It's rare to hear a government official speak in contrite tones; rarer still if that official represents the National Security Agency. Recently, however, Anne Neuberger, a special assistant to former NSA Director Keith Alexander, did just that.
A year of revelations, courtesy of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, prepared the way. Since last June, the world has learned that the agency collects information on almost all U.S. domestic phone calls, spies on Internet activity -- courtesy of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and Facebook -- taps fiber optic cables and other key Internet infrastructure, uses digital dirty tricks to undermine worldwide computer security, breaks its own internal privacy rules, and as Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept revealed earlier this year, is using "complex analysis of electronic surveillance... as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes -- an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people." And that's only the beginning.
In the wake of all of this, Neuberger offered a reply, though you could be excused for not noticing. After all, she took to DefenseNews TV with her mea culpa.
"Above all, NSA feels a sense of responsibility," she told interviewer Vago Muradian. She sounded earnest and everything about her look and gestures suggested penitence. She talked of understanding and appreciating people's "concerns" and skated to the very brink of apology more than once. Was she there to ask for forgiveness? To admit the NSA had violated the public trust? To offer up the first evidence of soul-searching at an agency that has, for years, spied upon the most intimate communications of untold numbers of people?
In a word: no.
She was there, it turned out, not to express regret to the many millions of people around the world who have been touched by the agency's digital tentacles, but as part of a charm offensive aimed at wooing tech companies, whose long-secret cooperation with the NSA has angered their global customers, back into the espionage fold. "We hear the private sector concerns," she said. "We didn't get out as quickly as we could have, following the media leaks... to explain the roles of the companies, the fact that they are compelled to participate by law, the fact that such programs are really common and almost uniform among Western democracies looking to gather data." This was as close as she came to apology for anything.
The NSA had not done right by its industry partners and, claimed Neuberger, whose official title is director of the agency's Commercial Solutions Center, was looking to make amends. The idea was to pave the way for the spy agency and the tech industry to resume their long-running relationship in the digital shadows. "The core concern we hear," she told Muradian in a fog of vagueness, "is companies saying 'we're global businesses, so while we appreciate the protections for U.S. persons, you need to extend those protections.'" The NSA and the U.S. government, she insisted, had " really begun taking big steps to address some of those concerns."
While the National Security Agency may not be engaging in soul-searching, some of the men and women who have been involved in Washington's drone assassination campaigns in distant parts of the world using the fruits of the NSA's electronic surveillance and other technological wizardry are stepping forward to do so in an impressive way, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee reveals in his latest investigation. While the NSA works to smooth things over with the tech industry, others are hoping to draw attention to the grave costs of some of the NSA's activities that Neuberger neglected to mention. Nick Turse
The Three Faces of Drone War
Speaking Truth From the Robotic Heavens
By Pratap Chatterjee
Enemies, innocent victims, and soldiers have always made up the three faces of war. With war growing more distant, with drones capable of performing on the battlefield while their "pilots" remain thousands of miles away, two of those faces have, however, faded into the background in recent years. Today, we are left with just the reassuring "face" of the terrorist enemy, killed clinically by remote control while we go about our lives, apparently without any "collateral damage" or danger to our soldiers. Now, however, that may slowly be changing, bringing the true face of the drone campaigns Washington has pursued since 9/11 into far greater focus.
Imagine if those drone wars going on in Pakistan and Yemen (as well as the United States) had a human face all the time, so that we could understand what it was like to live constantly, in and out of those distant battle zones, with the specter of death. In addition to images of the "al-Qaeda" operatives who the White House wants us to believe are the sole targets of its drone campaigns, we would regularly see photos of innocent victims of drone attacks gathered by human rights groups from their relatives and neighbors. And what about the third group -- the military personnel whose lives revolve around killing fields so far away -- whose stories, in these years of Washington's drone assassination campaigns, we've just about never heard?
After all, soldiers no longer set sail on ships to journey to distant battlefields for months at a time. Instead, every day, thousands of men and women sign onto their computers at desks on military bases in the continental United States and abroad where they spend hours glued to screens watching the daily lives of people often on the other side of the planet. Occasionally, they get an order from Washington to push a button and vaporize their subjects. It sounds just like -- and the comparison has been made often enough -- a video game, which can be switched off at the end of a shift, after which those pilots return home to families and everyday life.
And if you believed what little we normally see of them -- what, that is, the Air Force has let us see (the CIA part of the drone program being off-limits to news reporting) -- that would indeed seem to be the straightforward story of life for our drone warriors. Take Rene Lopez, who in shots of a recent homecoming welcome at Fort Gordon in Georgia appears to be a doting father. Photographed for the local papers on his return from a tour in Afghanistan, the young soldier is seen holding and kissing his infant daughter dressed in a bright pink top. He smiles with delight as the wide-eyed child tries on his military hat.
From an online profile posted to LinkedIn by Lopez last year, we learn that the clean-cut U.S. Army signals intelligence specialist claims to be an actor in the drone war in addition to being a proud parent. To be specific, he says he has been working in the dark arts of hunting and killing "high value targets" using a National Security Agency (NSA) tool known as Gilgamesh.
That tool is named after a ruthless Sumerian king who ruled over Uruk, an ancient city in what is now Iraq. With the help of the massive trove of NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill recently explained that Gilgamesh is the code name for a special device mounted on a Predator drone that can track the mobile phones of individuals without their knowledge by pretending to be a cell phone tower.