by John Q on August 24, 2013

The drip feed of revelations about spying by NSA, related agencies and international subsidiaries like GCHQ, is taking on a familiar pattern. Take some long-held suspicion about what they might be up to, and go through the following steps

1. “You’re being paranoid. That can never happen, thanks to our marvellous checks and balances”
2. “Well, actually it does happen, but hardly ever, so there’s no need to worry about it”
3. “OK, it happens all the time, but you shouldn’t be worried unless you have something to hide”

An example which must have occurred to quite a few of us is whether NSA employees can spy on current or former partners, potential love interests and so on. Until a few days ago, this was at stage 1. Now, it’s been admitted that this not only happens, but it has a name “LOVEINT“. Still, we are told by the great defender of our liberties Dianne Feinstein, this has only happened on a handful of occasions (Stage 2).

All very reassuring, until you read the following

Most of the incidents, officials said, were self-reported. Such admissions can arise, for example, when an employee takes a polygraph tests as part of a renewal of a security clearance.

In other words, while NSA monitors everything you and I do all the time, it relies on witchcraft to detect wrongdoing by its own employees. I guess we’ll just have to hope that NSA staff are too busy snooping on our emails to read any of the 194 000 Google hits on “how to cheat a polygraph”.



Lee A. Arnold 08.24.13 at 4:34 am

Times like these make me think of Spirit

We got nothing to hide
We’re married to the same bride
She eats way from inside
No, we got nothing to hide


Meredith 08.24.13 at 5:01 am

Hello, NSA!

As the mother-in-law of a person from a country where the NSA has reason to snoop, I report that, ever since my son began to talk about this lovely and talented young woman (from a lovely and wonderful family) in serious ways, I found myself thinking, who is reading these emails? I have played the game of self-censoring ever since (not that there was anything worthy of it all, god knows), and I resent ever having to think this way. As they say, Fuch Yeah.


Lee A. Arnold 08.24.13 at 5:04 am

And the Who

You can hear it in the street
See it in the dragging feet
The word is getting out about Control

Every single dream
Wrapped up in a scheme


evil is evil 08.24.13 at 6:12 am

Now we will get back to the witches’ trials. Tie them up. Throw them in deep water, if they float they are guilty and are burned alive. If they sink, they are innocent, and get a xian burial.

Polygraph tests have all of the reliability of drug sniffing dogs (proven beyond a doubt to respond strictly to the movements of their handlers) and witch sniffers in Africa.

I’ve had 3 polygraph tests in my life. Passed all of them with flying colors and guilty as sin on every evaluation. Sociopaths can beat any polygraph. I had to tell the “polygraph operator” in the second “evaluation” where she was supposed to attach the contacts to my skins. Then I coached her in the correct ways to phrase the questions so the only answer had to be yes or no. If I had attach the correct points and started asking her questions, I’d have had her confessing to killing Christ.

Fire every person that pretends to be a polygraph operator. They are all on high paid welfare and produce nothing but misery for innocent people and have no credibility with we sociopaths that can fly past them.

Find one single instance of a polygraph outing a traitor and I will consider believing that they have some use. You will never find one.

Nor will you find a successful NSA operation. If they had a stone cold solid proof of their usefulness on one single operation, the leaks on those successes would be pouring out cast in solid gold. What a waste of time, material and treasure. Fire them all, send them home on full pay and allowances and save money by not paying the exorbitant fees they are paying the Internet providers for what should cost pennies a day.

Agee was a hero. Ellsberg is a hero. Assange is a hero. Manning is a hero. Snowden is a hero.

The NSA, CIA and the alphabet soup people are all traitors to the constitution, their oaths of office and their fellow americans. Offer them a promotion and they would pimp their mothers for a corner office.


David 08.24.13 at 6:26 am

Dishes are being done. Trust me.


Tim Worstall 08.24.13 at 8:53 am

I think the revelation that they’re all stupid enough to believe in polygraphs worries more than anything else I’ve heard so far. Maybe.


Neil 08.24.13 at 9:14 am

@4 “Polygraph tests have all of the reliability of drug sniffing dogs (proven beyond a doubt to respond strictly to the movements of their handlers) and witch sniffers in Africa”.

Not so wrt sniffer dogs. They do indeed respond to their handlers’ unconscious cues, which causes false positives. But their false negative rate is very low, when properly trained.


jeroen 08.24.13 at 9:28 am

English is not my mother tongue. So I had to look up “polygraph” on wikipedia. The entry has this wonderful quote:

in 1978 Richard Helms, the 8th Director of Central Intelligence, stated that:
“We discovered there were some Eastern Europeans who could defeat the polygraph at any time. Americans are not very good at it, because we are raised to tell the truth and when we lie it is easy to tell we are lying. But we find a lot of Europeans and Asiatics [who] can handle that polygraph without a blip, and you know they are lying and you have evidence that they are lying.”[29]


Ronan(rf) 08.24.13 at 9:32 am

This article from 1983 was doing the rounds on twitter recently

The final para is most relevant

“No laws define the limits of the N.S.A.’s power. No Congressional committee subjects the agency’s budget to a systematic, informed and skeptical review. With unknown billions of Federal dollars, the agency purchases the most sophisticated communications and computer equipment in the world. But truly to comprehend the growing reach of this formidable organization, it is necessary to recall once again how the computers that power the N.S.A. are also gradually changing lives of Americans – the way they bank, obtain benefits from the Government and communicate with family and friends. Every day, in almost every area of culture and commerce, systems and procedures are being adopted by private companies and organizations as well as by the nation’s security leaders that make it easier for the N.S.A. to dominate American society should it ever decide such action is necessary. “


Alex 08.24.13 at 10:04 am

A minor achievement of Thatcher’s: keeping the polygraph out of the UK despite a push by the Americans to get it imposed on people working with alliance intelligence material (which would have progressively infected the civil service and chunks of industry).


heckblazer 08.24.13 at 11:10 am

FWIW, the use of polygraph screening isn’t an NSA thing, it’s a security clearance thing. If you have a special access program or sensitive compartmented information clearance (aka “above top secret”) your periodic investigation will include a polygraph exam. Polygraphs will also be used in in counter-espionage investigations. More broadly polyagraphs are used for pre-employment screening for all federal security and law enforcement, so in addition to DOD programs like NSA you also have CIA, FBI, Secret Service, DEA, DOE and US Customs and Border Patrol doing it on prospective hires. I don’t know about the others offhand, but Customs in particular is required by statute to use polygraph screening in hiring . Polygraphs are also fairly popular among local law enforcement agencies; if you want to join LAPD you’ll have to take one.


SusanC 08.24.13 at 11:52 am

It’s well-documented that a polygraph test is required for some US security clearances (e.g. it’s sometimes mentioned as a requirement in job adverts). However, from sources I’d consider reliable (cough), I get the impression that NSA doesn’t actually believe polygraphs tests are reliable. So if someone who already has a clearance fails their regular polygraph test, provided there’s no other evidence against them, the assumption will be that they’re just nervous (its a false positive), not that they’ve defected to Wikileaks (or whoever). But their access to that level of classified material will be revoked untill they pass the polygraph test again.

Working for a University, I’m well familiar with bureaucratic requirements that no-one believes are effective…


Brendan 08.24.13 at 11:55 am

“I think the revelation that they’re all stupid enough to believe in polygraphs worries more than anything else I’ve heard so far”.

Really Tim? I thought you were quite the fan of the NSA?


Barry 08.24.13 at 12:48 pm

Neil 08.24.13 at 9:14 am

“Not so wrt sniffer dogs. They do indeed respond to their handlers’ unconscious cues, which causes false positives. But their false negative rate is very low, when properly trained.”

The second sentence implies that the third sentence is neccessary but not sufficient.


Tom Slee 08.24.13 at 12:50 pm

I think the OP missed a step:

4. Obviously this happens all the time. We’ve known about it forever. Nothing new here.


Hidari 08.24.13 at 1:01 pm

It occurs to me that if any CT readers are considering changing career and becoming full-time paedophiles or rapists, or even just moonlighting in blackmail or extortion, then a job with the NSA would be the ideal place to start. Perhaps the NSA could be as fertile a breeding ground (sic) for young, ambitious sexual predators in the US as the BBC has been in the UK.


William Timberman 08.24.13 at 1:05 pm

You have to pity control freaks. They never understand, and therefore can’t ever truly control, the internal dynamics of their own systems. Chins up, medals all in a row, they introduce a massive disequilibrium into human affairs, and somehow persuade themselves that they’re smart enough to keep the accidental at bay forever. As a wiser person might predict, the more the tendency back toward equilibrium erodes what they’ve created, the more panic appears in their ranks. Out come the lie-detector tests, the cudgels, the disappearances, the life sentences, the shameful resignations, the public mea culpas, etc.

It’s only what they deserve, but God, what a waste. And speaking of God, if having assumed many of the powers we once ascribed to him, we at some point intend to accept his responsibilities as well, stewardship, not control, has to be the proper path. If General Keith Alexander is intended to be the proper model for that, then I’d say we’ve already screwed the pooch. How many chances to get it right do you suppose even a benevolent universe will allow us?


Barry 08.24.13 at 1:21 pm

Hidari, one of the things which I thought of recently is that it’s clear that there are a number of large banks which have a lock on the US government (start with Goldman Sachs). What are the chances that they are *not* getting juicy information from the NSA? I’d put them at zero.

Something for UK, Chinese, German and other bankers to think about.


Layman 08.24.13 at 2:31 pm

Aside from the obvious problem of relying on polygraphs, how can information gleaned from them be described as self-reported, in a manner meant to reassure? People who admit wrongdoing under polygraph, which they did not admit before, have been caught in an exercise of deception. They haven’t ‘self-reported’.

It seems to me what’s called for here is some sort of double-secret agency with the job of monitoring what NSA does in the same manner NSA monitors what we do. Maybe the National Security Agency Agency? NSAA can collect data on what NSA employees and contractors do when collecting data on what we do; and then analyze it, and catch the evildoers hiding in NSA. Of course, it’s turtles all the way down from there…


Hidari 08.24.13 at 2:32 pm

” What are the chances that they are *not* getting juicy information from the NSA? I’d put them at zero.”

Indeed, although the spooks blab on about national security, this is believed only by the stupid or the terminally naive. The NSA has a number of ‘real’ purposes, but one of them is undeniably industrial espionage.

“Specifically, politicians asked the journalist whether the spying agency was able to acquire Brazil’s commercial secrets and to capture communications of the country’s president and military. Confirming officials’ worst fears, Greenwald declared that indeed, Washington’s espionage was not solely aimed at preserving national security but also at collecting valuable commercial and industrial data from rivals.

Just why would the N.S.A. conduct industrial espionage on Brazil, a U.S. diplomatic partner? Greenwald promises to publish more articles which will illuminate the specific contours of such spying, and at this point it’s anyone’s guess what the further revelations will contain. It’s no secret, however, that behind all the bonhomie, Washington is wary of Brazil and particularly skittish about providing high-tech secrets to the South American juggernaut.”

CF also ” British journalist Duncan Campbell and New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager asserted in the 1990s that the United States was exploiting ECHELON traffic for industrial espionage, rather than military and diplomatic purposes.Examples alleged by the journalists include the gear-less wind turbine technology designed by the German firm Enercon and the speech technology developed by the Belgian firm Lernout & Hauspie. An article in the US newspaper Baltimore Sun reported in 1995 that European aerospace company Airbus lost a $6 billion contract with Saudi Arabia in 1994 after the US National Security Agency reported that Airbus officials had been bribing Saudi officials to secure the contract.”


Hidari 08.24.13 at 2:36 pm


Yes isn’t it funny how the saying ‘If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ only apparently applies to the powerless and weak? If you are powerful and strong (like the NSA) then apparently quite different rules apply. They are allowed to hide everything (from the taxpayers who fund them), even though, they say, they have done nothing wrong and therefore have nothing to fear.

Funny, that.


Omega Centauri 08.24.13 at 2:40 pm

I think things like polygraphs probably sometimes work. If for no other reason than panicking someone into revealing something they otherwise wouldn’t. They also may have some deterrence value; if I’m not sure I can keep my intended actions secret, I might decide not to do them…

There is a difference between hard control, whereby a particular policy makes something impossible, versus soft control, whereby a policy decreases its prevalence, but is obviously not strong enough to prevent the most determined actors. Our political discourse is replete with arguments that denigrate the effectiveness of soft control as useless.


Layman 08.24.13 at 2:44 pm

The Guardian is now reporting that companies like Google have secretly been paid ‘millions’ to cover the cost of complying with NSA’s programs. I imagine it isn’t simply cost; that those companies are profiting on the work. In any event, I wonder how it gets accounted for at Google. Is this the ubiquitous ‘other program revenue’? I’ll never look at that phrase the same way again!


Dr. Hilarius 08.24.13 at 5:25 pm

Omega Centauri@ 20: The FBI and other law enforcement organizations use “interrogation polygraphs.” The actual poly results on paper aren’t as important as the entire process which includes pre and post questioning. Subjects are frightened into confessions (your results don’t support your story, why are you lying to us?) or at least into disclosing new information.

Although polygraphs are generally not admissible in court, some odd exceptions have been carved out. Sex offender evaluations, for example, almost always include polygraphs (the evaluators use them even as they admit to their unreliability, somehow thinking that a lot of unreliable data add up to something meaningful). The poly isn’t admissible but the evaluator is allowed to testify about the results as a basis for his/her expert opinion under Evidence Rule 703. It might occur to some that there is a contradiction between expert testimony and unreliable data. You are not alone, but I have never been able to convince judges on this point. “Counsel, it’s bullshit, but it’s bullshit we have been allowing in court for decades. Objection noted.”


Tom Slee 08.24.13 at 6:43 pm

LOVEINT happened despite the fact that the NSA and other government agencies take significantly more privacy precautions than the Web 2. giants. They wrote their own database (Accumulo) because none of the NoSQL databases in use in Silicon Valley had sufficient permission control; Palantir has made a lot of money from providing auditing along with its data analysis platform.

So if NSA employees still carry out abuses like LOVEINT, what are Facebook and Google employees doing with all that data they have access to?


John Quiggin 08.24.13 at 7:06 pm

An important use of sniffer dogs is as an end-run around the 4th Amendment. The idea is that the dog can be deployed without a warrant or reasonable suspicion, but when it indicates that drugs are present, it supplies the necessary grounds for a search (the Supremes ruled 5-4 (Scalia and Kennedy + the Dems – Breyer) that this was unconstitutional in relation to house searches, but that doesn’t extend to car stops, for example.

In this context, dogs are going to be trained to respond to the cues of their handlers, not to the presence or absence of drugs. The point of the dog is precisely to validate the suspicions that motivated their use.


Bob B 08.24.13 at 7:27 pm



Tim Worstall 08.24.13 at 8:09 pm

“Really Tim? I thought you were quite the fan of the NSA?”

You might want to read that piece you link to again.

“Take a step back for a moment. The purpose of the State, the first job it is tasked with, is the protection of that State from external enemies. This is the first principle of even having a State in the first place: to make sure that the populace is protected from the depredations of the foreigners who would do them harm. So the idea that the spies would be attempting to look at the telecoms data of said foreigners shouldn’t really surprise us. Indeed, this is something we actually want said State to be doing: this is rather the purpose of having both it and the spies it employs.

The matter is entirely different when such a State uses the same methods to look at its own citizens: this is a gross abuse of power and a serious threat to any form of liberty or freedom. ”

Your disagreement with this is what?


Substance McGravitas 08.24.13 at 8:19 pm

That “first principle” is kooky.


Martin Bento 08.24.13 at 8:50 pm

While we’re worrying about Google and the NSA, here’s something to remember. Google was caught hacking into people’s personal networks all over the place when they were taking footage for Google Earth. Some might quibble with the term “hacking” as they may have limited themselves to unsecured networks, but if I gained unauthorized access to an internal Google network, I would have to rehearse my “your honors” regardless of how unsecured the network was. They were summoned before Congress to talk about this and blew Congress off. Just didn’t show. They were fined $25,000. No, I didn’t miss some zeroes. For blowing off Congress into what seemed on its face an investigation into massive criminal activity.

I have long thought that they were doing this at the behest or or in cooperation with the NSA, and that is what gave them effective immunity from Congress. Maybe it’s time to look at this again.


Aundrew 08.24.13 at 8:58 pm

4. *feint* “Should [insert journalist/whistleblower] be arrested for espionage/aiding the enemy/[??]”


Main Street Muse 08.24.13 at 9:01 pm

I really feel we’ve all moved to Oceania.

Or maybe we’ve all fallen into a scene of The Simpsons movie:


lupita 08.24.13 at 9:21 pm

This is the first principle of even having a State in the first place: to make sure that the populace is protected from the depredations of the foreigners who would do them harm.

The matter is entirely different when such a State uses the same methods to look at its own citizens: this is a gross abuse of power and a serious threat to any form of liberty or freedom.

Those two principles together led to the NSA spying on Brits and the GCHQ spying on Americans and then exchanging information. It also led Brazil to unveil plans for new satellites and optic cable lines to bypass the Five Eyes spying machine altogether.


milkshaken 08.24.13 at 9:54 pm

Re sniffer dogs: my ex was driving a yellow Rider van moving our belongings. She was stopped by a bunch of cops who had a drug-sniffing dog with them and were just keen on stopping some cars at random if they looked “suspicious”. So they stopped her for “driving across median”, made her to consent to a search (or they would detain her until they got a search warrant), pushed in the dog and looked for the drugs. The van floor was dirty – someone must have spilled motor oil in there – and the dog did not like it in there but they kept pushing it back and eventually the dog started yapping. To make the story short, my ex had to unpack two boxes of fragile Christmas decorations for the cops to see. I should mention that we never ever smoke anything, or come in contact with drugs. It was quite terrifying experience for her, dealing with bunch of cops with a dog, in the middle of nowhere, and the pigs did not even apologize.


Tom Slee 08.24.13 at 10:00 pm

Martin Bento #29: My first reaction to your idea of Google/NSA cooperation was to think “You’re being paranoid. That can never happen, thanks to our marvellous checks and balances”.


Andrew F. 08.24.13 at 11:43 pm

While the article notes that the abuses were self-reported, it provides the “such as during a polygraph examination” as an example. Given the tiny number of these cases, generalizations are difficult, but it’s likely that some of the self-reporting was simply in anticipation of being discovered. Snowden’s leaks show that the NSA audits many thousands of queries on a continuing basis, and presumably a NSA analyst might be somewhat cognizant that her computer activity could be monitored.

Hidari @20: The portion of the story regarding US reporting of bribes by Airbus paid to Saudi officials may be true. It’s been longstanding policy for the US Government to reveal bribery by foreign companies in foreign nations, in some circumstances; US companies are forbidden from offering bribes under law (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act), and are aggressively investigated and prosecuted in the case of violations. But that doesn’t constitute commercial espionage.

However, the other two claims contained in that Wikipedia section, if true, would certainly constitute commercial espionage. But both the allegations regarding Lernout & Haspie (unsubstantiated by the source cited in the Wikipedia article) and the allegations regarding German wind-turbine technology (the German article quoted cites the suspicions of a German company) are ridiculous. Whether the US Intelligence Community should pass useful information to US companies was certainly debated within the IC during the 1990s. My belief is that the answer was in the negative, and the environment post-9/11 should have only cemented that answer. But, I can’t say it’s ridiculous to wonder whether anyone in the IC is doing that. Outside extraordinary cases (defense technology, perhaps), I’d be angry if anyone were.

As to the suspicion above that the NSA is feeding Goldman information… that’s ridiculous. And I’d expect better returns!

But hey, RUMINT about the NSA is only two inevitable steps from becoming verified fact, right? As long as it’s negative, I presume. That’s what I read somewhere anyway.


Fu Ko 08.25.13 at 12:46 am

“The purpose of the State, the first job it is tasked with, is the protection of that State from external enemies.”

I think you mean “internal enemies.”


ThatGuy 08.25.13 at 12:57 am

Those polygraphs happen only five years unless you’re a fuck up. So plenty of time to stalk your old flames without notice.


crackpot 08.25.13 at 1:22 am

“may I take this opportunity of emphasizing that there is no cannibalism in the British Navy. Absolutely none, and when I say none, I mean there is a certain amount, more than we are prepared to admit, but all new ratings are warned that if they wake up in the morning and find any toothmarks at all anywhere on their bodies, they’re to tell me immediately so that I can immediately take every measure to hush the whole thing up. ”


Peter T 08.25.13 at 3:28 am

Not to defend NSA, but this sort of thing happens wherever you have large databases of personal information, human curiosity (or malice) and a high volume of checking. In, for example, utility companies, courier delivery companies, social security offices, police agencies and so on. You can institute strict rules on access and so on, but they get in the way of the work. A company has billing or delivery address wrong, police receive garbled call, client rings Social Security with minor query and someone checks database. …..The apparent reliance on polygraphs is disturbing. I would be more reassured if the officials had said “some incidence of this is inevitable – we have rules, remind people of them frequently, do random audits and come down really hard on detected offenders.”


marc sobel 08.25.13 at 3:42 am

This post changed my life. Until this day, I never realized what enormous hands Senator Feinstein has.

Also, what about what we have learned about so far would make us thing this is a cast of ex-stalking.

I am sure no analyst had used these database tools to find out information about a woman he or she had wanted to date. That’s a different type of stalking.


RobNYNY1957 08.25.13 at 8:01 am

A lot of French companies still do handwriting analysis. I wonder how that will work out as fewer and fewer people learn cursive.


Belle Waring 08.25.13 at 8:58 am

CIA agents are actually taught how to evade polygraph tests. (IME DEA agents…can evade polygraphs but I’m not sure if this is because someone was taught to do so by the DEA and then put to a polygraph or just because he was taking advance precautions.) But then, after moving to the even darker side of the dark side of the force: training in polygraph evasion! But then sometimes (honest not shitting you) subjected to random polygraphs!!! I can only imagine that the CIA thought, well our agents get captured sometimes, and our enemies may use polygraph tests, we should make sure our guys can evade them if needed–maybe they will pass as whatever bogus identity we have given them. But then someone else thought, “hey, those black hat CIA fuckers could be up to anything, seriously, we have no idea. They could be killin’ people lef’ and right!! Hand over fist! [no shit Sherlock–ed] Let’s institute a precautionary measure of subjecting them to random polygraph testing when they ever come back to lovely Langley, VA. Thus, a veritable Klein bottle of asshole and stupid.


Cranky Observer 08.25.13 at 3:06 pm

Andrew F’s 11:43 just leaves me stunned. Back in the time period when paid counter-bloggers were clearly operating on key liberal sites (2004 being the peak, with a brief resurgence in 2006) I used to wonder if the people doing the semantic analysis and developing the counter-points were actually Republicans/conservatives or if they were just linguistically fluent mercenaries. Still, with a little practice it was easy to spot the eristic logic in the counterbloggers posts and even follow them from one site to another (and then, for the effective ones, into the mainstream media 7-10 days later).

With Andrew F I truly cannot tell. Does he actually not see that his 11:43, taken together with his previous comments on this subject, tracks _exactly_ Mr. Quiggin’s pattern as described in the OP? Does he really believe that everything is OK, the top men are on the case, we poor little naive deluded citizens shouldn’t worry our little heads about the what the rough men are up to, if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to worry about? Did he actually not realize that the 3 steps outlined in the OP describe his behaviour exactly? Is he immune to irony? Or does he know exactly what he is doing: damage control/rearguard action at the level of Erhard Raus? If the latter, one can’t help but admire his ability to maintain absolute deadpan whilst doing so. A deluded man, in either case, but capable.



lupita 08.25.13 at 4:34 pm

This is an interesting new argument, at least I had not read it before.

From the LA Times:

No evidence has emerged in the Snowden leaks indicating that the NSA is intentionally spying on Americans or meddling in domestic politics. The agency’s defenders argue that the disclosures actually prove how hard the NSA works to protect Americans’ privacy.

So if Snowden has not yet revealed a particular wrongdoing, that is evidence that said wrongdoing is not taking place.


Tom Slee 08.25.13 at 4:48 pm

lupita: along the same lines, Information Week argued that “The more you know about NSA’s Accumulo system and graph analysis, the less likely you are to suspect Prism is a privacy-invading fishing expedition… The reason NSA built Accumulo and didn’t go with another open source project, like HBase or Cassandra, is that they needed a platform where they could tag every single piece of data with a security label that dictates how people can access that data and who can access that data”

So that worked out well.


Consumatopia 08.25.13 at 6:41 pm

‘So if Snowden has not yet revealed a particular wrongdoing, that is evidence that said wrongdoing is not taking place.’

From the NSA’s perspective, Snowden himself was engaged in wrongdoing, and the NSA didn’t know about it until Snowden went public. Therefore, if we’ve learned nothing else, we’ve learned that the NSA does a crap job monitoring itself.

We’ve also learned that NSA officials are nonchalant about foreign governments spying on Americans (and expect foreign governments to grant the same indulgence to American spying). Michael Hayden tells us “Any European who wants to go out and rend their garments with regard to international espionage should look first and find out what their own governments are doing,” Which might well be true, but if foreign governments are spying on Americans, isn’t it the job of the NSA to warn Americans and help them avoid that spying? To protect us from foreign enemies? Foreign surveillance of Americans (or vice versa) is certainly not harmless–at risk are trade secrets and the potential for blackmail of political and business leaders. But there are tradeoffs between protecting Americans from foreign surveillance and maintaining America’s own spying/hacking capabilities.


Omega Centauri 08.25.13 at 7:12 pm

Isn’t the spying on foreigners thing kind of a quid pro quo (hope I’m using that correctely?). We tell the Brits/French/… we will do the dirty work you can’t, and tell you of any threats we uncover, and we will expect you to provide us with the same service.


lupita 08.25.13 at 7:45 pm

The core countries can spy on each other all they wish but what about their spying on Latin American countries? Quid pro nihilo? That may be translated as abuse.


Omega Centauri 08.26.13 at 1:56 am

The non-core countries are in the same boat as the ordinary citizens of the core countries, spied on with little recourse.


Duuude maaan 08.26.13 at 6:17 am

Oh come now don’t be so cynical about the NSA and their use of polygraphs some people think they’re wonderful deterents to lying, er eh
NSA Whistleblower Reveals How To Beat a Polygraph Test

Russell Tice, the National Security Agency whistleblower who blew the lid open on warrantless wiretapping conducted by the federal government on U.S. citizens post-9/11, says that he took between 12 and 15 polygraph tests during his nearly 20-year-long government career.
The tests mellowed over time, Tice says, and they may have also gotten easier to beat.
Tice, who is no longer at the NSA, says he, along with those still in contact with at the agency, marvel at how easy it is to beat the lie detector.



heckblazer 08.26.13 at 7:37 am

Hidari @ 20:

Countries engage in espionage if they think it is in the national interest, and even allied countries have divergent interests. For example, despite being close allies countries like Israel and France spy on the US, and I’d be rather surprised if MI6 wasn’t quietly running around Boston in the 80s and 90s. I likewise am not terribly surprised that the US has been spying on Brazil, especially since they have an arms export industry worth keeping tabs on. I don’t find anything in the linked Huffington Post article surprising, and only the sad F/A-18 business looks like something done purely for an American company’s commercial gain.


Hidari 08.26.13 at 8:04 am

” For example, despite being close allies countries like Israel and France spy on the US, and I’d be rather surprised if MI6 wasn’t quietly running around Boston in the 80s and 90s.”

It’s pretty exciting to see Americans (I presume you are American) adopt such a nonchalant tone about people spying on them. ‘Such is life’ would seem to be the approach adopted, or so it would seem.

As I say it’s pretty exciting and indeed a bit of a surprise, as I seem to recall Americans getting terribly terribly anxious about such things back in the day. Indeed, if you will recall, the whole McCarthyite madness was caused by McCarthy claiming that Russians were spying on the US, and the whole (official) raison d’etre of the CIA and other intelligence agencies was allegedly to prevent the Russians and the Chinese spying on ‘us’ . And when Russian spies were caught, by these agencies I don’t recall anyone going ‘hey ho so it goes’, but instead, such people were thrown in jail, sometimes for a very long time (when American spies were caught by the Russians on the other hand, it was all a bit different).

In any case, there is the pesky issue of what is and what is not legal. For example: ‘In the latest claims that will likely further complicate relations between Washington and its allies, Germany’s Der Spiegel, a weekly publication, says documents obtained by former contractor Edward Snowden showed the NSA bugged the United Nations’ New York headquarters. If confirmed, the spying would be illegal because the United States has a long-standing agreement with the United Nations regarding covert operations, notes Deutsche Welle. According to the German weekly, the NSA appears to have been able to access the video conferencing system used at the U.N. headquarters.

And it doesn’t stop there. Der Spiegel says it has seen documents showing how the NSA also spied on European Union diplomats in New York. The U.N.’s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency was also targeted by U.S. spies, according to the Reuters report on the German story. Der Spiegel claims the NSA has eavesdropping programs in more than 80 embassies and consulates across the world. “The surveillance is intensive and well organised and has little or nothing to do with warding off terrorists,” wrote Der Spiegel.” ‘

If these claims are true, this indicates, yet again, evidence of vast and uncontrolled law breaking by US agencies, not to mention that these agencies have been systematically lying to the American people. Now if you are fine with that, then that’s fine. But you should at least have the balls to come out and state openly ‘I approve of law breaking as long as it is done by the rich and powerful’, rather than adopt a faux blase ‘seen it all before’ facade of indifference.


John Quiggin 08.26.13 at 9:49 am

And of course the fact that the NSA broke the law in this case shows exactly how much reliance can be placed on any other legal restrictions on NSA spying.

As regards US tolerance of foreign spies, even Israel doesn’t get a free pass, as Jonathan Pollard, jailed for life, can attest


dsquared 08.26.13 at 9:50 am

But then someone else thought, “hey, those black hat CIA fuckers could be up to anything, seriously, we have no idea. They could be killin’ people lef’ and right!! Hand over fist! [no shit Sherlock–ed] Let’s institute a precautionary measure of subjecting them to random polygraph testing when they ever come back to lovely Langley, VA. Thus, a veritable Klein bottle of asshole and stupid.

This has a fractal dimension to it too, as of course the “How To Fool A Polygraph” training is itself often the most amazing pile of poorly-researched and pseudoscientific bollocks. And of course, how could it be otherwise, since in order to do proper research on how to fool a polygraph, you would need to stipulate the existenace of an at least reasonably consistent and reliable polygraph test to compare it with.


Walt 08.26.13 at 10:14 am

Cranky Observer: He’s got to be paid. I can imagine that if it was my job, and I literally didn’t give a shit about the truth of what I was saying that I would argue like Andrew F. A true believer would express definite positive opinions. Only a professional would argue so bloodlessly.


Andrew F. 08.26.13 at 10:25 am

It’s entirely legal for the United States to conduct espionage within the United Nations HQ, a practice engaged in by every other government capable of it (and one reported on, moreover, w/r/t to various governments, frequently over the decades). Hell, foreign governments use the UN to place intelligence officers within the US (and to spy on one another as well, of course). The United States explicitly attached a reservation to its 1947 agreement with the UN noting that nothing in the 1947 agreement shall be construed as weakening or diminishing, in any way, the right of the United States to safeguard its national security. “Safeguarding national security” includes intelligence activities, as has been the common and recognized practice of nations for centuries.

Either Snowden or Der Spiegel, or both, have once again received some very bad legal advice.

It’s also entirely legal for the United States to collect signals intelligence from foreign embassies, a practice also engaged in by every other government capable of it, and one reported on for decades (probably centuries if we include all forms of intelligence).

Not only does this story reveal NOTHING in the way of illegal activities, but it simply reveals recent specifics of legal US intelligence activities. And while mildly amusing, the portion about the NSA detecting Chinese eavesdropping at the UN, and then eavesdropping on the Chinese eavesdropping to see what the Chinese were interested in listening to, is simply another example of Snowden revealing operational information without any understanding of what methods he may be compromising.

If Snowden wants to continue using the “exposing illegal activity” justification, then he needs to retain competent attorneys with thorough knowledge of US law governing US intelligence activities. At present I can only conclude that he is either being misled by some truly awful advice – the legal equivalent of Ron Paul’s investment advice (buy gold, and only gold) – or he is simply lying about his motivations.

I don’t wish to discount the effects of one’s social contacts being limited entirely to one organization in an alien and siege atmosphere of intense pressure. Snowden’s sense of being uprooted and adrift would surely make him more susceptible to the influence of the group that claims to have been with him 24/7 for months now. Given the past conduct of Wikileaks, this is in itself cause enough for worry. Worse, the Russian Government likely views with favor the interests of Wikileaks in having all of Snowden’s material exposed, and so may be acting to facilitate Snowden’s isolation from all those once close to him.

Snowden may not understand that with each release of material like this – which doesn’t come close to revealing any illegal activity and which indisputably reveals important operational details – it becomes less possible to defend him against espionage charges, and makes treason charges much more plausible. He may not understand that with each step in that direction, he only strengthens the leverage Wikileaks – and the Russian Government – have over his activities, as return to the US to fight legally becomes less and less attractive.

Snowden’s assessment of his own leverage probably presumed that his judgment would remain rational throughout, not subject to the distortions of thought that isolation and social control can bring, and otherwise immune to social and economic context. In one respect, this is a presumption that has much in common with libertarian views of human beings; it’s an error in planning one would expect a libertarian to make. And there is a sorrowful poetry in all this, that the libertarian presumption of atomistic individual freedom might be the flaw in his thinking that led to the erosion of his actual individual freedom.

Cranky, above: Applying the categories of the post would make any allegation of abuse into a truth not yet fully revealed. It’s simply a formulaic way of begging the question – or a recipe for paranoia. William James once attempted to replicate the experience of the paranoid by strolling about the city and forcing himself to imagine that every act, every glance, every spoken word, was somehow maliciously about him. He cut short the experiment after a few hours, when he caught himself musing about whether a horse was looking at him strangely. Follow the categories in the post, and you’ll soon find yourself in Alex Jones territory.


John Quiggin 08.26.13 at 10:34 am

Andrew F, my Nisus word count weighs that 720, which is a full-length op-ed. If you’re not demanding at least $200, you’re a blackleg.


Andrew F. 08.26.13 at 10:37 am

Re: US tolerance of spies and Pollard:

Distinguish between foreign intelligence officers, who when caught are usually under diplomatic cover and are simply expelled from the country, and “agents” i.e. persons who spy on their own governments while being run by – sometimes nominally, often not – a foreign intelligence officer.

Pollard is an example of an agent – he was an American defense analyst being run by Israeli military and intelligence officers. Pollard was arrested, and convicted. His handlers were allowed to leave for Israel; his recruiter was later promoted to brigadier general.


John Quiggin 08.26.13 at 10:37 am

A terminological note. Shouldn’t we call these things “lie detectors” rather than “polygraphs”? Why go along with absurd technobabble to describe a simple piece of magic?


Lacero 08.26.13 at 11:08 am

Well, they don’t detect lies and “polygraph” sounds like 19th century snake oil tech so it fits quite well to me.

Dr Klein’s Trust-o-matic?


Ralph Hitchens 08.26.13 at 3:40 pm

Peter T had a thoughtful comment — insiders exploiting their access for personal reasons is surely common in government organizations beyond the intelligence community — and I further believe that “foreign communications” may be accessed by more NSA personnel than domestic communications, which (if we accept what NSA has told us) have stricter access controls. It’s hardly unexpected that the agency finds out about a lot of this activity through polygraph results; “beating the box” can be done, but is pretty hard, based on my personal experience. Since NSA does not have clandestine agents, I think their people have less exposure to this sort of training.


lupita 08.26.13 at 5:49 pm

Omega Centauri@50

The non-core countries are in the same boat as the ordinary citizens of the core countries, spied on with little recourse.

When a state spies on its citizens, it is an issue of the relationship between state and individuals, one of privacy. When a state spies on another state, it is an issue between states, one of sovereignty.

The outrage in Latin America, voiced by presidents (at the UN), foreign ministers (directed at Kerry when he went to Brazil) and the media, has been towards the US for trampling on both national sovereignty and individual human rights. In the US and UK, (see the editorial in The Guardian “Surveillance and the state: this way the debate goes on” and Snowden’s justifications), the outrage is directed exclusively at violations of individual rights. It cannot be a coincidence that, instead of the concept of sovereignty, there is a hole in the brains of journalists and individuals of precisely the two states that built and control the biggest and most intrusive spying machine in the world.

It seems to me that failing to acknowledge and debate how the NSA revelations impact the sovereignty of foreign states, particularly weaker ones that cannot stand up to the US/UK, and their impact on international relations, is a way for the populations of the US/UK to support American hegemony without having to come out and say it. There is the new social contract in the US/UK: the people support imperialism in exchange for the respect of individual rights.


Layman 08.26.13 at 6:43 pm

lupita @63

“There is the new social contract in the US/UK: the people support imperialism in exchange for the respect of individual rights.”

Judging from polls, this reading gives to much credit, at least to US citizens. It seems they support both imperialism AND abrogation of (some) individual rights; in return for what amount to unenforceable guarantees of safety from the state.


Theophylact 08.26.13 at 6:57 pm

John Quiggin @ #60:

Shouldn’t we call these things “lie detectors” rather than “polygraphs”?

No, unless you’re willing to use scare quotes every time. The point is that they’re not lie detectors; they’re devices for simultaneously recording several different physiological responses. The notion that there’s a direct connection between those responses and truth-telling is the magical aspect.


novakant 08.26.13 at 7:39 pm

Andrew F is descending into self-parody – of course spying on diplomatic missions is illegal, the US has ratified the Vienna Treaty on Diplomatic Relations and it thus has become bound by law to its provisions. It is clearly illegal, not to mention diplomatically unwise and immoral, and the fact that some countries do it anyway is about as relevant as the fact that some people cheat on their taxes.


novakant 08.26.13 at 7:45 pm

And a hearty F@ck You! to all those who say it’s cool to spy on people as long they’re foreigners (or “bad people” – yeah right…) .


Cian 08.26.13 at 8:36 pm

“There is the new social contract in the US/UK: the people support imperialism in exchange for the respect of individual rights.”

Don’t mistake what British newspapers are writing, for what the British public are thinking. They’re not the same thing at all. The Iraq war was very popular with most British newspapers/commentariat.


Ronan(rf) 08.26.13 at 8:40 pm

Afaict a lot of these anti terrorism measures (including the terrorism act) poll pretty well among the UK public.


Random Lurker 08.26.13 at 9:14 pm

@lupita 63
When a state spies on its citizens, it is an issue of the relationship between state and individuals, one of privacy. When a state spies on another state, it is an issue between states, one of sovereignty.
There is the new social contract in the US/UK: the people support imperialism in exchange for the respect of individual rights.

Sovereignty is like individual rights with a navy.
If the navy isn’t big enough to stand USA’s one, then…

Now I agree that european countries are the lapdogs of the USA, and also I agree that historically those countries reaped/still reap a lot of advantages from this, but I don’t think they (we) can really stop being lapdogs: lapdogness developed during the cold war, when europe was the geographic center of the tensions between USA and USSR.
As a consequence, the USA covered western europe with military bases, that means that those european states that hold those bases can’t have a foreign policy that is different from that of the USA; they (we) already forfeited a chunk of sovereignty.
Those countries that do not house bases but are inside the NATO are in pratice in the same situatiuon, of course.


Andrew F. 08.26.13 at 9:16 pm

novakant, I don’t think the Convention prohibits signals intelligence collected from diplomats. I do think it prohibits physical invasion of embassy and consulate premises. That said, the Convention doesn’t cover international organizations such as the UN.

And I also don’t think it’s appropriate to violate a person’s privacy simply because he is not a US citizen. We agree on that much.


John Quiggin 08.26.13 at 9:59 pm

@Theophylact With scare quotes, of course


Hidari 08.26.13 at 10:28 pm

@65 “The point is that they’re not lie detectors”.

But they ARE lie detectors, or, to be more specific, liar detectors.

For example when a guy comes into the room with a polygraph and states ‘with this machine I can tell whether or not you are lying’… I know straight away that he is a liar.* And I wouldn’t have known that without the machine.

A pretty amazing device, when you think about it.

* or possibly an idiot, to be fair.


Tim Wilkinson 08.26.13 at 10:59 pm

Truth diviners?

@JQ – ISTM AF’s comment is not so much an op-ed; more like an open letter to Snowden.


Peter T 08.26.13 at 11:17 pm

Andrew F misses the point (surprise!). Other countries and their citizens don’t care whether US actions can be found legal under US law. They care that the US does not ride rough-shod over their interests, and acts internationally in accord with its agreements. Yes there is grey area, but the US has pushed the boundaries in intelligence collection, in finance, in sanctions against Iran, in the war on terror. My intuition is that the US is not in a strong enough position to withstand the inevitable reactions.


Peter T 08.27.13 at 12:29 am

A lot of this discussion confuses the distinction between intelligence and investigation. Which is understandable, since the US has itself confused the distinction, and police agencies everywhere also do so. The CIA, for instance, collects intelligence, investigates various issues and also acts as an enforcement arm. This is poor design. Intelligence is simply knowing about the world and, since the world is mostly innocent, most of that knowledge will be about innocent people. One main use of this knowledge is to prevent mistakes – to ensure action is taken only where there are strong grounds (so the police do not break into the wrong house, or the air force bomb the baby milk factory). For much the same reasons, any body carrying out a large volume of transactions with the general public will have some “intelligence” capacity. An air courier company delivers tens of millions of parcels each year. Some small percentage are misaddressed or whatever. Someone then tries to find the intended recipient, using both in-house data (all previous parcel recipients) and any available information. That’s intelligence. If you let it get too close to investigation or enforcement, then the feedback will muddy the intelligence and corrupt the investigation.

Laws tend to be written to put boundaries around investigation, and that’s sensible. That is where the major potential for abuse occurs. Intelligence is much harder to set bounds on, because you need to know about the background (the general population) to make sense of the signal, and because you never know who you need to know about. Fishing is the intelligence job.

That is not a remit for indiscriminate collection, still less for active collection against anyone and everyone. There are bounds, which the US seems to have comprehensively overstepped. These are set by agreement rather than law, but that does not make them any less important. Since they are agreements among partners, breaking them is rather more consequential for the relationship than any revelation that the the US has collected against adversaries.


Fu Ko 08.27.13 at 2:52 am

Polygraphs enable a form of interrogation where more is revealed than without them. Obviously it’s not perfect, it doesn’t allow you to see into someone’s innermost soul, but it allows you to detect someone’s emotions even when they’re very good at suppressing their facial expressions and controlling their tone of voice. Making use of that capability is more art than science, but it’s not hocus pocus smoke and mirrors.


Fu Ko 08.27.13 at 2:54 am

…I’ll add that “emotion detectors” would be more descriptive than either “lie detectors” or “polygraphs.”

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