many ways, Hagel inherited the more robust Israeli relationship: Panetta, who was personally close to former Israeli Defense Minister Barak, had already built a strong connection. Last November, Panetta presented Barak with a photograph on which he scribbled: "With deepest thanks and appreciation for your friendship and leadership in building a strong military-to-military relationship between the United States and Israel -- working together, we have kept our countries safe and our people secure." And under Panetta, the Pentagon laid the groundwork for the massive arms deal. But Hagel is now the face of an American commitment to Israeli security. Israelis, many of whom were dubious about Hagel after his confirmation battle even if they didn't believe all the criticism, say they are impressed with his diligence in building the relationship.

"Chuck Hagel heads an establishment that over past years has developed a very strong relationship with our counterparts," said Nimrod Novik, a former advisor to Israeli President Shimon Peres. "The mood around him is very strong camaraderie, they speak the same language, they understand each other ... the degree of candor and openness is unprecedented."

It wasn't always this way. It was just a few years ago when the U.S.-Israeli relationship had become strained.

James Jones, the retired Marine four-star and American envoy, was repeatedly snubbed. The Israelis refused to take meetings with him, fearing the U.S. agenda was to push them aside over settlements and other issues. Today, John Allen, another retired Marine four-star, enjoys far more access, says Novik.

The arms deal is still not a done deal, however, and it's still very much in play. The issue remains how to give Israel the "qualitative military edge," typically done in practice but now mandated by Congress, so it can enjoy higher-end platforms and additional capabilities than other allies. Under the deal, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates can buy top-of-the-line weapons systems from American firms, but Israel gets additional financial assistance to the tune of $3 billion, according to the New York Times, which broke the story on the arms deal in April. Israel would buy missiles, advanced radars, and a number of V-22 Ospreys for transporting troops. Israel would be the first American ally allowed to buy the Osprey, which, after a troubled past, now represents one of the most advanced troop transports around. It can fly larger payloads farther and faster with its uniquely adaptive "nacelles" that rotate its propellers from a helicopter position to a plane's. And that would allow the Israelis to conduct quicker, more complex missions in the dark, effectively "extending the night," in the words of one Israeli defense official. Israel would also get the next generation refueling tanker planes that defense officials have noted would allow Israeli forces to fly longer missions, even into Iran. Finally, the Israelis would get anti-radiation missiles that can be launched from a warplane.

But it might be the V-22 that the Israelis like the most. During the visit this spring, Ya'alon was treated to something that the Americans reserve for only their special friends: a trip in the V-22 Osprey. After the ride Hagel strode out of the Pentagon's river entrance to the helicopter pad and gave a big hug to Ya'alon. And after that, the Defense Department released the video of the ride -- and the hug -- on YouTube. This was a moment between friends that the Pentagon wanted to make sure that everyone could see.

Jim Watson - Pool/Getty Images


NSA Hype Machine

Is Edward Snowden exposing the NSA -- or just buying its sales pitch?

Maybe Edward Snowden wasn't such a blowhard, after all. When the NSA leaker insisted that low-level employees like him could spy on just about anyone, administration officials and NSA supporters in Congress were quick to call him an embellisher, if not an outright liar. But a pair of classified disclosures on Wednesday -- one authorized by government officials, the other most certainly not -- lend some credence to Snowden's claims. They don't clearly demonstrate that Snowden was right, but they don't exactly rule out that an analyst could use the powerful tool to spy on Americans without proper authority.

A U.S. intelligence official offered a competing explanation of the documents, however: that America's electronic eavesdropping giant was itself the exaggerator. The documents that were released today? At least one of them looks like a NSA marketing brochure -- an attempt to make the agency look like a better spy than it actually was.

The biggest news of the day came courtesy of the Guardian and its most productive source, Snowden. The newspaper published a 32-slide presentation on an NSA data analysis tool called XKeyscore. The tool is analogous to an intake valve or filter. It makes a first pass of the phone records, emails, and other electronic data NSA collects and then directs information into more discretely organized databases for storage, analysis, and retrieval.

The presentation was apparently created in early 2008, and it may be out of date given the rapid evolution of technology. But it describes XKeyscore operating on a massive network of more than 700 servers, snatching up electronic data from approximately 150 NSA sites on six continents. XKeyscore is collecting so much information, the presentation shows, that it can only hold onto it for a few days before the tool's databases reach their storage capacity.

Snowden has claimed that as an NSA contractor, he had the ability to order surveillance and spy on anyone he chose. This was among his boldest claims and the one most hotly refuted by administration officials and NSA's supporters in Congress. The XKeyscore presentation doesn't clearly demonstrate that Snowden was right, but it doesn't rule out that the tool could be employed by a rogue analyst or someone operating beyond the constraints of the law.

Whether the system is being used to spy on U.S. citizens and residents depends on the legal safeguards that are in place, according to a former intelligence analyst who is experienced in using NSA tools. Technologically, there is nothing impeding an analyst from using XKeyscore, or other data mining programs, from looking at a U.S. citizen's email or phone records. What matters is whether there's a compliance and auditing process for ensuring that analysts aren't exceeding their authorities. And there is no indication what, if any, controls are in place for the analysts using XKeyscore.

Under current law, the content of a U.S. person's communications cannot be accessed, under any circumstances, without a warrant. But metadata such as phone logs and the "to" and "from" lines of an email, is not subject to the same standards. XKeyscore appears to collect and analyze metadata, and the presentation gives examples of finding this information in foreign countries.

Outside of the bulk collection of phone records authorized by the Patriot Act, relatively little is known about what metadata the NSA is collecting under other programs and with tools like XKeyscore and others that haven't been disclosed.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials were at pains today in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to emphasize that Americans' content was not being accessed under this specific bulk phone records program. They didn't mention whether such surveillance was accomplished by using other programs or tools.

The officials' comments were narrowly tailored, and lawmakers seemed mostly interested in ensuring that the NSA was not listening to Americans' phone calls without warrants. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, asked for a report on whether the NSA was searching the history of individuals' Web searches, as the Guardian reported today.

The XKeyscore presentation does offer some insights into how the NSA goes about finding suspected terrorists by their digital footprints. In a sort of "how to" guide, it advises analysts to "look for anomalous events" among the transactions and records that XKeyscore is scanning. "E.g. someone whose language is out of place for the region they are in," "Someone who is using encryption," and "Someone searching the Web for suspicious stuff."

Such broad and amorphous guidelines suggest that XKeyscore gives analysts broad access to information from around the world about many people who are certainly not terrorists or their associates. And the presentation's boastful tone, which reads more like a marketing document than a technical manual, appears designed to convince users that XKeyscore can solve their most vexing intelligence problems.

The document claims that XKeyscore could find "all the encrypted word documents from Iran," or all instances of the encryption technology PGP being used in that country. Encrypted message traffic might well be of interest to U.S. intelligence analysts tracking, for instance, the Iranian nuclear program. XKeyscore claims to "perform this kind of retrospective query, then simply pull content of interest from site as required."

How well the tool does this filtering and querying, however, seems debatable. The presentation itself acknowledges that queries of a global nature, for something as broad as all encrypted documents in a specific country, produces a huge amount of information. And in the context of a different program, officials at today's hearing had trouble persuading lawmakers that sucking up all Americans' phone records was all that useful for stopping terrorist plots.

According to a U.S. intelligence official, however, there's less to the document than meets the eye. The proponents of a particular tool or program frequently create promotional materials like the XKeyscore presentation to encourage analysts to use their technology, and to promote interest among lawmakers who control the NSA's budget. This was true of a slide presentation describing the PRISM system revealed earlier by the Guardian and the Washington Post, the official told Foreign Policy. It had "made the rounds" of intelligence agencies and offered exaggerated claims about PRISM's capabilities, such that it was the biggest contributor of information to the president's daily intelligence briefing. This official strongly disputed that PRISM was so extraordinary.

The XKeyscore presentation claims that "over 300 terrorists [were] captured using intelligence generated from" the tool. It also claims to be able to search more deeply in different data sets than other NSA data miners. But if there is more to be said about how precisely XKeyscore can do this, it's either not in the document or is contained on the handful of slides that have been blacked out.

But there's no doubt that NSA is collecting huge amounts of information on a broad scale, and that the agency's leaders want to continue doing so.

The administration today declassified three documents about surveillance activities, including a 2009 letter from the Department of Justice to the then chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which states that the NSA's collection of bulk phone records, as well as another program to collect bulk email metadata, "operate on a very large scale." Indeed, the NSA has collected so much metadata that "the vast majority" of it is never reviewed by a human analysts, according to the letter.

Managing big data has caused the NSA some big headaches, the declassified documents show. According to the 2009 letter, the agency ran into unspecified "compliance problems" while implementing automated technologies to scan for potential terrorist targets. Before analysts can examine records in the bulk phone databases, they must first specify a "reasonable articulable suspicion," referred to inside the agency as RAS, that someone is connected to or involved in terrorism. But another document from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes NSA's surveillance, shows that some automated scanning of information precedes an analyst actually looking at it.

The automated tools worked "in a manner that was not completely consistent" with the court's specific orders in one instance, according to the 2009 letter and another sent to the Senate's oversight committee in 2011.

"The problems generally involved the implementation of highly sophisticated technology in a complex and ever-changing communications environment," the letter says. The incidents of non-compliance were reported to the committee "in great detail." And in response, the NSA implemented an "end-to-end" review of its procedures and put in place "several restrictions," which are not described. The agency's director, Keith Alexander, also made a presentation about the changes to the court in September 2009. The Court, the NSA's congressional oversight committees, and the executive branch "responded actively" to the problems, the letter states.

Collecting huge amounts of personal data has caused the agency problems, but the documents seek to justify NSA's work as essential to stopping terrorism. The phone and email records provided the core of an "early warning system" for terrorist plots, the 2009 letter says. "The more metadata NSA has access to, the more likely it is that NSA can identify or discover the network of contacts linked to targeted [phone] numbers or [email] addresses."

Sen. Ron Wyden, among the NSA's most vocal critics, questioned whether the NSA programs have been working as advertised. Calling the documents released today "misleading," Wyden said in a statement that he and Sen. Mark Udall had two years ago pressed officials to demonstrate that the bulk collection of email metadata was providing a useful capability to the intelligence agency that it would not otherwise have.  "They were unable to do so and the program was shut down due to a lack of operational value, as senior intelligence officials have now publicly confiremd," Wyden said, adding that he has not seen any evidence that the bulk collection of phone records provides any "unique" intelligence value, either. 

Several senators in today's hearing also questioned why the agency needed to gather up all phone records and store them up to five years in order to find leads or useful information in a handful of cases. (By NSA's own count, the bulk phone records program "made a contribution" in a dozen terrorism cases with a "homeland nexus," said NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis.)

"NSA needs access to telephony and email transactional information in bulk so that it can quickly identify and access the network of contacts that a targeted number or address is connected to," says the 2009 letter, a view that Inglis and other of his senior colleagues from the FBI, the Justice Department, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence echoed in the hearing. The NSA's fundamental position, which has been unchanged for years, is that it needs access to all information because until it has a suspect in its sights, the agency doesn't know what it doesn't know. In order to find a needle, it needs the entire haystack.

But Inglis and others indicated the government may be open to modifying the phone records program, which narrowly survived an attempt by House members last week to dramatically scale it back. Intelligence officials have said they'd consider housing phone records at the companies themselves, rather than transferring them on a continuing basis to NSA repositories. Inglis voiced some support for that approach, and said there are "technical architectures" that could ensure NSA gets access to all the data it needs, and quickly, sometimes within seconds.

But according to telecom industry sources, this arrangement would only add significant checks against the NSA's authority if the phone companies had a chance to review every request for information, the way they do when served with a criminal wiretap order, for instance. If NSA has unfettered access to phone records, it matters little whether they're stored in an NSA server or a phone company's.

But NSA has a long history of hoarding information, and jealously guarding access to it. If today's hearing, coupled with last week's House action, are any indication, NSA leaders may feel they have to make some concessions--even cosmetic ones--if they want to continue hoovering up the world's data.

Inglis wasn't the only senior intelligence official defending the agency today. In Las Vegas, at the annual Black Hat security conference, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander told an assembly of computer hackers and other cyber security experts that the spying operations were working within the law, but that they could still be improved. "The whole reason I came here was to ask you to help make it better," Alexander reportedly said, imploring the attendees to join forces with the NSA. "If you disagree with what we're doing, you should help make it better." 

Alexander told the audience that at the NSA, "We stand for freedom." 

"Bullshit!" a heckler yelled. 

Another yelled, "Read the Constitution!" 

"I have," Alexander replied. "You should too." His reply reportedly drew some applause.