Article originally published in The California Tech on Monday February 23 2015
Security Issues Complicated Advancement of Journalism
It's been a busy couple of weeks since midterms. First up, President Obama spoke ata White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection held at Stanford University on Feb. 13. Edward Snowden leaked information revealing that parts of the U.S. federal government routinely spied on communications of hundreds of millions of people - communications mediated by US-based companies such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Apple. In response, these companies have begun to implement end-to-end encryption of consumer data and insist on warrants for provision of information. A government-industry dialogue on information security is a hilariously asymmetric exercise, and this particular summit was no exception.
Highlights included non-attendance by the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Yahoo. Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, went along, but the other companies sent their chief technology officers (CTOs) instead. Several competent attendees (including Pieter Zatko) caught the Secret Service using IMSI catchers (eavesdropping devices used for intercepting mobile phone traffic and tracking movement between mobile phone users) to monitor summit participants, a highly ironic situation.
Dialogue, to the extent that it existed at all, was muddled. Obama suggested that end-to-end encryption would hinder the ability of the FBI to capture metadata about individuals with whom criminals are communicating, which is categorically incorrect. There was also a suggestion that failing to compromise, or backdoor, encryption for lawful interception would be a boon to international terrorists, despite the established fact that many drone-paranoid terrorists are already experts at privacy and security. Additionally, security researchers Kaspersky Labs has documented incidents of cybercriminals using some of the NSA's own tools and backdoors against civilians, illustrating the steady flow of military cyberweapons into the public sphere, where they stand to endanger the Internet for everyone. Several tech company representatives affirmed their belief that secure backdooring was impossible.
The Internet, arguably the greatest tool ever invented for the advancement of humanity, is at a crossroads. Do we strive to build a system that is fundamentally secure for everyone, a platform on which we can build finance, health, communications, and governance? Or do we allow the decay of standards to a wild jungle where any interaction is perilous and only the maintenance of arcane and incredibly expensive knowledge affords any kind of safety?
On the heels of the Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection, the White House has held another summit on Feb. 19, the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. One might think the starting point for any sort of discussion should be a precise definition of the scope and nature of the matter at hand. Sadly, this was not the case, with examples limited to ISIS and a half-hearted reference to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), a guerilla army. Defining a set of beliefs or actions that uniquely identify violent extremism is difficult. Most of the U.S.'s international concern is directed towards Islamic extremists such as al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or (dare I say) the elusive Khorasan group. But there is no shortage of other examples where justification for indiscriminate killing is taken from other religions or from racist or nationalist ideology. Similarly, a suggestion that engagement away from a declared battlefield or killing of civilians veers dangerously close to the behavior of the U.S. and allies in the ongoing drone war.
The reality is that the conception of war as a conflict between uniformed troops in neat lines on a marked battlefield later to be adorned by a monument was outmoded by the time of the American Civil War. Since the invention of automatic weapons and nitrates nearly a century ago, killing people has become cheap and easy - a commodity. Wars are no longer fought or won that way. If, as individuals or as a nation, we decide wars must be fought, we need to think carefully about the how, as well as the why. It is clear that ISIS is already repeating many of the mistakes the U.S. made in Iraq and, as such, formulating a coherent response is as much a case of doing anything as doing something. Should the U.S. regularly intervene in foreign affairs and, if so, should it be at the point of a gun?
Finally, Attorney General Eric Holder has been the subject of a blistering attack by New York Times journalist James Risen. Not to be confused with Fox journalist James Rosen, who has also been subjected to prosecutorial scrutiny in connection with jailed leaker and Korea expert Stephen Kim, Risen was the subject of a decade-long legal battle to avoid being called to testify in the case of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who was also recently convicted of unauthorized leaking, this time in connection with a botched operation to feed Iran flawed nuclear secrets. Both leakers were prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, the Obama DOJ's go-to law for cracking down on leaking, partly because it doesn't permit a public interest defense.
Risen lost his appeal but indicated that he'd nonetheless refuse to testify. In January, the Department of Justice dropped its proceedings and indicated that he wouldn't be called to testify after all. Given that the DOJ secured Sterling's conviction shortly after with metadata, it is understandable that Risen feels he was harassed by vexatious litigation as punishment for his 2006 book State of War, detailing a series of serious failures in George W. Bush's approach to Iran's nuclear program.
On Feb. 10, Eric Holder delivered a speech at the National Press Club in which he characterized the DOJ's dealings with Risen as a model for prosecution of unauthorized leakers. Comparing the protection of classified information that falls into the hands of the press to the disclosure of the Manhattan Project, Holder suggested that the government and press share responsibility for the protection of secrets that protect national security. There was little, if any, acknowledgement of the press' traditional role as an adversarial check on power and the universal tendency of democratically accountable governments to attempt to use classification to hide wrongdoing.
Risen responded in a series of tweets.
"Given Holder's speech today, I repeat: The Obama Administration is the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation."
"Eric Holder has been the nation's top censorship officer, not the top law enforcement officer."
"Eric Holder has sent a message to dictators around the world that it is okay to crack down on the press and jail journalists."
"Eric Holder managed to destroy any semblance of a reporters [sic] privilege in the United States."
"This is Eric Holder's true legacy on press freedom: 'There is no First Amendment reporter's privilege.' From DOJ brief in my case."
"I plan to spend the rest of my life fighting to undo damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and Eric Holder."
"My son is a reporter. I don't want him to have to live in a country where there is less press freedom than when I started as a journalist."
Whatever your views on leaks, official or otherwise, it is widely acknowledged that the use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers for talking to the domestic press has a chilling effect on press freedoms. In nearly a century it has been used only 11 times to prosecute government officials for talking to journalists, seven times under the Obama administration. They include Sterling and Kim, as well as Thomas Drake for leaking information about the NSA's Trailblazer project, FBI translator Shamai Leibowitz for leaking information related to FBI surveillance, Chelsea Manning for releasing what became the Iraq War Logs, Afghanistan War Diaries, State Department Cables, and Collateral Murder, John Kiriakou for disclosing the CIA's torture program, and Edward Snowden for exposing the NSA's warrantless blanket surveillance program PRISM. It is probably fair to surmise that authorized or flattering disclosures of classified information do not receive the same treatment.
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