Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sanctions for the NSA; A Free Pass for Iran

By Jim McFarlin

It was an amazing global sleight of hand that would make even David Copperfield proud.

On January 17, 2014, President Barack Obama levied sanctions in the name of reform on the very U.S. agency that seeks to preserve the freedoms Americans rightly expect. Meanwhile, the nation’s attention was diverted from the easing of sanctions on a nation that would just as soon see those freedoms destroyed.

In an ironic fate of timing, this parlor trick occurred just as the real significance of the criminal hacking of credit card information from Target stores and other U.S. retailers was seeping into our consciousness: in the battlefield of cyberspace, America’s critical infrastructures are not defended. Our financial information are not safe, and our way of life is not secure. The Target attack publicly demonstrated that attacks such as this can be accomplished quickly and quietly, typically with fake or misleading identities.

The heart of this presidential illusion was to make sanctions appear to be reforms. Here is the essence of what was proposed:

  • Encumbered intelligence response: In the face of ever-increasing cyber threats to U.S. security, new procedures would add not just one, but two additional layers of review and approvals in order to conduct communications surveillance against suspected terrorists.
  • Unsecured data: Intelligence data would be transferred out of the clutches of the NSA into an as-yet to be identified private third party for secure keeping – and we are all aware how secure private third parties are.
  • Exposed intelligence methods: In the spirit of “fairness” to American citizens, as well as foreign leaders, investigative groups (plus perhaps another Congressional panel or two) will examine the details of these new restraints and make recommendations for debate. This will ensure U.S. intelligence gathering methods are not kept private but clearly laid out for our enemies to see. 
Nowhere in the president's comments is the need to prevent unauthorized disclosures such as those undertaken by Edward Snowden recognized. Nor is there any sense of understanding that the telephone carriers may not wish to be compelled to become the NSA's data storage facility. Or that their security methods will surely be less rigorous than those practiced by the NSA, potentially opening up these records to compromise by the Chinese and the Russians.

It definitely takes an effective illusion to paint the president's actions, which some refer to as de facto disarmament of U.S. cyber intelligence, as reforms. To seal the argument, a comparison was made between the potential dangers in NSA operations to the tactics of the brutal former communist dictatorship in East Germany. Should hard working NSA employees be asked how they feel about this dark characterization of their intentions, I doubt their morale will have been boosted.

All of this occurred as sanctions on Iran are not only being eased, but Senate consideration of further sanctions should Iran not meet its nuclear cessation agreements are stymied by the avowed promise of a presidential veto should they be passed.

The actions defined by the president clearly cripple our intelligence capabilities at the very time they need to be strengthened. As so cogently stated in the January 21st Wall Street Journal, "...the president would rather protect us from hypothetical abuses than from present dangers."

We live in a dangerous and increasingly nuclear world. Together with America’s demonstrated inability to protect our institutions in the new battle theater of cyberspace, this seems to be a dangerous time to set in sanctions for the U.S. agency that is doing its job to protect America from terrorist attack, while releasing sanctions on the country that sponsors such attacks. Doesn’t it?

("NSA Insignia" image: Wikimedia Commons)

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