Friday, August 30, 2013

Is the NSA incompetent or is it feral?

Outstanding analysis by Bruce Schneier, who ponders what on earth is going on at Ft. Meade:
So if the NSA knows what Snowden has, or what he could have, then the most it could learn from the USB sticks [seized from David Miranda at Heathrow airport - ed.] is what Greenwald and Poitras are currently working on, or thinking about working on. But presumably the things the two of them are working on are the things they're going to publish next. Did the intelligence agencies really do all this simply for a few weeks' heads-up on what was coming? Given how ham-handedly the NSA has handled PR as each document was exposed, it seems implausible that it wanted advance knowledge so it could work on a response. It's been two months since the first Snowden revelation, and it still doesn't have a decent PR story.

Furthermore, the UK authorities must have known that the data would be encrypted. Greenwald might have been a crypto newbie at the start of the Snowden affair, but Poitras is known to be good at security. The two have been communicating securely by e-mail when they do communicate. Maybe the UK authorities thought there was a good chance that one of them would make a security mistake, or that Miranda would be carrying paper documents.

Another possibility is that this was just intimidation. If so, it's misguided. Anyone who regularly reads Greenwald could have told them that he would not have been intimidated -- and, in fact, he expressed the exact opposite sentiment -- and anyone who follows Poitras knows that she is even more strident in her views. Going after the loved ones of state enemies is a typically thuggish tactic, but it's not a very good one in this case. The Snowden documents will get released. There's no way to put this cat back in the bag, not even by killing the principal players.
This is part of a pretty thoughtful analysis which reaches its crescendo with this:
This leaves one last possible explanation -- those in power were angry and impulsively acted on that anger. They're lashing out: sending a message and demonstrating that they're not to be messed with -- that the normal rules of polite conduct don't apply to people who screw with them. That's probably the scariest explanation of all. Both the US and UK intelligence apparatuses have enormous money and power, and they have already demonstrated that they are willing to ignore their own laws. Once they start wielding that power unthinkingly, it could get really bad for everyone.

And it's not going to be good for them, either. They seem to want Snowden so badly that that they'll burn the world down to get him. But every time they act impulsively aggressive -- convincing the governments of Portugal and France to block the plane carrying the Bolivian president because they thought Snowden was on it is another example -- they lose a small amount of moral authority around the world, and some ability to act in the same way again.
The only thing else that I'd add is that the entire security establishment (including the DNI and NSA Director Alexander) are lieing badly, and repeatedly.  They're losing their grip on reality, and on their self-control.  That's actually not a good sign for the Global War On Terror.

So riddle me this, GWOT man: what's the breakdown of NSA resources looking for, you know, actual terrorists like Maj. Nidal Hussein (emailing with al Quaeda asking if it's A-OK with Allah if he shoots up an Army base), and what percent is in a domestic le freak?

Or maybe the NSA is simply incompetent, a dinosaur relic of the cold war that hasn't realized that the asteroid has entered the atmosphere.  A commenter at Schneier's site raises the possibility:
I think you need to remember that most Western intelligence agencies are founded in the cold war. They are used to fighting an opponent who could and would do almost anything except go public. The phone call, "You've had your fun, now we want the stuff back;" calling around and smashing up hard drives; detaining someone's 'agent' at the border for nine hours; these all smell like the tit-for-tat tactics of the cold war. They make good sense against a foreign intelligence agency; the message is, "We know what you're up to, we know where you keep your stuff, we know when your agents are traveling and we can reach out and touch them whenever we want. So back off."

If these actions were taken against a Soviet or Soviet-like intelligence agency, we'd all think it was rather an exciting insight into the world of espionage. Except we'd never know it had happened because the KGB and the Stasi would never have reacted by writing a newspaper article about what had happened. I wonder if the agencies involved are simply struggling to figure out how to deal with an opponent whose best weapon is publicity?
So: incompetent or feral?  To ask the question is to answer it, n'est-ce pas?
When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.
- Thomas Jefferson


juvat said...

I do not believe your two options are exclusive, so I think the answer is "Yes".

Unknown said...

All government is arrogant and incompetent. And since it is composed of people, much of it is vengeful. This is not the result of a cold war hangover. The systems have become worse, not better since the end of the cold war. They are more arrogant, more heavy handed, more oblivious to the will of the people and more amoral. They reflect the greed, short sightedness, incompetence, and amorality of the people. We are doomed not because the NSA is a holdover from the past but because the NSA is an accurate reflection of the present.

R.K. Brumbelow said...

I do not think it is arrogance, at least not in the classic sense. I think it is a presupposed moral high ground. Almost a "But think of the children mentality". After all they are only doing the spying on everyone for our own good ne?

Geodkyt said...

Actually, the "Dinosaur agency fighting by Cold War rules" sounds like the most plausible explanation.

But "Direct screaming hissy fit order from President Princess Pullup Pants" is almost as likely.

Archer said...

To quote *shudder* Hilary Clinton:

"What difference does it make?"

Plus, juvat above has a point: the two explanations aren't mutually exclusive, so probably a combination of both.