Spying Blind

The National Security Agency has an intelligence problem: It won’t admit how dumb it is. 

The Obama administration's claim that the NSA is not spying on Americans rests on a fundamental assertion: That the intelligence agency is so good at distinguishing between innocent people and evildoers, and is so tightly overseen by Congress and the courts, that it doesn't routinely collect the communications of Americans en masse.

We now know that's not true. And we shouldn't be surprised. The question is, why won't the NSA admit it? 

On Thursday night, the Washington Post released a classified audit of NSA's intelligence-gathering systems, showing they are beset by human error, fooled by moving targets, and rely on so many different servers and databases that NSA employees can't keep tabs on all of them.

It had been previously reported that the NSA had unintentionally collected the communications of Americans, in violation of court orders, as it swept up electronic signals in foreign countries. But officials had sought to portray those mistakes as limited, swiftly corrected, and not affecting that many people.

Wrong again.

One of the reasons that the NSA has been able to gather so much power is that the agency has built a reputation over the years for super-smarts and hyper-competence. The NSA's analysts weren't just the brainiest guys in the room, the myth went; they were the brightest bulbs in the building. The NSA's hackers could penetrate any network. Their mathematicians could unravel any equation. Their cryptologists could crack any cipher. That reputation has survived blown assignments and billion-dollar boondoggles. Whether it can outlast these latest revelations is an open question.

The Post found that the NSA "has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authorities thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008..." That's the year when NSA's global surveillance system went into hyperdrive. The agency was granted unprecedented authority to monitor communications without individual warrants and to surveil whole categories of people and communications.

Most of the violations affecting Americans' information were the result what the agency calls "incidental collection." So how many Americans were caught up in the NSA's surveillance nets as they were dragged across supposedly foreign targets? The exact number is unclear. But the short answer is: lots and lots of them.

In one instance, a programming glitch collected a "large number" of calls from Washington, D.C, instead of the intended targets in Egypt, according to the audit. Somehow, the area code 202 (for Washington) was keyed instead of 20 (the country code for Egypt.) The NSA's supposedly discriminating surveillance architecture was undone by a typo.

The audit reveals a recurring problem with human error in the day-to-day operations of global surveillance and shows what a messy and imprecise business it can be. In the first quarter of 2012, 123 incidents of non-compliance with the rules, or 63 percent of those examined, were attributed to human or operator error. These included typographical errors, inaccurate or overbroad search queries, and what the report calls "inaccurate or insufficient research information and/or workload issues."

Analysts needed more "complete and consistent" information about their targets to avoid errors, the audit found. This suggests that while the NSA's collection systems are dipping into data streams, the analysts aren't always equipped to determine who is and isn't a legitimate target.

The NSA's systems also have problems knowing when a target is on the move, and possibly has entered the United States. (When he does, different regulations come into play about how the surveillance is authorized and what can be monitored without approval from the court.)

As recently as 2012, NSA was not always able to know when targets using a mobile phone had crossed a U.S. border. These so-called "roamers" accounted for the largest number of technological errors in the violations that were examined.

A problem discovered last year, which appears in the report under the heading "Significant Incidents of Non-Compliance," helps illustrate how NSA is collecting so much information that it can actually lose track of it and store it in places where it shouldn't be.

In February 2012, the NSA found 3,032 "files containing call detail records" on a server. A call detail record, or CDR, is analogous to a phone bill. It shows whom was called, when, and for how long. This is metadata, like what's collected today on all phone calls in the United States.

It's not clear how many CDRs (each representing an individual) were in each of those files. But they were stored on the server for more than five years, past the cut off point at which the information is supposed to be destroyed, pursuant to NSA rules that are meant to protect the privacy of Americans.

How the records got there is a mystery. The report says they were "potentially collected" under business records orders, which are authorized by the Patriot Act. But that's not certain.

What is known, however, is that the records were stored with information that shouldn't have been anywhere near them. It came from the agency's highly classified Stellar Wind program, which covered the warrantless interception of phone calls and emails (not just their metadata) that was secretly authorized by President George W. Bush in 2001. Joining the CDRs and the Stellar Wind records was data from yet another program that was unrelated to the two.

Mixing or "co-mingling" information obtained from different programs, and under different laws or authorizations, is a dangerous practice in the intelligence profession. Information is segregated to restrict and monitor the number of people who have access to it. An analyst cleared to look at CDRs might not be authorized to listen to phone calls intercepted under Stellar Wind. But if it's all on the same server, he might be able to do just that.

That may have happened in 2011, according to the audit. Some personnel may have been granted access to a cache of information that was recently modified so that they were no longer allowed to look at it. But not all the employees were informed about the change. 

Storing different intelligence streams in one place also increases the risk of revealing valuable sources and methods for how it was obtained--a basic violation of intelligence tradecraft. It also it makes it easier to steal. (Just ask Edward Snowden.)  

And segregation creates a bulwark against privacy violations. Information about Americans is generally kept clear of foreign intelligence because the rules on how the former can be used and disseminated are stricter. 

But infractions and mistakes weren't always reported to the NSA's overseers, either in Congress or at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Partly that's because the NSA doesn't view unintentional or "incidental" collection of Americans' communications as a violation of the rules. It was an accident, the result of what the agency called in a previously declassified document "problems [that] generally involved the implementation of highly sophisticated technology in a complex and ever-changing communications environment..." Translation: Surveillance is hard. Our computers aren't perfect. We acted in good faith.

Not that the court can verify if that's true. In a candid admission to the Post, the chief judge, Reggie Walton, said he and his colleagues must "rely upon the accuracy of the information" the government provides, and that the court "does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance..."

In one case where the court did curtail a new kind of surveillance, it was only months after learning that it was put in place. The court deemed the still-undisclosed activities unconstitutional, and the NSA had to make changes before it could restart them.

The NSA is also instructing its employees not to provide full information about infractions to Congress, which is supposed to oversee intelligence collection efforts and ensure they comply with the law.

The newly released documents affirm something we've long known: the NSA gathers up large amounts of information on foreigners and U.S. citizens and then tries to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, with imperfect results. That's alarming, but from a technological standpoint, understandable.

What members of Congress and the public may find more troubling is that the NSA wasn't honest about these shortcomings. Officials hid them from the same judges and lawmakers that President Obama recently said were engaged in a rigorous process of checks and balances that keeps electronic spying within the bounds of the law. 

Perhaps that system, like the NSA's data vacuums, could use a tune up. 

Win McNamee/Getty Images


Missing in Action

What happened to Washington's policy in Egypt?

CAIRO — In an Egypt ruptured by violence, veering towards civil war, the two opposing sides -- Islamists and secularists -- can at least agree on one point: The United States is the enemy.

As Egypt self-destructs, with the remaining shreds of stability and democracy eradicated by the military rule, secularists such as Tamarod's Moheb Doss, Khaled Dawoud of the National Salvation Front, and the activist actor Khaled Abol Naga, all have made public statements making clear they are convinced that the United States is rooting for the Muslim Brotherhood. Their evidence? That U.S. aid continued unabated during Mohamed Morsy's brief presidency and that the United States muted any criticism of his power grab, maintaining functional relations regardless of his government's actions. That U.S. Ambassador to Cairo Anne Patterson defended the Muslim Brotherhood from its Egyptian critics, and -- although President Barack Obama has continued to avoid calling Morsy's ouster a coup -- that other members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment have not pulled punches in lambasting Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's takeover. Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) "If it walks like a duck" comment in a press conference in Cairo last week was perhaps the final straw, prompting a "volcano of anger" as reported in the Egyptian press. One headline in the semi-official Al-Akhbar newspaper screamed: "Egypt rejects the advice of the American Satan."

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, feels equally betrayed. The United States, they say, has barely lifted a finger to help to restore a democratically elected president. (Morsy, as Brotherhood spokesmen have pointed out time and again, was elected with 51.7 percent of the vote in June of 2012.) Even worse, the United States failed to prevent the violent attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood camps in Cairo, leading to 525 dead and counting. As usual, the United States issued wan condemnations, backed by no consequences. Obama's milquetoast statement on Aug. 15 in response to the violence overtaking Cairo was simply more of the same.

Anyone who thinks the United States still has any currency as a defender or emblem of democracy should come to Egypt. America's soft power has been in steady decline since Egypt's 18-day revolution began in 2011. Cognizant of Obama's behind-the-scenes role in ousting Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians were willing to give the country that had supported the longtime dictator a second chance. But unwavering U.S. support, first for military rule under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and then for Morsy, destroyed any remnant of that goodwill.

Yes, the United States made repeated statements against violations of human rights -- such as the infamous "blue bra" incident, in which security forces were photographed stomping on a partially disrobed female protester -- and chided Morsy for his constitutional power grab in November 2012, but military aid continued unabated, a fact that was not lost on Egyptians.

Prioritizing regional security interests and military cooperation over the aspirations of the newly empowered Egyptian people has come at a cost. As Egypt has struggled to build a just society based on rule of law and a government accountable to its people, the United States has come to be increasingly viewed as an enemy, rather than a partner or model.

Having initially raised hopes with his now long-forgotten "A New Beginning" Cairo speech, Obama profoundly disappointed those he praised back in 2011 for "how they changed their country, and in so doing, changed the world." By failing to heed the voices of youth and change as they protested the oppressive military and Brotherhood governments, and only weighing in with feeble criticisms of Egyptian authorities, Obama and the United States lost the Egyptian street. Perhaps the president felt that to do more might threaten the military alliance and regional stability. But neither the White House nor the State Department recognized the seismic change in the Egyptian people. As Naga said, they had "banished fear." But this dramatic shift in the national mentality did not manifest itself in Egypt's post-revolutionary governments. So U.S. officials, who interacted primarily with their peers, missed it. But it was brewing in the street and the tide was turning against Washington -- from all sides.

"It is heartbreaking to realize that George Bush was more serious about democracy than Obama," Riham Bahi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, told me.

As the most visible symbol of America's presence in Cairo, Amb. Patterson consistently reinforced the perception that the United States supported the government in power, whether SCAF or the Muslim Brotherhood, over any opposition. Actions such as siding with the Brotherhood against the critical comedian Bassem Youssef, known as the "Egyptian Jon Stewart"; disparaging "street action" shortly before the June 30 protests that preceded Morsy's ouster; and taking no action while Western pro-democracy NGOs were raided and closed, have all bolstered this sentiment.

In unusually vitriolic attacks against an American diplomat, posters of Patterson were desecrated by the Tahrir crowds during the June 30 demonstrations. News that the ambassador has been promoted to running the State Department's Middle East policy as Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs only further angered Egyptians, confirming suspicions that the United States has abandoned the revolution.

The antipathy Egyptians feel toward Patterson has even rubbed off onto Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is reputed to be in line to succeed her in Cairo. Although an experienced Arabist noted for his courageous anti-government positions in the early days of the Syrian uprising, Ford has already been tried and convicted by the Egyptian media of "supporting terrorism" and "running death squads in Iraq," among other charges

But at least the United States still has its reliable military ally in the Middle East, right? Not so much. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's frequent appeals to Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to exercise restraint and seek reconciliation evidently fell on deaf ears. With impunity, the military-installed government has attacked opposition protests, culminating in the brutal suppression of the Brotherhood protest camps on Aug. 14, which have killed hundreds.

It is bad enough that the principal line of communication between the two capitals has been through the military, but the utter failure of the Pentagon to stem the tide calls into question the wisdom of America's laser focus on its military relationship with Cairo. President Obama apparently has no leverage. Secretary Kerry pleased Egyptians with his comment weeks ago that the Egyptian military had saved democracy, but his interlocutors, the civilian government, have no power.

It is difficult to preach about democracy when U.S. interests so plainly lie not in the empowerment of the people, but in regional security, ensured by our longstanding military relationship with Cairo. The influential and skeptical blogger Mahmoud Salem, a.k.a. "Sandmonkey," confessed that even he was surprised by the extent to which the United States has dealt with Egypt's current crisis through military channels: "I'm more worried about the American deep state than the Egyptian deep state," he told me.

So, what can the United States do now to increase its leverage in Egypt? Is it time to withhold military aid? Maybe for the sake of the collective American conscience, but cutting off the aid faucet will actually have very little impact in Egypt. As Nile News reporter Mai Saleh recently told me, "If the U.S. does not deliver F-16s, Russia will." Clearly, Obama does not want to take that route yet. As a slap on the wrist, he did, however, cancel the biannual joint Bright Star exercise.

As conspiracy theories about U.S. support for the Muslim Brotherhood swirl around Cairo (my favorite is that the United States conspired with Hamas -- yes, Hamas -- to help Morsy and others escape from prison in 2011), the sad truth is that Washington suffers from a breathtaking lack of imagination.

Nothing has changed since Mubarak ruled Egypt. The U.S. government deals with the Egyptian government -- whoever and whatever it might be -- and only the Egyptian government. All its lip service to heroes of the Jan. 25 revolution like Wael Ghonim and Ahmed Basiony notwithstanding, U.S. policy in Egypt has steadfastly ignored the voice of the people, whether it's the millions who thronged Egypt's streets during the 2011 revolution, the Mohammed Mahmoud protesters in 2012, or the Tamarod uprising on June 30 that toppled Morsy. But as Egypt slips back into military rule, the futility of sacrificing ideals for so-called "regional security interests" is becoming clear.

February 2011 may have been the last time the United States had influence over events in Egypt. If Obama had stayed true to the principles he once espoused in Cairo, Washington might have retained some of the trust it gained back then when it helped, however gingerly, push Mubarak from power. Instead, neither the military nor the Islamists nor the opposition heeds the United States. And as the heart of the Arab world is torn apart, America is missing in action.

Ed Giles/Getty Images