Entries Tagged "national security policy"

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Sensitive Security Information (SSI)

For decades, the U.S. government has had systems in place for dealing with military secrets. Information is classified as either Confidential, Secret, Top Secret, or one of many “compartments” of information above Top Secret. Procedures for dealing with classified information were rigid: classified topics could not be discussed on unencrypted phone lines, classified information could not be processed on insecure computers, classified documents had to be stored in locked safes, and so on. The procedures were extreme because the assumed adversary was highly motivated, well-funded, and technically adept: the Soviet Union.

You might argue with the government’s decision to classify this and not that, or the length of time information remained classified, but if you assume the information needed to remain secret, than the procedures made sense.

In 1993, the U.S. government created a new classification of information — Sensitive Security Information — that was exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The information under this category, as defined by a D.C. court, was limited to information related to the safety of air passengers. This was greatly expanded in 2002, when Congress deleted two words, “air” and “passengers,” and changed “safety” to “security.” Currently, there’s a lot of information covered under this umbrella.

The rules for SSI information are much more relaxed than the rules for traditional classified information. Before someone can have access to classified information, he must get a government clearance. Before someone can have access to SSI, he simply must sign an NDA. If someone discloses classified information, he faces criminal penalties. If someone discloses SSI, he faces civil penalties.

SSI can be sent unencrypted in e-mail; a simple password-protected file is enough. A person can take SSI home with him, read it on an airplane, and talk about it in public places. People entrusted with SSI information shouldn’t disclose it to those unauthorized to know it, but it’s really up to the individual to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s really more like confidential corporate information than government military secrets.

The U.S. government really had no choice but to establish this classification level, given the kind of information they needed to work with. for example, the terrorist “watch” list is SSI. If the list falls into the wrong hands, it would be bad for national security. But think about the number of people who need access to the list. Every airline needs a copy, so they can determine if any of their passengers are on the list. That’s not just domestic airlines, but foreign airlines as well — including foreign airlines that may not agree with American foreign policy. Police departments, both within this country and abroad, need access to the list. My guess is that more than 10,000 people have access to this list, and there’s no possible way to give all them a security clearance. Either the U.S. government relaxes the rules about who can have access to the list, or the list doesn’t get used in the way the government wants.

On the other hand, the threat is completely different. Military classification levels and procedures were developed during the Cold War, and reflected the Soviet threat. The terrorist adversary is much more diffuse, much less well-funded, much less technologically advanced. SSI rules really make more sense in dealing with this kind of adversary than the military rules.

I’m impressed with the U.S. government SSI rules. You can always argue about whether a particular piece of information needs to be kept secret, and how classifications like SSI can be used to conduct government in secret. But if you take secrecy as an assumption, SSI defines a reasonable set of secrecy rules against a new threat.

Background on SSI

TSA’s regulation on the protection of SSI

Controversies surrounding SSI

My essay explaining why secrecy is often bad for security

Posted on March 8, 2005 at 10:37 AMView Comments

GovCon

There’s a conference in Washington, DC, in March that explores technologies for intelligence and terrorism prevention.

The 4th Annual Government Convention on Emerging Technologies will focus on the impact of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act signed into law by President Bush in December 2004.

The departments and agencies of the National Security Community are currently engaged in the most comprehensive transformation of policy, structure, doctrine, and capabilities since the National Security Act of 1947.

Many of the legal, policy, organizational, and cultural challenges to manage the National Security Community as an enterprise and provide a framework for fielding new capabilities are being addressed. However, there are many emerging technologies and commercial best practices available to help the National Security Community achieve its critical mission of keeping America safe and secure.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff on the agenda, including some classified sessions. I’m especially interested in this track:

Track Two: Attaining Tailored Persistence

Explore the technologies required to attain persistent surveillance and tailored persistence.

What does “persistent surveillance” mean, anyway?

Posted on February 3, 2005 at 9:07 AMView Comments

The Security of Checks and Balances

Much of the political rhetoric surrounding the US presidential election centers around the relative security posturings of President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, with each side loudly proclaiming that his opponent will do irrevocable harm to national security.

Terrorism is a serious issue facing our nation in the early 21st century, and the contrasting views of these candidates is important. But this debate obscures another security risk, one much more central to the US: the increasing centralisation of American political power in the hands of the executive branch of the government.

Over 200 years ago, the framers of the US Constitution established an ingenious security device against tyrannical government: they divided government power among three different bodies. A carefully thought-out system of checks and balances in the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch, ensured that no single branch became too powerful. After watching tyrannies rise and fall throughout Europe, this seemed like a prudent way to form a government.

Since 9/11, the United States has seen an enormous power grab by the executive branch. From denying suspects the right to a trial — and sometimes to an attorney — to the law-free zone established at Guantanamo, from deciding which ratified treaties to ignore to flouting laws designed to foster open government, the Bush administration has consistently moved to increase its power at the expense of the rest of the government. The so-called “Torture Memos,” prepared at the request of the president, assert that the president can claim unlimited power as long as it is somehow connected with counterterrorism.

Presidential power as a security issue will not play a role in the upcoming US election. Bush has shown through his actions during his first term that he favours increasing the powers of the executive branch over the legislative and the judicial branches. Kerry’s words show that he is in agreement with the president on this issue. And largely, the legislative and judicial branches are allowing themselves to be trampled over.

In times of crisis, the natural human reaction is to look for safety in a single strong leader. This is why Bush’s rhetoric of strength has been so well-received by the American people, and why Kerry is also campaigning on a platform of strength. Unfortunately, consolidating power in one person is dangerous. History shows again and again that power is a corrupting influence, and that more power is more corrupting. The loss of the American system of checks and balances is more of a security danger than any terrorist risk.

The ancient Roman Senate had a similar way of dealing with major crises. When there was a serious military threat against the safety and security of the Republic, the long debates and compromise legislation that accompanied the democratic process seemed a needless luxury. The Senate would appoint a single person, called a “dictator” (Latin for “one who orders”) to have absolute power over Rome in order to more efficiently deal with the crisis. He was appointed for a period of six months or for the duration of the emergency, whichever period was shorter. Sometimes the process worked, but often the injustices that resulted from having a dictator were worse than the original crisis.

Today, the principles of democracy enshrined in the US constitution are more important than ever. In order to prevail over global terrorism while preserving the values that have made America great, the constitutional system of checks and balances is critical.

This is not a partisan issue; I don’t believe that John Kerry, if elected, would willingly lessen his own power any more than second-term President Bush would. What the US needs is a strong Congress and a strong court system to balance the presidency, not weak ones ceding ever more power to the presidency.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Posted on October 29, 2004 at 10:21 AMView Comments

Do Terror Alerts Work?

As I read the litany of terror threat warnings that the government has issued in the past three years, the thing that jumps out at me is how vague they are. The careful wording implies everything without actually saying anything. We hear “terrorists might try to bomb buses and rail lines in major U.S. cities this summer,” and there’s “increasing concern about the possibility of a major terrorist attack.” “At least one of these attacks could be executed by the end of the summer 2003.” Warnings are based on “uncorroborated intelligence,” and issued even though “there is no credible, specific information about targets or method of attack.” And, of course, “weapons of mass destruction, including those containing chemical, biological, or radiological agents or materials, cannot be discounted.”

Terrorists might carry out their attacks using cropdusters, helicopters, scuba divers, even prescription drugs from Canada. They might be carrying almanacs. They might strike during the Christmas season, disrupt the “democratic process,” or target financial buildings in New York and Washington.

It’s been more than two years since the government instituted a color-coded terror alert system, and the Department of Homeland Security has issued about a dozen terror alerts in that time. How effective have they been in preventing terrorism? Have they made us any safer, or are they causing harm? Are they, as critics claim, just a political ploy?

When Attorney General John Ashcroft came to Minnesota recently, he said the fact that there had been no terrorist attacks in America in the three years since September 11th was proof that the Bush administration’s anti-terrorist policies were working. I thought: There were no terrorist attacks in America in the three years before September 11th, and we didn’t have any terror alerts. What does that prove?

In theory, the warnings are supposed to cultivate an atmosphere of preparedness. If Americans are vigilant against the terrorist threat, then maybe the terrorists will be caught and their plots foiled. And repeated warnings brace Americans for the aftermath of another attack.

The problem is that the warnings don’t do any of this. Because they are so vague and so frequent, and because they don’t recommend any useful actions that people can take, terror threat warnings don’t prevent terrorist attacks. They might force a terrorist to delay his plan temporarily, or change his target. But in general, professional security experts like me are not particularly impressed by systems that merely force the bad guys to make minor modifications in their tactics.

And the alerts don’t result in a more vigilant America. It’s one thing to issue a hurricane warning, and advise people to board up their windows and remain in the basement. Hurricanes are short-term events, and it’s obvious when the danger is imminent and when it’s over. People can do useful things in response to a hurricane warning; then there is a discrete period when their lives are markedly different, and they feel there was utility in the higher alert mode, even if nothing came of it.

It’s quite another thing to tell people to be on alert, but not to alter their plans–as Americans were instructed last Christmas. A terrorist alert that instills a vague feeling of dread or panic, without giving people anything to do in response, is ineffective. Indeed, it inspires terror itself. Compare people’s reactions to hurricane threats with their reactions to earthquake threats. According to scientists, California is expecting a huge earthquake sometime in the next two hundred years. Even though the magnitude of the disaster will be enormous, people just can’t stay alert for two centuries. The news seems to have generated the same levels of short-term fear and long-term apathy in Californians that the terrorist warnings do. It’s human nature; people simply can’t be vigilant indefinitely.

It’s true too that people want to make their own decisions. Regardless of what the government suggests, people are going to independently assess the situation. They’re going to decide for themselves whether or not changing their behavior seems like a good idea. If there’s no rational information to base their independent assessment on, they’re going to come to conclusions based on fear, prejudice, or ignorance.

We’re already seeing this in the U.S. We see it when Muslim men are assaulted on the street. We see it when a woman on an airplane panics because a Syrian pop group is flying with her. We see it again and again, as people react to rumors about terrorist threats from Al Qaeda and its allies endlessly repeated by the news media.

This all implies that if the government is going to issue a threat warning at all, it should provide as many details as possible. But this is a catch-22: Unfortunately, there’s an absolute limit to how much information the government can reveal. The classified nature of the intelligence that goes into these threat alerts precludes the government from giving the public all the information it would need to be meaningfully prepared. And maddeningly, the current administration occasionally compromises the intelligence assets it does have, in the interest of politics. It recently released the name of a Pakistani agent working undercover in Al Qaeda, blowing ongoing counterterrorist operations both in Pakistan and the U.K.

Still, ironically, most of the time the administration projects a “just trust me” attitude. And there are those in the U.S. who trust it, and there are those who do not. Unfortunately, there are good reasons not to trust it. There are two reasons government likes terror alerts. Both are self-serving, and neither has anything to do with security.

The first is such a common impulse of bureaucratic self-protection that it has achieved a popular acronym in government circles: CYA. If the worst happens and another attack occurs, the American public isn’t going to be as sympathetic to the current administration as it was last time. After the September 11th attacks, the public reaction was primarily shock and disbelief. In response, the government vowed to fight the terrorists. They passed the draconian USA PATRIOT Act, invaded two countries, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars. Next time, the public reaction will quickly turn into anger, and those in charge will need to explain why they failed. The public is going to demand to know what the government knew and why it didn’t warn people, and they’re not going to look kindly on someone who says: “We didn’t think the threat was serious enough to warn people.” Issuing threat warnings is a way to cover themselves. “What did you expect?” they’ll say. “We told you it was Code Orange.”

The second purpose is even more self-serving: Terror threat warnings are a publicity tool. They’re a method of keeping terrorism in people’s minds. Terrorist attacks on American soil are rare, and unless the topic stays in the news, people will move on to other concerns. There is, of course, a hierarchy to these things. Threats against U.S. soil are most important, threats against Americans abroad are next, and terrorist threats–even actual terrorist attacks–against foreigners in foreign countries are largely ignored.

Since the September 11th attacks, Republicans have made “tough on terror” the centerpiece of their reelection strategies. Study after study has shown that Americans who are worried about terrorism are more likely to vote Republican. In 2002, Karl Rove specifically told Republican legislators to run on that platform, and strength in the face of the terrorist threat is the basis of Bush’s reelection campaign. For that strategy to work, people need to be reminded constantly about the terrorist threat and how the current government is keeping them safe.

It has to be the right terrorist threat, though. Last month someone exploded a pipe bomb in a stem-cell research center near Boston, but the administration didn’t denounce this as a terrorist attack. In April 2003, the FBI disrupted a major terrorist plot in the U.S., arresting William Krar and seizing automatic weapons, pipe bombs, bombs disguised as briefcases, and at least one cyanide bomb–an actual chemical weapon. But because Krar was a member of a white supremacist group and not Muslim, Ashcroft didn’t hold a press conference, Tom Ridge didn’t announce how secure the homeland was, and Bush never mentioned it.

Threat warnings can be a potent tool in the fight against terrorism–when there is a specific threat at a specific moment. There are times when people need to act, and act quickly, in order to increase security. But this is a tool that can easily be abused, and when it’s abused it loses its effectiveness.

It’s instructive to look at the European countries that have been dealing with terrorism for decades, like the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Italy, and Spain. None of these has a color-coded terror-alert system. None calls a press conference on the strength of “chatter.” Even Israel, which has seen more terrorism than any other nation in the world, issues terror alerts only when there is a specific imminent attack and they need people to be vigilant. And these alerts include specific times and places, with details people can use immediately. They’re not dissimilar from hurricane warnings.

A terror alert that instills a vague feeling of dread or panic echoes the very tactics of the terrorists. There are essentially two ways to terrorize people. The first is to do something spectacularly horrible, like flying airplanes into skyscrapers and killing thousands of people. The second is to keep people living in fear with the threat of doing something horrible. Decades ago, that was one of the IRA’s major aims. Inadvertently, the DHS is achieving the same thing.

There’s another downside to incessant threat warnings, one that happens when everyone realizes that they have been abused for political purposes. Call it the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” problem. After too many false alarms, the public will become inured to them. Already this has happened. Many Americans ignore terrorist threat warnings; many even ridicule them. The Bush administration lost considerable respect when it was revealed that August’s New York/Washington warning was based on three-year-old information. And the more recent warning that terrorists might target cheap prescription drugs from Canada was assumed universally to be politics-as-usual.

Repeated warnings do more harm than good, by needlessly creating fear and confusion among those who still trust the government, and anesthetizing everyone else to any future alerts that might be important. And every false alarm makes the next terror alert less effective.

Fighting global terrorism is difficult, and it’s not something that should be played for political gain. Countries that have been dealing with terrorism for decades have realized that much of the real work happens outside of public view, and that often the most important victories are the most secret. The elected officials of these countries take the time to explain this to their citizens, who in return have a realistic view of what the government can and can’t do to keep them safe.

By making terrorism the centerpiece of his reelection campaign, President Bush and the Republicans play a very dangerous game. They’re making many people needlessly fearful. They’re attracting the ridicule of others, both domestically and abroad. And they’re distracting themselves from the serious business of actually keeping Americans safe.

This article was originally published in the October 2004 edition of The Rake

Posted on October 4, 2004 at 7:08 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.