Monday, February 10, 2014
Greenwalds and drones
Glenn Greenwald isn't the only muckraking, activist Greenwald who makes the US government very unhappy these days. Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films has been doing similar work in documentary film (along with supporting the progressive movement in many different ways) for years. The LA Times featured his latest --- and very timely --- cause: the drone war:
In an old, whitewashed motel, where folklore has it studio executives once brought their secretaries for "lunch," Robert Greenwald, a mercurial man trailed by insults and death threats, leads a small band of filmmakers dedicated to unnerving political and corporate powers with righteous anger and quick-cut editing.
The article takes some issue with Unmanned for failing to point out that while it does kill numbers of innocent civilians it has also killed some high level Al Qaeda, which strikes me as sort of missing the point, but that's a small quibble. It's mostly a positive profile of someone who is doing good work on the anti-war left and that's rare in the mainstream media.
Greenwald embodies the populism of George Bailey and the sly delight of a spy handed a secret dossier. His Brave New Films has skewered Wal-Mart, Fox News (Bill O'Reilly despises him) and the conservative politics of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Greenwald's narratives have criticized the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and his latest documentary condemns the Obama administration's drone program for killing civilians in Pakistan and other countries in a misguided strategy to combat terror.
Much of the American public is unaware of what's going on, "and sadly there's a bipartisan national security state dedicated to making sure we don't find out," said Greenwald. "If you're losing your house or you don't have a job or you're trying to get your kid through school, the global challenges are generally the ones you don't feel equipped to take on.... That's one of the pleasures and joys of this work, to get up every day and work on telling these stories."
Brave New Films is a muckraking voice in a digital age of nano-second consumption. The company produces videos and graphics, time-releasing them on the Internet while also stitching them into full-length documentaries. This guerrilla style is aimed at creating buzz in progressive circles that at times ripples into the mainstream. The trick, said Greenwald, is staying ahead of the political curve to influence national discourse over anxieties as varied as healthcare,Wall Street and prisons for profit.
"Greenwald's a major advocacy figure on the left," said Patricia Aufderheide, director of the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University's School of Communication. "Brave New Films is not pretending to be nuanced, and it's not pretending to make great art … Greenwald's intent is to engage people to take some kind of action. He's relentlessly experimental."
And speaking of Greenwalds and drones, Glenn and Jeremy Scahill are out with the first exposé, from their new site aptly named The Intercept:
The National Security Agency is using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes – an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people.
I think this piece at Privacysos gets to why this is important:
According to a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA, the agency often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies. Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.
The drone operator, who agreed to discuss the top-secret programs on the condition of anonymity, was a member of JSOC’s High Value Targeting task force, which is charged with identifying, capturing or killing terrorist suspects in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
His account is bolstered by top-secret NSA documents previously provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It is also supported by a former drone sensor operator with the U.S. Air Force, Brandon Bryant, who has become an outspoken critic of the lethal operations in which he was directly involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.
In one tactic, the NSA “geolocates” the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist’s mobile phone, enabling the CIA and U.S. military to conduct night raids and drone strikes to kill or capture the individual in possession of the device.
While it’s not news that the NSA provides the CIA and JSOC with electronic surveillance information based off of cell phone metadata for use in drone strike targeting, the Intercept’s story provides us with important new details about what kinds of technologies the spies are using to collect and process this intelligence. The report also shows that, contrary to public officials’ promises, the drone program uses unreliable targeting information, largely derived from algorithmic analysis of large data pools. Contrary to some critics, that information is more useful to Americans than it is to the people the US government calls our enemies, and falls squarely within the public interest.
I suspect that most people don't give a damn about civilians in foreign countries who have made the unfortunate decision to get in the crosshairs of American technology. I think that many would even sign on to the idea that killing 100 civilians is "worth it" to get to on terrorist who has declared himself an enemy of the United States. (Like the American member of al Qaeda who evidently has the White House tied up in knots trying to decide whether to assassinate him or not.)
The backlash against the report began not long after it was published. John Schindler, a professor at the US Naval War College and frequent Greenwald critic, alleges that the revelations published by First Look will “help” The Terrorists.
And how / RT @PrivateSnuffy: Right off the bat, First Look is helping Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, LeT, AFPAK Talibans etc. improve their OPSEC.
— John Schindler (@20committee) February 10, 2014
But as Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions and legal scholar Sarah Knuckey pointed out on Twitter this morning, it isn’t news to people in Pakistan that the US government tracks their cell phones, and uses information beaming from them as the basis for conducting drone strikes.
@csoghoian Tracking via sim has been widely known in FATA for years - civilians there often speak of it.
— Sarah Knuckey (@SarahKnuckey) February 10, 2014
Even apart from Knuckey’s uncontroversial assessment, all the information you need to know that Schindler’s claim is without merit is contained in the Scahill/Greenwald piece itself. Their story describes various anti-surveillance strategies and tactics long employed by fighters seeking to evade the US’ omnipotent eyes in the sky. Some of these tactics include changing SIM cards or using multiple phones.
The targets of US drone operations know well that JSOC and the CIA use their cell phones to target them, and long before The Intercept published today’s story, they were making operational adjustments accordingly. Exactly what kinds of technologies the spies use to track their cell phones doesn’t matter at a practical level to the fighters trying to evade US surveillance. Simply knowing their cell phones are tracked and used in targeting is sufficient, and they knew this before First Look Media was a twinkle in Pierre Omidyar’s eye. But this information is extremely important for US citizens to understand.
But aside from the moral and constitutional implications of all this, which are extremely heavy, let's ask ourselves why we have the most powerful nation on earth swatting gnats like this in the first place? Does anyone really believe that we can kill them all one by one? And does it not concern anyone that for for every one you kill, if you kill 5 civilians along with them you are just creating more terrorists? This doesn't really seem to be a hard call to me. Clearly the technology they're using is not all that precise. And that imprecision is defeating the whole purpose. Is this policy a good idea at all?
I honestly don't see it, at least from the evidence we have.
Moreover, this technology is very likely to come back to "the homeland" and affect us in ways that are dangerous to all of us:
As we’ve long known, military surveillance technologies almost always migrate back to the domestic space, where they are eagerly applied by law enforcement agencies in the disastrous, decades-long war on drugs, as well as operations against non-violent dissidents. It's likely that the technologies used to wage the drone war overseas are already in use here at home.
In fact, it's already here.
Under GILGAMESH, it appears as if the three letter agencies are using IMSI catchers—devices already marketed to and deployed by domestic law enforcement agencies in the United States. These devices trick cell phones into thinking they are cell phone towers, thereby identifying phones within range and even intercepting their data.
We already know that DHS’ Customs, Border Protection agency (CBP) uses Predator drones equipped with similar cell phone sniffing technology. The FBI has been much more secretive about its use of drones, but we can safely assume the Bureau uses these tools above US airspace, in both drones and its substantial fleet of surveillance planes. The US military also flies drones above US airspace. Presumably the technology Scahill and Greenwald describe is already in relatively widespread use among federal agencies in the United States. It’s only a matter of time before police departments start using them, too, if they don't already. The same is true with respect to technologies like those used in the SHENANIGANS program, which sucks up Wi-Fi metadata, likely enabling the NSA to track IP addresses to physical locations.
Keep in mind that this has all been happening with virtually no real public debate and is being enabled by congressional authoritarians such as Representative Mike Rogers, who seems to believe that there can be no limits on government in these areas at all (not to mention that anyone who reveals what government is doing should be arrested.)
Basically, what we have is a policy of killing individual suspected terrorists which also kills many more innocent civilians thus creating new enemies. Sometimes this means that American citizens will be targeted or inadvertently assassinated on orders of the US Government, which is a very dicey constitutional concept at best. And all of this is done using an unreliable technology that makes more mistakes than it gets right --- again, resulting in the creation of more enemies than it kills. Oh, and the unreliable technology --- completely untested against the rights of US Citizens through any judicial process --- is inevitably migrating to use here in the US to be deployed by law enforcement against US citizens at home.
Is this really the best policy the Unites States can come up with to deal with the threat of Islamic terrorism? Is that even what this bizarre policy is designed to do? It's almost as if it's designed around how to use the technology than how to thwart terrorists.
Is the creation of new terrorists simply creating a new "market" for the drone war? You can't help but wonder.
digby 2/10/2014 02:30:00 PM