Law of Secrecy

"While all deception requires secrecy, all secrecy is not meant to deceive" - Sissela Bok

Russia Given Back Cuban Listening Post In Exchange For Debt Relief

During a visit to Cuba last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin jointly announced with Cuban leader Raul Castro that it would re-open a Soviet-era listening post on the Caribbean island nation.  In exchange for Russia being permitted to operate the post, roughly $35 billion in outstanding Cuban debt to the former USSR has been forgiven.

This isn’t the first time the two nations have discussed the former satellite state’s debt situation.  In 2013, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev met with Castro to restructure the same debt.  In a foretelling 2013 report, WorldCrunch anticipated the recent headlines:

The terms of the debt restructuring are still unknown, and both sides seem intent on keeping it a secret. But in other cases where Russia has agreed to restructure Soviet-era debt, the deal has involved writing off between 90% and 95% of the debt. So it is unlikely that Cuba will end up owing more than $3 billion. 

It’s not exactly clear yet what the Russian’s intend to do with the physical Lourdes site.  The New York Times reported Wednesday on the history and significance of the Russian surveillance post:

Russia vacated the listening post site at Lourdes, outside Havana, in 2001. At the time, Mr. Putin cited the strapped finances of the post-Soviet Russian government and said the war in Chechnya was a higher priority than maintaining a Cold War relic half a world away.

In its heyday, the Soviet signals intelligence base at Lourdes enabled Moscow to listen in on microwave transmissions of telephone conversations in the southeastern United States, keep an eye on the United States Navy in the Atlantic, monitor the space program at Cape Canaveral and communicate with its spies on American soil. In 1993, when Mr. Castro was chief of the Cuban armed forces, he boasted that Russia obtained 75 percent of its strategic intelligence on the United States through Lourdes.

The facility includes a large array of satellite dishes and antennas spread over about 28 square miles, about 150 miles from the Florida coast. The Kommersant report said that a decade of booming oil revenue meant that Russia could once again afford to operate Lourdes, and that deteriorating relations with the United States prompted a desire to reopen a peephole on a “potential enemy.”

It was not clear what might be left of the equipment at Lourdes, or how useful it would be after 13 years of technological advances and the gravitation of much communications traffic to fiber-optic and satellite links. Even so, Viktor I. Mukharovsky, a retired colonel, said in a telephone interview that the Russian military was “extraordinarily interested” in reactivating the post, which could help it gauge the state of readiness of the American military, among other things.

“It’s no secret that when we left in 2001, we expected to launch a fleet of radio electronic surveillance satellites,” he said. “But we never found the money, and — speaking softly — our satellite surveillance capabilities are still modest.”

I am sure that Putin’s guest, Edward Snowdin, will object to Russia’s use of this post to invade US citizens privacy by listening in on US communications.  Right?  Right?


Airline Industry Trying to Change Ticket Pricing Through Congress

The US domestic airlines industry is lobbying lawmakers heavily as of late to pass legislation that would provide ticket sellers with greater flexibility in the pricing process. 

Under current legislation, every quoted ticket amount must be the final price, including all taxes and fees.  The proposed legislation, the Transparent Airfares Act, would permit airline companies to advertise their tickets for the price that includes only what their company actually receives from the sale, regardless of the fact that there are other parties requiring immediate payment (gov’t, airports, etc.) for the ticket acquisition to be complete.  In support of the proposed legislation, lobbyists raise the transparency argument that Americans should be aware of how much they are being taxed on their purchases.  What this means to the consumer is that any taxes and fees won’t be included in the advertised price and won’t appear until the final steps of the transaction with the seller.  The Washington Post recognized the airlines’ position in their report yesterday:

“With the latest government tax hike going into effect this month, 21 percent of the price of a typical airline ticket will be made up of government-mandated taxes and fees,” says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, which represents domestic airlines. “If the administration gets its way in its proposed budget, that percentage would soar even higher, to 26 percent.”

The Transportation Department’s “full fare” advertising rule, which the new law would undo, requires airlines to “hide” taxes in the price of a ticket, she says. But if the bill passes, it would allow consumers to know how much they’re paying in taxes.

“It will help protect consumers from a government that looks to tax air travelers every time it needs revenue,” Day says.

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Commerce Inspector General Accused of Intimidating Whistleblowers

The Inspector General for the Commerce Department is under the spotlight after he received a harsh letter from an overseeing Congressional Committee yesterday. 

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology reprimanded Commerce IG Todd Zinser for shielding his two senior deputies from accusations that they intimidated and retaliated against department whistleblowers; an exact behavior the office of Inspector General is intended to protect against.  The Washington Post obtained the letter and broke the story today:

Much of the congressional focus on Zinser began as a result of a 2012 investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency in charge of reviewing whistleblower complaints. The office concluded last year that Zinser’s two most trusted deputies — his counsel Wade Green and longtime friend Rick Beitel, the principal assistant inspector general for whistleblower protection — set out to gag two whistleblowers who were trying to leave the office for new jobs in August 2011.

The report said Zinser’s office stalled on giving the two workers an approved release date, while Beitel did hasty performance appraisals of both workers and gave them the lowest possible rating.

The report said Green encouraged both to sign agreements vowing not to discuss their complaints about the office with the news media or Congress. The two workers were told the negative appraisals would not be given to their future employers if they agreed to the non­disclosure deals.

In their letter, the lawmakers say they were shocked to discover that Zinser had failed in his 2007 Senate confirmation process to disclose a 1996 incident at a different agency in which he was found to have retaliated against an office investigator who was making politically embarrassing claims.

Zinser said it was an honest oversight.

“I just never thought of myself as a subject [of the investigation], although maybe I was,” he said.

The committee is also investigating whether Zinser hired certain staffers when they were under a “professional cloud” and had been cited for performance problems. The committee’s letter says that they have information that his decision to hire one female staffer was “based on your personal relationship with her and not on her professional credentials.”

Zinser said there was nothing improper about him hiring a highly qualified manager who was a close personal friend. He said the romantic nature of their relationship predated her coming to work for him.  The lawmakers’ letter indicates that their investigation will continue to grow. It asks Zinser for extensive records from his office, including copies of his personal work journals.

There are so many interesting secrecy/whistleblower aspects to this story (I appreciate my intrepid and fantastic research assistant Nate Bray alerting me to the story!)  It highlights the continued great work done by Carolyn Lerner, the current Special Counsel charged with protecting federal government whistleblowers.  It points out the continued importance of Congressional oversight.  It details the need for multiple layers of whistleblower protection, because sometimes even those charged with protecting them (like IGs) fail.  And, finally, it demonstrates the continued use of gag clauses by the government to cover up misconduct and whistleblower disclosures.


NSA Acknowledges Additional Pre-#Traitriot Snowden Emails in FOIA Response

More questions were raised about Edward Snowden’s assertions that he repeatedly tried to ‘blow the whistle’ via internal NSA communication channels after the NSA issued an official response to a journalist’s June 27th, 2014 Freedom of Information Act request concerning Snowden’s NSA email account for the period between Jan. - May of 2013.  In its response, the U.S. security agency  acknowledged the existence of additional archived emails from Snowden before his mass-data dump, but denied that the emails contained an inquiry from Snowden about the legality of the NSA’s programs. (Recall that in May of this year the NSA released a single email sent from Snowden to his superiors on April 5th, 2013 and may have misled the public to believe that it was his only inquiry as to the validity of the NSA’s surveillance practices; Snowden immediately condemned the NSA’s May email release as a "clearly tailored and incomplete leak today for a political advantage."

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'Snowden Effect': CIA Chief Ordered Out of Berlin and China Attacks iPhone

Despite the irony that famed NSA leaker Edward Snowden is currently working with Russian officials for another year of self-imposed solitude, the global blowbacks of his intelligence leaks, aptly coined the “Snowden Effect,” continue to unveil themselves.  Just over the past few days a top US diplomat has been ordered out of Germany by the host nation’s government and China has labeled the iPhone a threat to its national security.

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Archaic Secrecy Laws Hamper California In Surviving Drought

As the state of California continues to suffer through record-breaking drought conditions and are forced to deal with continuously dwindling water supplies, environmentalists and well drillers alike are calling for the CA state government to abolish secrecy laws that prohibit the public release of integral test-well data.

The Sacramento Bee reported recently on the 1949/1951 state laws that have led to the state’s mismanagement of its water resources: the first law required well drillers to submit ‘drilling reports’ for managing groundwater quality while the second law made those reports unavailable to the public in order to discourage unfair competition amongst well drillers.  As was reported in the article:

By now, the contours of California’s groundwater crisis are familiar: the dried-up wells, sinking farmland, over-tapped aquifers and growing push for more state oversight. But on the edges of that drama is a back story that’s been largely overlooked about groundwater data, government secrecy and scientific opportunities lost.

Groundwater is critical to California. Without it, agriculture collapses, cities shrink, ecosystems die. Yet while our knowledge of rivers and reservoirs is exhaustive, we know far less about water stored inside the earth, including how much can be safely pumped without depleting aquifers and sowing long-term harm.

“Imagine trying to manage a reservoir where you’re not sure what the boundaries of the reservoir are. You’re not sure how much water gets in, how much water gets out, or what the level is,” said Graham Fogg, a professor of hydrogeology at UC Davis.

“Groundwater management is kind of like that,” Fogg said. “You are trying to manage systems that are ill-defined and ill-understood.”

In all other Western states, such records are accessible to whomever wants to see them – from university professors to civil engineers, real estate agents to the media. But in California, well logs are barred from public inspection by a 63-year-old law written to keep data gathered by well-drilling companies from falling into the hands of competitors.

Two legislative efforts in the past three years to make the records more accessible have failed. Opposition remains strong among farmers who fear release of the records could raise questions about who’s pumping how much and where, and invite lawsuits and restrictions on groundwater use that is unregulated in many places. Others worry that disclosing the locations of public supply wells could lead to an act of terrorism.

“I don’t see a real benefit for throwing a lot of that information out for public demand,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization. “Those who are in authority and who have a need to know have access to it now.”

Gov. Jerry Brown disagrees. In 2011, he vetoed a bill that would have expanded well log access to academics and other groundwater professionals because he felt it was still too restrictive.

“The original intent of this bill recognized that wise management and use of groundwater supply requires public disclosure of well logs,” Brown wrote in his veto message. “Unfortunately, as amended, this bill now unduly restricts the use of these reports and imposes severe criminal penalties for disclosure.

“California is the only Western state that does not provide ready access to well reports,” Brown added. “That should be changed.”

Amidst Leaks, Senators Begin USA Freedom Act Debate

The US Senate’s return this week from the Independence Day weekend is the start of what will hopefully be a productive four-week session before their upcoming month-long August recess.  On the docket for the Senate Judiciary Committee is Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy’s version of the USA Freedom Act, a bill which privacy advocates hope will close many of the loopholes opened by eleventh-hour changes in the House of Representatives’ May passage of their version of the bill.

The Senators convene in the midst of more Snowden revelations, with The Intercept releasing a report just yesterday identifying the names of five American Muslims who have allegedly been surveilled by the US government. (My own thoughts on these revelations, FWIW, is that they are incomplete - it is hard to know what to think without knowing on what information the probable cause orders authorizing the surveillance were based.  Additionally, focusing on only 5 people out of almost 7,500 orders seems like cherry-picking.  Finally, it is worth noting that the records relied on in the story all end in 2008, when a new, more rigorous legal structure was put in place - even if there was abuse before then, the pertinent question now is did the statutory changes in 2008 and 2010 fix them?)

Also, Barton Gellman at the Washington Post has been releasing loads of information on the NSA’s Section 702 Program, depicting roughly 90% of the data collected as ‘unintended’ and exposing how regularly American communications get ‘scooped up’ in the program that is supposed to pertain only to foreign nationals living outside the continental United States.

These revelations have ramped up privacy advocates to re-assert their demands from the perceived failures of the House’s version of the intelligence reform bill.  Time reported yesterday on the Senate’s considerations for the bill:

“It’s been one of the core issues lacking in the debate,” said Mark Jaycox, a legislative analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, about the process by which secret warrants can be obtained from the secret court. To get a FISA warrant, the NSA does have to explain to the court who it wants to spy on and why, as well as what they hope to get from the surveillance, but the bar is significantly lower than in a civilian courtroom. “I would call it a Probable Cause Warrant Light,” Jaycox said. “It’s not the high standard of a probabl[e] cause warrant.”

The version of the USA FREEDOM Act that passed in the House in May—which stirred controversy after civil liberties groups dropped support for the watered down legislation in droves—largely eliminated the special advocate position, replacing it instead with an official to consult in case of novel legal situations. The version of the bill championed by Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and under consideration in the Senate Judiciary Committee, includes a special advocate who would permanently represent privacy interests on the court.

The secrecy of proceedings in the highly-classified FISC and the question of declassification has been another major point of contention. “The House-passed version of the bill has enormous loopholes to that requirement,” said ACLU Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani.

Whereas the Senate bill establishes a timeline and a process for making FISC decisions public in redacted form, the House version removed that requirement, allowing the FISC to instead declassify decisions “when practical” and to publish only a summary of their legal reasoning, Guliani said.