By Martin Bosworth
Following up on my post from a little while back discussing Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell’s desire to police the Internet, the Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima confirmed last weekend that the Decider had signed a classified directive authorizing the NSA to more expansively monitor intrusions on federal networks for signs of cyberattacks:
Until now, the government’s efforts to protect itself from cyber-attacks — which run the gamut from hackers to organized crime to foreign governments trying to steal sensitive data — have been piecemeal. Under the new initiative, a task force headed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) will coordinate efforts to identify the source of cyber-attacks against government computer systems. As part of that effort, the Department of Homeland Security will work to protect the systems and the Pentagon will devise strategies for counterattacks against the intruders.
As Brian has said recently, the U.S. is absolutely not ready to handle cyberwar on almost any front. I’m all in favor of redirecting tax money towards protecting and strengthening our Internet infrastructure against any one of the millions of crippling threats it can face, rather than expensive, crappy weapons systems that have little measurable effect except fattening defense contractors’ coffers.
But in an expansive profile of Mike McConnell, the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright touches on the myriad obstacles our intelligence community faces towards handling a real threat, and why they get it wrong so often:
To call the disparate intelligence bureaucracies a community suggests that they share a collegial spirit, but throughout their history these organizations have been brutally competitive, undermining one another and even hoarding vital information. Since the establishment of the C.I.A., in 1947, the fractious intelligence community has botched many of the major tasks assigned to it. Its failures include the Bay of Pigs invasion, the unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union, the inability to prevent the September 11th attacks, and the catastrophic assessment that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The intelligence culture, like any other corporatized, hierarchical, top-down system, is hobbled by its own evolution. Territorial turf wars, emphasis on CYA over doing the job, antiquated technology and lack of resources to pay for it, and a thick blanket of paranoia and mistrust that suffuses the field at every level not only prevents agencies from being able to do their jobs effectively, but often redirects them into much more malignant and sinister ends–like the NSA’s illegal wiretapping program. From Wright’s article:
The changes to FISA that McConnell proposed were minor, in his view. â€œThree things we wanted,â€ he told me, in characteristic bulletin language. â€œFirst, we had to have a situation where it doesnâ€™t require us to get a warrant for a foreign person in a foreign country. Second point, we need the coÃ¶peration of the private sector. The private sector is being sued for allegedly coÃ¶perating with the government.â€ He was referring to reports that, even before 9/11, many of Americaâ€™s major telecommunications companies had diverted virtually all records of telephone and e-mail traffic from their routers into N.S.A. data banks, where it could be stored and examined. McConnell wanted liability protection not only for the companiesâ€™ future coÃ¶peration but for their past actions as well; however, he agreed to take the issue of retroactive immunity off the table if Congress would reconsider the matter after its recess.
Of course, this didn’t happen, and we’re now in a brutal Congressional stalemate between the White House, who wants permanent immunity for the telecoms and expansive new surveillance powers, and the Dems in Congress who refuse to let lawbreaking companies get away with it.
McConnell, as I’ve said before, is a big fan of private-sector cooperation on surveillance matters. He acknowledges in Wright’s article that the massive, bureaucratic intelligence community can’t move or innovate fast enough to perform the kind of vast tracking he wants for the Internet. So, how will he accomplish this?
The battle over telecom immunity isn’t just important for what these companies and their pals in government have done, but for what they will do. No matter how vital the need for a stronger policing of the Internet against cyberterrorism is–and it is vital–that can’t come at the hands of an Administration and its operatives who have repeatedly and willfully disregarded the law and civil rights to achieve their objectives, and rapacious private interests who want to use these technologies as stepping stones to their goal of a much more controlled Internet–with their hands on the dial.
That’s why nothing like this can happen under Bush’s reign without the most stringent accountability and strong oversight. He simply cannot be trusted, and those who work for him and want to enact these goals have to be viewed with extreme skepticism. Otherwise we may find that our innocuous e-mails and blog posts are getting swept up in a vast vacuum of data mining, while real terrorist threats go unnoticed until it’s too late.
(Special thanks to Ars Technica.)