Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Secret NATO Docs Reveal US & UK Chose Drone Targets Far Less Carefully Than Claimed

A US 'Predator' drone is seen as it flies above Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan. Documents from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that NATO forces conducted dubious targeted killings in Afghanistan. (photo: Kristy Wigglesworth/AP)

Secret NATO Docs Reveal US & UK Chose Drone Targets Far Less Carefully Than Claimed

By Der Spiegel
30 December 14

Combat operations in Afghanistan may be coming to an end, but a look at secret NATO documents reveals that the US and the UK were far less scrupulous in choosing targets for killing than previously believed. Drug dealers were also on the lists.

Death is circling above Helmand Province on the morning of Feb. 7, 2011, in the form of a British Apache combat helicopter named "Ugly 50." Its crew is searching for an Afghan named Mullah Niaz Mohammed. The pilot has orders to kill him.

The Afghan, who has been given the code name "Doody," is a "mid-level commander" in the Taliban, according to a secret NATO list. The document lists enemy combatants the alliance has approved for targeted killings. "Doody" is number 3,673 on the list and NATO has assigned him a priority level of three on a scale of one to four. In other words, he isn't particularly important within the Taliban leadership structure.

The operations center identified "Doody" at 10:17 a.m. But visibility is poor and the helicopter is forced to circle another time. Then the gunner fires a "Hellfire" missile. But he has lost sight of the mullah during the maneuver, and the missile strikes a man and his child instead. The boy is killed instantly and the father is severely wounded. When the pilot realizes that the wrong man has been targeted, he fires 100 rounds at "Doody" with his 30-mm gun, critically injuring the mullah.

The child and his father are two of the many victims of the dirty secret operations that NATO conducted for years in Afghanistan. Their fate is described in secret documents to which SPIEGEL was given access. Some of the documents concerning the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the NSA and GCHQ intelligence services are from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Included is the first known complete list of the Western alliance's "targeted killings" in Afghanistan. The documents show that the deadly missions were not just viewed as a last resort to prevent attacks, but were in fact part of everyday life in the guerilla war in Afghanistan.

The list, which included up to 750 people at times, proves for the first time that NATO didn't just target the Taliban leadership, but also eliminated mid- and lower-level members of the group on a large scale. Some Afghans were only on the list because, as drug dealers, they were allegedly supporting the insurgents.

Rules of War

The 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan comes to an official end this week, but the kill lists raise legal and moral questions that extend far beyond Afghanistan. Can a democracy be allowed to kill its enemies in a targeted manner when the objective is not to prevent an imminent attack? And does the goal of eliminating as many Taliban as possible justify killing innocent bystanders?

Different rules apply in war than in fighting crime in times of peace. But for years the West tied its campaign in Afghanistan to the promise that it was fighting for different values there. A democracy that kills its enemies on the basis of nothing but suspicion squanders its claim to moral superiority, making itself complicit instead. This lesson from Afghanistan also applies to the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen.
The material SPIEGEL was able to review is from 2009 to 2011, and falls within the term of US President Barack Obama, who was inaugurated in January 2009. For Obama, Afghanistan was the "good" war and therefore legitimate -- in contrast to the Iraq war. The president wanted to end the engagement in Iraq as quickly as possible, but in Afghanistan his aim was to win.

Key Documents Cited in Text

US Document from 2009: Including the Drug Trade in the War Against the Taliban

Report about "Operation Doody": The Child of the Neighbor Shot By Accident

The JPEL List in Anonymized Form

Take-Down Operation; U.S. SIGINT Provides Key Support

After Obama assumed office, the US government opted for a new strategy. In June 2009, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates installed Stanley McChrystal, a four-star general who had served in Iraq, as commander of US forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal promoted the aggressive pursuit of the Taliban.

Obama sent 33,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, but their deployment was tied to a demand that military officials provide a binding date for the withdrawal of US forces. At the same time, the president distanced himself from the grand objectives the West had proclaimed when it first marched into Kabul. The United States would not try to make Afghanistan "a perfect place," said Obama. Its new main objective was to fight the insurgency.

'Escalate and Exit'

This marked the beginning of one of the bloodiest phases of the war. Some 2,412 civilians died in Afghanistan in 2009. Two-thirds of them were killed by insurgents and 25 percent by NATO troops and Afghan security forces. The number of operations against the Taliban rose sharply, to between 10 and 15 a night. The operations were based on the lists maintained by the CIA and NATO -- Obama's lists. The White House dubbed the strategy "escalate and exit."

McChrystal's successor, General David Petraeus, documented the strategy in "Field Manual 3-24" on fighting insurgencies, which remains a standard work today. Petraeus outlined three stages in fighting guerilla organizations like the Taliban. The first was a cleansing phase, in which the enemy leadership is weakened. After that, local forces were to regain control of the captured areas. The third phase was focused on reconstruction. Behind closed doors, Petraeus and his staff explained exactly what was meant by "cleansing." German politicians recall something that Michael T. Flynn, the head of ISAF intelligence in Afghanistan, once said during a briefing: "The only good Talib is a dead Talib."

Under Petraeus, a merciless campaign began to hunt down the so-called shadow governors and local supporters aligned with the Islamists. For the Americans, the fact that the operations often ended in killings was seen as a success. In August 2010, Petraeus proudly told diplomats in Kabul that he had noticed a shifting trend. The figures he presented as evidence made some of the ambassadors feel uneasy. At least 365 insurgent commanders, Petraeus explained, had been neutralized in the last three months, for an average of about four killings a day.
The existence of documents relating to the so-called Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL) has only been described in vague terms until now. The missions by US special units are mentioned but not discussed in detail in the US Army Afghanistan war logs published by WikiLeaks in 2010, together with the New York Times, the Guardian and SPIEGEL. The documents that have now become accessible provide, for the first time, a systematic view of the targeted killings. They outline the criteria used to determine who was placed on the list and why.

The case of an Afghan soldier named Hussein, number 3,341 on the list, shows how coldly NATO sometimes treated the lives of suspects. According to the documents, Hussein was suspected of involvement in an attack on ISAF forces in Helmand. A corporal in the Afghan army, he had allegedly deserted and was now on the run, presumably to join the Taliban.

NATO officials placed him on the list in the summer of 2010, as one of 669 individuals at the time. He was given the code name "Rumble" and assigned to priority level 2.

Adding a Name

The NATO soldiers discussed the pros and cons of his killing. "The removal of Hussein will eradicate a rogue ANA SNCO from the ranks and prevent his recruitment into the (insurgency)," the assessment reads. "It will also send a clear message to any other potential 'sleepers'." The killing of Hussein was intended primarily as a symbol of deterrence.

But, the internal assessment continues, a disadvantage of killing the deserter was that any information Hussein might have would be lost.

Adding a name to the list was preceded by a month's-long process, in which evidence was gathered, including bugged phone conversations, reports by informants and photos. In the end, the respective ISAF regional commander decided whether a suspect should be added to the list.

Some of the JPEL candidates were only listed as being under observation or to be taken into custody. According to the current documents, in 2010 NATO even added Atta Mohammed Noor, a governor in northern Afghanistan, to the list. Noor, an ethnic Tajik and former warlord, had become wealthy through smuggling in the turmoil of war, and he was seen as someone who ruthlessly eliminated his enemies. He was listed as number 1,722 on the NATO list and given a priority level of three, but NATO merely collected information about Noor, rather than placing him on the kill list.

When an operation could potentially result in civilian casualties, ISAF headquarters in Kabul had to be involved. "The rule of thumb was that when there was estimated collateral damage of up to 10 civilians, the ISAF commander in Kabul was to decide whether the risk was justifiable," says an ISAF officer who worked with the lists for years. If more potential civilian casualties were anticipated, the decision was left up to the relevant NATO headquarters office. Bodyguards, drivers and male attendants were viewed as enemy combatants, whether or not they actually were. Only women, children and the elderly were treated as civilians.

Even officers who were involved in the program admit that these guidelines were cynical. If a Taliban fighter was repeatedly involved in deadly attacks, a "weighing of interests" was performed. The military officials would then calculate how many human lives could be saved by the "kill," and how many civilians would potentially be killed in an airstrike.

Switching on the Phones

The documents suggest that sometimes locating a mobile phone was all it took to set the military machinery in motion. The search for the Taliban phone signals was "central to the success of operations," states a secret British report from October 2010.

As one document states, Predator drones and Eurofighter jets equipped with sensors were constantly searching for the radio signals from known telephone numbers tied to the Taliban. The hunt began as soon as the mobile phones were switched on.

Britain's GCHQ and the US National Security Agency (NSA) maintained long lists of Afghan and Pakistani mobile phone numbers belonging to Taliban officials. A sophisticated mechanism was activated whenever a number was detected. If there was already a recording of the enemy combatant's voice in the archives, it was used for identification purposes. If the pattern matched, preparations for an operation could begin. The attacks were so devastating for the Taliban that they instructed their fighters to stop using mobile phones.

The document also reveals how vague the basis for deadly operations apparently was. In the voice recognition procedure, it was sufficient if a suspect identified himself by name once during the monitored conversation. Within the next 24 hours, this voice recognition was treated as "positive target identification" and, therefore, as legitimate grounds for an airstrike. This greatly increased the risk of civilian casualties.

Probably one of the most controversial decisions by NATO in Afghanistan is the expansion of these operations to include drug dealers. According to an NSA document, the United Nations estimated that the Taliban was earning $300 million a year through the drug trade. The insurgents, the document continues, "could not be defeated without disrupting the drug trade."

According to the NSA document, in October 2008 the NATO defense ministers made the momentous decision that drug networks would now be "legitimate targets" for ISAF troops. "Narcotics traffickers were added to the Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL) list for the first time," the report reads.

In the opinion of American commanders like Bantz John Craddock, there was no need to prove that drug money was being funneled to the Taliban to declare farmers, couriers and dealers as legitimate targets of NATO strikes.
Targeting the Drug Trade

In early 2009, Craddock, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe at the time, issued an order to expand the targeted killings of Taliban officials to drug producers. This led to heated discussions within NATO. German NATO General Egon Ramms declared the order "illegal" and a violation of international law. The power struggle within NATO finally led to a modification of Craddock's directive: Targets related to the drug production at least had to be investigated as individual cases.

The top-secret dossier could be highly damaging to the German government. For years, German authorities have turned over the mobile phone numbers of German extremists in Afghanistan to the United States. At the same time, the German officials claimed that homing in on mobile phone signals was far too imprecise for targeted killings.
This is apparently an untenable argument. According to the 2010 document, both Eurofighters and drones had "the ability to geolocate a known GSM handset." In other words, active mobile phones could serve as tracking devices for the special units.

In Afghanistan, Germany is a member of the "14 Eyes" intelligence-sharing group. In addition to the Anglo-Saxon countries, the group includes Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Sweden and Norway.
These countries operate their own technical platform in Afghanistan code-named "Center Ice," which is used to monitor and exchange data. According to a 2009 NSA presentation, Center Ice was not just used to share intelligence about mobile phone conversations, but also information about targets.

When contacted, the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, admitted that Center Ice had been used to share mobile phone numbers, but it denied that they were suitable for use in drone target acquisition. Moreover, data was not shared if a given "individual's interests worthy of protection outweighed the general interest in sharing intelligence." In addition, the Germans say they have not supplied any information that could be used to develop profiles for targeted killings since 2005.

Legal Repercussions

This restrictive approach has led to numerous disagreements with the Americans. When Regional Command North, which was run by the German military, wanted to nominate a suspect for the JPEL, a detailed file containing evidence first had to be sent to the Joint Operations Command in Potsdam, outside Berlin, and then to the German Defense Ministry. For the Germans, a target could only be added to the list if the individual had ordered, prepared or participated in attacks. The Germans repeatedly urged their allies to remove suspects from the list. In September 2010, only 11 of the 744 targets were associated with northern Afghanistan, which the Germans controlled. "We Germans ran a stabilization mission, while the Americans conducted a war," says retired General Ramms.

The classified documents could now have legal repercussions. The human rights organization Reprieve is weighing legal action against the British government. Reprieve believes it is especially relevant that the lists include Pakistanis who were located in Pakistan. "The British government has repeatedly stated that it is not pursuing targets in Pakistan and not doing air strikes on Pakistani territory," says Reprieve attorney Jennifer Gibson. The documents, she notes, also show that the "war on terror" was virtually conflated with the "war on drugs." "This is both new and extremely legally troubling," says Gibson.

ISAF, which SPIEGEL presented with a list of the classified documents and asked for comment, does not wish to answer any questions on the subject, for "operational security considerations," says a spokesman, who notes that ISAF missions are conducted in accordance with international law. The US Defense Department defers to ISAF when questioned.

A new chapter begins in Afghanistan next week. A new government has been elected, and the majority of NATO troops have been withdrawn. It is now up to the Afghans to decide what their future will look like. The West has achieved some of its goals. Al-Qaida has been defeated, at least in Afghanistan, and its former leader, Osama bin Laden, is dead. But the Taliban remains undefeated, as it demonstrated with the recent attack on a Pakistani school. It will be impossible to bring peace to Afghanistan without involving the Taliban.

A 2009 CIA study that addresses targeted killings of senior enemy officials worldwide reaches a bitter conclusion. Because of the Taliban's centralized but flexible leadership, as well as its egalitarian tribal structures, the targeted killings were only moderately successful in Afghanistan. "Morover, the Taliban has a high overall ability to replace lost leaders," the study finds.

© 2014 Reader Supported News

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Report of the December 29 Holy Innocents Pentagon Witness/tEN aRRESTED

Report of the December 29 Holy Innocents Pentagon Witness

by Art Laffin

Biblical account

In Matthew's account, magi from the east go to Judea in search of the newborn king of the Jews, having "seen his star in the east". The King, Herod the Great, directs them to Bethlehem, and asks them to let him know who this king is when they find him. They find Jesus and honor him, but an angel tells them not to alert Herod, and they return home by another way.

The Massacre of the Innocents is at Matthew 2:16–18, although the preceding verses form the context:

When the Magi had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Get up, he said, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son." When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."


On December 29, over 50 people from the Atlantic and Southern Life Communities held a nonviolent witness at the Pentagon to commemorate the feast of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents (the actual feast was on Sunday, December 28). The noon-time witness began with a procession in which participants carried banners and signs from Army Navy Drive to the designated "protest" area located near the Pentagon south metro entrance. The lead banner, carried by young adults, read: "Peace To All Children of the Earth." Upon our arrival we encountered a sizeable Pentagon police presence who directed everyone to go into the fenced off designated protest area. Ten did not comply and proceeded farther along the building side of the sidewalk holding a large banner that said "Wage Peace--Practice Nonviolence." I also held a sign which said "Love Your Neighbor Means Don't Bomb, Occupy and Kill Them!" At first, it appeared the ten of us would be stopped. But surprisingly, we were able to move farther down the sidewalk so that we could face the rest of the community who were directly across from us behind the fence in the police designated protest area.

Upon giving a brief explanation about our witness, the police gave the first of several orders for the ten of us to leave the sidewalk or face arrest. The Gospel account of the massacre of the Holy Innocents was then read (see above). This was followed by a Litany remembering all those who have been massacred--past and present- by the Herod's of our world, with a particular focus on those who have been slaughtered by U.S. military forces. We began by recalling that in 1890, on this very day, the 7th Calvary Regiment slaughtered nearly 300 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek. We then enumerated contemporary U.S. massacres and remembered and prayed for all victims of our warmaking empire and all victims of violence. After each prayer the community responded: "God Forgive US!" As we concluded the Litany, the police gave the last warning and began to place the ten under arrest. As the ten of us were being handcuffed we sang the song "A Voice Is Heard In Ramah." The arrested were then taken by police to the Pentagon police processing center, which once upon a time served as a day care center.

Following the arrests, the community witness continued which included an offering of New Year's Resolutions for a nonviolent world--where the triple evils of militarism, racism and poverty are eradicated, where all life, creation and our environment are revered as sacred, where all weapons--from nuclear weapons to killer drones to guns of all sorts are dismantled, and where war is abolished, racial hatred, discrimination and torture ceases, economic justice is established and the human rights of all people are upheld, especially for the poor, the imprisoned and the immigrants. The witness ended with a closing circle and the singing of "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

The ten who were arrested were processed and charged with "Failure to Comply With a Lawful Order." All were released and are scheduled to appear for a March 19 court date at the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, VA.

Here's a link to excellent photos and video taken by our great stealth photographer: See some photos below.

Those Arrested:

Bernadette Rider-O'Neill
Patrick O'Neill
Nancy Gowen
Bill Frankel-Streit
Steve Bush
Steve Woolford
Max Obuscewski
Joan Wages
Kim Williams
Art Laffin

Holy Innocents 2014 Pentagon Witness

View photos

You are invited to view Lin's album. This album has 26 files.

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

US Unable to Counter ISIS Despite Billions Spent on Weapons

Patrick Cockburn recently won the award for Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year. (photo: Democracy Now!)

US Unable to Counter ISIS Despite Billions Spent on Weapons

By Patrick Cockburn, CounterPunch
29 December 14

There is a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass in which Alice meets the White Knight who is wearing full armour and riding a horse off which he keeps falling. Alice expresses curiosity about why he has placed spiked metal anklets on his horse’s legs just above the hoofs. “To guard against the bites of sharks,” he explains, and proudly shows her other ingenious devices attached to himself and his horse.

Alice notices that the knight has a mouse trap fastened to his saddle. “I was wondering what the mouse trap was for,” says Alice. “It isn’t very likely there would be any mice on the horse’s back.” “Not very likely, perhaps,” says the Knight, “but if they do come, I don’t choose to have them running all about.” It’s as well “to be provided for everything”, adds the Knight. As he explains his plans for countering these supposed dangers, he continues to tumble off his horse.

The White Knight’s approach to military procurement is very similar to that of the American and British military establishments. They drain their budgets to purchase vastly expensive equipment to meet threats that may never exist, much like the sharks and mice that menace Alice’s acquaintance. Thus the Pentagon spends $400bn (£257bn) on developing the F-35 fighter (Britain is buying planes at a cost of £100m each) to gain air superiority over Russia and China in the event of a war with either power.

Meanwhile, equipment needed to fight real wars is neglected, even though no answer has been found to old-fashioned weapons such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that caused two-thirds of the US-led coalition’s casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A strange aspect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that there has been so little criticism of the failure of expensively equipped Western armies to defeat lightly armed and self-trained insurgents. This is in sharp contrast to the aftermath of the US Army’s failure to win the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The question is of more than historic interest because the US, UK and other allies are re-entering the wars in Iraq and Syria where they are seeking to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).

Perhaps the military are not being blamed for lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan because the failure there is seen as political, rather than military. There is some truth in this, but it is also true that army commanders have been agile in avoiding responsibility for what went wrong. A senior US diplomat asked me in exasperation in Baghdad five or six years ago: “Whatever happened to the healthy belief the American public had after Vietnam that our generals seldom tell the truth?”

Iraq this year has seen a more grotesque and wide-ranging failure than the inability to cope with IEDs. The Iraqi Army was created and trained by the US at great expense, but this summer it was defeated by a far smaller and less well-armed force of insurgents led by Isis. It was one of the most shameful routs in history, as Iraqi Army commanders abandoned their men, jumped into helicopters and fled. The new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, admits that 50,000 “ghost soldiers” in the Iraqi Army had never existed and their salaries fraudulently diverted into their officers’ pockets.

The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police Service, some 350,000 soldiers and 650,000 police, had been built by the US at a cost of $26bn since 2003, according to the recent report of the US Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction. It is a fascinating document that demands answers to many questions, such as how did $9.4bn get spent on training, staffing and supplying the Iraqi police, though this force is notorious for its corruption and incompetence. Another $3.4bn went on supplying the Iraqi Army with tanks, aircraft, boats, armoured personnel carriers and other equipment, much of which was later captured by Isis. Curiously, Isis was immediately able to find crews for the tanks and artillerymen for the guns without any lengthy and expensive training programmes.

The 3,000 American soldiers President Obama has sent back into Iraq are to start training the remaining 26 brigades of the Iraqi Army all over again, without anybody asking what went wrong between 2003 and 2014. Why is it that Isis recruits can fight effectively after two weeks’ military training and two weeks’ religious instruction, but the Iraqi Army cannot? Maybe the very fact of being foreign-trained delegitimises them in their own eyes and that of their people.

Renewed foreign military intervention in Iraq and Syria is primarily in the form of air strikes of which there have been more than 1,000 since bombing started in Iraq on 8 August. What is striking about these figures is that there have been so few compared to the 48,224 air strikes during the 43 days of bombing against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991. A reason for this is that Isis is a guerrilla force that can be dispersed, so only about 10 per cent of missions flown actually lead to air strikes against targets on the ground.

Only against the Isis forces besieging the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria is the US Air Force able to inflict heavy casualties. It is not clear why Isis continues with a battle where it is most vulnerable to air power, but the probable reason is that it wants to prove it can win another divinely inspired victory, despite heavy air attacks.

In more than 10 years of war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, it is the insurgents and not those in charge of Western military policy and procurement who have developed the most effective cocktail of military tactics and methods of attack suited to local circumstances. These include various types of IEDs supplemented by booby traps that make those few areas reconquered from Isis dangerous for soldiers and uninhabitable for civilians.

IS has turned suicide bombing by individuals or by vehicles packed with explosives into an integral part of their fighting repertoire, enabling them to make devastating use of untrained but fanatical foreign volunteers. Isis deploys well-trained snipers and mortar teams, but its most effective weapon is spreading terror by publicising its atrocities through the internet.

Gruesome though these tactics are, they are much more effective than anything developed by Western armies in these same conflicts. Worse, Western training encourages an appetite on the part of its allies for helicopters, tanks and artillery that only have limited success in Iraqi conditions, although bombing does have an impact in preventing Isis using a good road system for attacks by several hundred fighters in convoys of pick-up trucks and captured Humvees.

While Isis may be suffering more casualties, it is in a position to recruit tens of thousands fighters from the population of at least five or six million that it controls. Six months after the Islamic State was declared, it has not grown smaller. As with the White Knight, the US and its allies are not undertaking the measures necessary to fight their real enemy.

© 2014 Reader Supported News

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

What Makes Nonviolent Movements Explode?

Occupy employed unusually disruptive tactics, to great effect. (photo: David Shankbone)

What Makes Nonviolent Movements Explode?

By Mark Engler and Paul Engler, Moyers & Company
29 December 14

Why are some protests ignored and forgotten while others explode, dominating the news cycle for weeks and becoming touchstones in political life?

For all of those seeking to promote change, this is a critical question. And it was a particularly pressing concern after the financial meltdown of 2008.

In the years following the crash, America entered into its worst economic crisis in three quarters of a century. The unemployment rate reached into double digits, something that had not happened in the lifetimes of more than a third of all Americans. State governments reported record demand for food stamps. And yet, debate in Washington, DC — influenced by the activism of the insurgent tea party — revolved around cutting the budget and trimming social programs. “We were basically having an insane national discussion,” remarked economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

It took an outburst of popular action to change this. And that outburst came in an unexpected form.

By the fall of 2011, three years after the economic downturn had begun, political observers such as Krugman had long wondered when worsening conditions would result in public demonstrations against joblessness and foreclosures. Labor unions and major nonprofit organizations had attempted to build mass movement energy around these very issues. In the fall of 2010, the “One Nation Working Together” march — initiated primarily by the AFL-CIO and the NAACP — drew more than 175,000 people to Washington, DC, with demands to combat runaway inequality. The next year, long-time organizer and charismatic former White House staffer Van Jones launched Rebuild the Dream, a major drive to form a progressive alternative to the tea party.

According to the rules of conventional organizing, these efforts did everything right. They rallied significant resources, they drew on the strength of organizations with robust membership bases, they came up with sophisticated policy demands, and they forged impressive coalitions. And yet, they made little headway. Even their largest mobilizations attracted only modest press attention and quickly faded from popular political memory.

What worked was something different. “A group of people started camping out in Zuccotti Park,” Krugman explained just weeks after Occupy burst into the national consciousness, “and all of a sudden the conversation has changed significantly towards being about the right things.”

“It’s kind of a miracle,” he added.

For those who study the use of strategic nonviolent conflict, the abrupt rise of Occupy Wall Street was certainly impressive, but its emergence was not a product of miraculous, otherworldly intervention. Instead, it was an example of two powerful forces working in tandem: namely, disruption and sacrifice.

The haphazard assembly of activists who came together under the Occupy banner did not follow the time-honored rules of community organizing. But they were willing to risk actions that were highly disruptive, and they put on display a high level of sacrifice among participants. Each of these contributed momentum to their escalating drive, allowing a loose and underfunded collection of protesters to alter the terms of national debate in ways that those with far greater organizational might had been unable to manage.

Time and again, in uprisings that steal the spotlight and shine light on injustices that are otherwise ignored, we see these two elements — disruption and sacrifice — combining in forceful ways. Examining their strange alchemy yields many intriguing lessons.

The power of disruption

The amount of momentum that a movement generates can consistently be linked to the level of disruption its actions cause. The more that a protest directly affects members of the public, and the more it interferes with an adversary’s ability to do business, the more likely it is to draw widespread attention. Snarling traffic, interrupting a public event, shutting down a convention, stopping a construction project, making a scene at the mall, or impeding operations at a factory — all of these reflect varying degrees of disruption.

San Francisco housing organizer Randy Shaw quotes former Washington Post reporter and Berkeley journalism dean Ben Bagdikian, who explains that, in the corporate-driven media, the disenfranchised and their social movements are seldom able to break into the mainstream news cycle at all, and even more rarely on favorable terms. “[S]ince World War I hardly a mainstream American news medium has failed to grant its most favored treatment to corporate life,” Bagdikian writes. Meanwhile, “large classes of people are ignored in the news, are reported as exotic fads, or appear only at their worst — minorities, blue-collar workers, the lower middle class, the poor. They become publicized mainly when they are in spectacular accidents, go on strike, or are arrested.”
As the mention of strikes and arrests suggests, moments of unusual unrest provide opportunities for those without money or influence to break through attitudes of indifference — and to highlight social and political injustices. “Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable,” argued prominent civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin. “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places, so wheels don’t turn.”
A variety of scholars have echoed Rustin’s insight and elaborated on the dynamics of disruption.

For Frances Fox Piven, the eminent sociologist and social movement theorist, “protest movements are significant because they mobilize disruptive power.” Piven has specifically been interested in the type of disruption that occurs when people are willing to “break the rules” of social decorum and step out of conventional roles. In their classic 1977 volume, “Poor People’s Movements,” Piven and co-author Richard Cloward explain, “Factories are shut down when workers walk out or sit down; welfare bureaucracies are thrown into chaos when crowds demand relief; landlords may be bankrupted when tenants refuse to pay rent. In each of these cases, people cease to conform to accustomed institutional roles; they withhold their accustomed cooperation, and by doing so, cause institutional disruptions.”

Piven has forcefully argued that such unrest is the engine of social change. In her 2006 book, “Challenging Authority,” she contends that the “great moments of equalizing reform in American political history” have been responses to periods when disruptive power was most widely deployed.

Gene Sharp, the godfather of the field devoted to studying “civil resistance,” has emphasized similar aspects of noncompliance and disruption. When he devised his now-famous list of “198 methods of nonviolent action,” Sharp divided the tactics into three categories.

The first encompasses methods of “protest and persuasion,” including public assemblies, processions, displays of banners and formal statements by organizations. These make up the bulk of routine protest actions in the United States, and they tend to involve minimal disruption.

Sharp’s other two categories, however, involve increasingly confrontational measures. His second grouping, “methods of noncooperation,” encompasses economic boycotts, student walkouts and workplace strikes. Meanwhile, his third category, “nonviolent intervention,” includes sit-ins, land seizures and civil disobedience.

This last category involves not only a refusal to participate in political or economic structures, but also intent to actively interrupt normal daily activity. Such interventions, Sharp writes, pose a “direct and immediate challenge.” A lunch counter sit-in, after all, is more urgently troublesome for a storeowner than a more removed consumer boycott. And, Sharp contends, since “the disruptive effects of the intervention are harder to withstand for a considerable period of time,” these actions can produce results more swiftly and dramatically than other approaches to nonviolent conflict.

Occupy everywhere

The scenario for confrontation offered by Occupy Wall Street fell into Sharp’s third category, and owing to this, it possessed a different tenor than the marches and rallies that had come before. Because the “One Nation Working Together” march had taken place on a weekend, and because it was viewed as a standard-issue march in Washington, DC — one of several major rallies that took place within just a few months in the nation’s capital — it could be easily overlooked, even through it brought out more than 175,000 people.

In the long run, the breadth of participation in a protest movement matters; but in the short term, a sense of drama and momentum can trump numbers. Occupy Wall Street involved a much smaller number of people, particularly at its beginning. Yet it set out to generate a much greater level of disruption. Activists intended to go to the investment banks in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district and erect an encampment on their doorstep, impeding the daily business of those most responsible for the economic crisis.

Although the police ultimately pushed protesters into a location several blocks from Wall Street itself, the occupation at Zuccotti Park effectively posed a dilemma for those in power. They could allow activists to hold the space indefinitely, permitting a staging ground for continual protests against the area’s financial institutions. Or police could act on behalf of the country’s wealthiest 1 percent and shut down dissent, a move that would perfectly illustrate the protesters’ claims about what American democracy had become. It was a no-win situation for the state.

While authorities pondered these unattractive options, the question of “how long will the occupation hold?” fostered a growing sense of dramatic tension for the public.

The tactic of occupation had other advantages as well. One was that it could be replicated. Somewhat jokingly, a few weeks in to the mobilization, organizers unveiled the slogan “Occupy Everywhere!” Much to their surprise, it actually happened: the disruptive impact of Occupy grew as encampments sprung up in cities throughout the country. They even sprouted internationally, as with Occupy London, which set up shop directly outside of the London Stock Exchange.

As Occupy progressed, protesters staged sit-ins at banks and marches that blocked streets and bridges. By the end of the year, Occupy-related actions had resulted in an estimated 5,500 arrests in dozens of cities, big and small — from Fresno, California, to Mobile, Alabama, from Boston to Anchorage, Alaska, from Colorado Springs to Honolulu.

Such actions propelled Occupy forward. However, like all exercises in disruption, they also posed risks.
While tactics that interrupt business as usual are the most likely to draw attention, this attention is not necessarily positive. Because these actions inconvenience people and create disorder, they risk inviting a negative response — backlash that can reinforce status quo injustices. Therefore, the use of disruption places activists in a precarious position. In crafting scenarios for political conflict, they must carefully cultivate sympathy, working to ensure that observers recognize the legitimacy of their cause. Strategic judgment is needed to maximize the disruption’s transformative potential, while at the same time minimizing backlash from the public.

The use of sacrifice

It is precisely for this reason that disruption pairs well with a second key factor that works as kindling for mass uprisings: personal sacrifice. Movements are primed to flare up when participants demonstrate the seriousness of their commitment. One main way of doing this is through showing a willingness to endure hardship and inconvenience, to face arrest, or even to risk physical harm in dramatizing an injustice.

The ways in which strategies of nonviolent escalation make use of personal sacrifice are often counter-intuitive and commonly misunderstood.

Unlike some forms of moral pacifism, strategic nonviolence does not seek to avoid conflict. On the contrary, it uses methods of unarmed protest to produce highly visible confrontations. Going back to Gandhi’s experiments in mass mobilization, commentators have noted that such nonviolence has little to do with passivity; in fact, it can more accurately be considered as a form of asymmetric warfare.

In “War Without Violence,” an early study of Gandhian strategies published in 1939, Krishnalal Shridharani notes that both war and satyagraha — Gandhi’s approach to nonviolent resistance — recognize suffering as a core source of power. In the case of war, this notion is straightforward: “By inflicting suffering on the enemy, the warriors seek to break the former’s will, to make him surrender, to annihilate him, to destroy him, and with him all opposition,” Shridharani writes. “Suffering thus becomes a source of social power which compels and coerces.”

The main twist with nonviolent action, of course, is that participants do not seek to impose physical suffering, but are willing to face it themselves. “Gandhi’s whole theory is based on the concept of suffering as a source of … social force,” Shridharani explains. “In Satyagraha, it is by inviting suffering from the opponent and not after inflicting suffering upon him that the resultant power is produced. The basic formula is the same, but its application is about-face. It almost amounts to putting the energy in reverse gear.”

Contrary to the stereotype of nonviolent adherents being starry-eyed and naïve, Gandhi was startlingly frank about the potential consequences of this form of political conflict. In his drive for Indian self-rule, he argued, “No country has ever risen without being purified through the fire of suffering.”

There is a strong spiritual component in Gandhi’s explanation of how this works. This aspect of his thinking has historically been appealing to religious-minded interpreters and sometimes off-putting to more secular-minded readers. Gandhi invokes ideas ranging from the Hindu concept of ascetic renunciation, tapasya, to the Christian emphasis on the redemptive suffering of Jesus — pointing to how forms of self-suffering have motivated religious movements for centuries, often with history-shaping consequences.

The modern tradition of civil resistance, which is interested in the strategic use of nonviolent conflict rather than the moral demands of pacifism, has adopted a different emphasis. It has drawn out the more practical side of Gandhi’s thinking. Even those not inclined toward spiritual considerations can find impressive results in the empirical record of protests in which participants have been willing to put their bodies on the line.
Nonviolent actions involving the risk of arrest, reprisal or physical trauma allow those who undertake them to display courage and resolve. When participants must ask themselves how much they are willing to sacrifice for a cause, it clarifies their values and strengthens their commitment. It can become a moment of personal transformation. Within successful social movements, organizers constantly ask members to make sacrifices — to make contributions of time, energy and resources; to risk tension with neighbors or family members who prefer to avoid controversial issues; or even to endanger their livelihood by standing up on the job or coming out as a whistleblower. Nonviolent confrontations often involve making such sacrifices visible, creating scenarios in which those involved can publicly convey their seriousness of purpose.

Personal acts of sacrifice thus have public repercussions. They both draw attention and invite empathy: A bus boycotter willing to walk five miles to work rather than to ride on segregated public transportation; a teacher going on hunger strike against school budget cuts; an environmentalist who commits to sitting in an old-growth tree for weeks to prevent it from being cut down; or an indigenous rights advocate who chains herself to a bulldozer to prevent construction on a sacred site. Gandhi contended that these displays could effectively activate public opinion, serving to “quicken the dead conscience into life” and “make people think and act.” When bystanders see someone in front of them suffering, it is difficult for them to remain detached and uninvolved.
The scene compels them to pick a side.

A common misconception about nonviolent action is that it is necessarily focused on touching the heart of the opponent and leading to a conversion. In fact, the impact of sacrifice can have little to do with changing the views of one’s adversaries — and much more to do with affecting one’s friends. When someone decides to risk their safety or to face arrest, their decision has the effect of mobilizing the communities of people closest to them. During the civil rights movement, the students who organized sit-ins at lunch counters in cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, experienced this phenomenon. They soon found that their parents, their ministers and their classmates — many of whom had previously been reluctant to speak out — were drawn in by their actions.

As the documentary “Eyes on the Prize” explains of the 1960 Nashville protests: “The local black community began to unite behind the students. Black merchants supplied food to those in jail. Homeowners put up property for bail money. Z. Alexander Looby, the city’s leading black lawyer, headed the defense.” Family members were especially galvanized. “Parents worried that arrest records could hurt their children’s future, and they feared for the safety of their children.” In response, they “turned to the power of their own pocketbook,” launching an economic boycott in support of the sit-ins.

A powerful combination

Independently, sacrifice and disruption can each produce forceful results. But together, they form an unusually effective pairing. Sacrifice helps to address two of the great problems of disruptive protest: the risk of backlash and the danger of swift and severe repression. First, by invoking an empathetic response in the public, sacrifice dampens negative reactions and allows for mobilizations to attempt more profound ruptures of business as usual. Second, sacrifice can take the crackdowns that often accompany disruptive protests and turn them into unexpected assets.

Such was the case with Occupy, where sacrifice complemented disruption in critical ways. From the start, protesters signaled an intention to endure significant hardship in order to voice an ongoing objection to Wall Street’s misdeeds. One of the first images associated with the movement, a publicity poster released in advance by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, featured a ballerina atop Wall Street’s infamous charging bull. The dancer posed serenely while police in gas masks amassed in the background. The text of below the bull read simply, “#OccupyWallStreet. September 17th. Bring tent.”

The poster’s suggestion that camping gear would be required for the mobilization — and that police reprisal would be a looming danger — immediately set the action apart from countless other demonstrations, in which participants might show up for an afternoon with a sign, chant for an hour or two in a permitted area, and then call it a day and go home. As Occupy commenced, media and participants alike were drawn to the spectacle of protesters ready to sleep on slabs of concrete in lower Manhattan’s sterile financial district in order to bring populist discontent to the doors of those who presided over the financial crisis.

Interest did not build immediately, however. As MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann noted, “After five straight days of sit-ins, marches and shouting, and some arrests, actual North American newspaper coverage of this — even by those who have thought it farce or failure — has been limited to one blurb in a free newspaper in Manhattan and a column in the Toronto Star.”

It took two further developments to break through the de facto blackout of the protest. Each would involve even greater personal suffering, and each would ignite outrage about police suppression of free speech.
When repression fuels resistance

The first pivotal event occurred on September 24, a hot day that marked the one-week anniversary of the occupation. On that occasion, protesters hiked two-and-a-half miles to Union Square, then turned around to return to Zuccotti. But before they made it back, the NYPD penned in groups of marchers and started to make arrests. In total, 80 people were taken into custody.

The arrests themselves were significant, but the most consequential product of the day’s activity would be a video of a police officer later identified as Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna. The video showed two women who had been penned in to orange police netting standing and talking calmly. Unprovoked, Bologna walks up to them, pulls out a can of pepper spray, and lifts it towards their faces. Then he sprays them at virtually point-blank range. Grainy cell phone footage captured the scene of the women dropping to their knees in pain, crying out in agony and cupping their eyes.

Video of the malicious attack went viral, accumulating over a million views within four days. It became the incident that put Occupy Wall Street on the map nationally, spurring a new flood of articles about the mobilization. Rather than deterring participants wary of facing violence, as one might expect, the video fueled public outrage. It motivated new occupiers to join the assembly in Zuccotti, and it prompted many who lived further away to start encampments in their own cities.

A second important development occurred exactly a week later, at a larger march marking two weeks of occupation. For this procession, protesters made their way toward the Brooklyn Bridge. As they approached, the NYPD directed marchers onto the bridge’s main roadway. There, they promptly surrounded the assembly and methodically arrested some 700 people, binding their wrists with plastic zip-tie cuffs. Several activists on the pedestrian walkway above live-streamed video of the arrests, making the event an Internet sensation even as it was still taking place.

The roundup involved the most arrests by far for Occupy to that date — and represented one of the largest mass arrests in the New York City’s history. Yet, like the previous week’s video, footage of the police action on the Brooklyn Bridge did not dampen dissent. Instead, it conveyed a sense of escalating momentum and attracted fresh participants. Just a few days later, on October 5, Occupy held its largest march yet, bringing out 15,000 people, including delegations from the city’s most prominent labor unions.

The idea that repression can actually help a movement, rather than hurt it, is a notion that stands a conventional understanding of power on its head. And yet, the ability of nonviolent demonstrators to benefit from the zealousness of authorities is a well-studied occurrence within the field of civil resistance. This phenomenon is commonly described as “political jiu-jitsu.”

Dictatorial security states and heavily armed police forces are well prepared to deal with violent outbursts, which conveniently serve to justify heavy-handed repression and legitimate a trend toward militarization. The corporate media is all too willing to play along, with local news stations fixating on acts they perceive as violent and valorizing attempts to restore order. What confounds and destabilizes authorities is a different type of militancy. Gene Sharp writes, “Nonviolent struggle against violent repression creates a special, asymmetrical conflict situation,” in which the use of force by those in power can rebound against them and embolden opposition.

There is a parallel here to the martial art of jiu-jitsu, where practitioners use the momentum of an opponent’s blow to throw him off balance. “Harsh repression against nonviolent resisters may be perceived as unreasonable, distasteful, inhuman, or harmful to… the society,” Sharp explains. Therefore, it turns the public against the attackers, provokes sympathetic onlookers to join the demonstrations, and encourages defections even within those groups that might regularly be opposed to protests.

No greater friend than its enemy

As Occupy progressed, this dynamic continued to fuel the mobilization at critical moments. One highly publicized incident involved demonstrators at the University of California-Davis. On November 18, 2011, police arrived on the Davis campus in full riot gear and began to remove tents that students had erected. A group of perhaps two dozen students sat down along a walkway, linking arms, to try to stop the eviction.

Within minutes, campus police officer John Pike approached with military grade pepper spray and began dousing the students. Video showed Pike casually strolling down the line of protesters, spraying toxic fluid, while those seated on the walkway doubled over and attempted to shield their eyes. Once again, footage of the attack began circulating almost immediately. In the aftermath of the soon-notorious incident, outraged students and faculty called for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. Nationally, the event helped keep Occupy in the headlines — and turned Lt. Pike into an unlikely Internet celebrity. Popular memes on Facebook and Twitter featured Photoshopped images of Pike “casually” pepper spraying everyone from the Mona Lisa, to the Beatles, to the founding fathers.

Occupy is hardly unique as a mobilization that grew stronger as a result of efforts to quash protests. While too many factors are at play in a given protest to ensure that the gains of enduring abuse will be worth the cost, there is a rich history of repression serving as a turning point for movements promoting change.

Certainly this was the case in the push for civil rights in the segregated South. As Rep. Emmanuel Sellers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, remarked in 1966, “There are times when the civil rights movement has no greater friend than its enemy. It is the enemy of civil rights who again and again produces the evidence … that we cannot afford to stand still.” Likewise, Saul Alinsky argued, “A Bull Connor with his police dogs and fire hoses down in Birmingham did more to advance civil rights than the civil rights fighters themselves.”

Alinsky gives the civil rights protesters too little credit, just as Occupy activists often receive slight acknowledgement for what they did right in propelling inequality to the fore of national discussion. The truth is that, despite the demonstrated power of sacrifice and disruption, it is rare that groups risk either in significant measure — and even rarer that the two are combined in thoughtful and creative ways. Yet if we want to predict which movements are most likely to explode in the future, we would do well to seek out those committed to conducting new experiments with this potent and combustible mixture.

© 2014 Reader Supported News

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

How to Read the Senate Report on CIA Torture

How to Read the Senate Report on CIA Torture

Alfred W. McCoy

Sunday, December 21, 2014
History News Network


The recent Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture is arguably the single most important U.S. government document released to date in this still-young 21st century. Yet even with all its richly revealing detail about the CIA’s recourse to torture since 9/11, the report’s impact on the ongoing U.S. debate over impunity is muted by some serious failings. Above all, the committee’s cursory treatment of Washington’s long, contradictory history with torture renders this report, in certain critical areas, superficial.

No matter what its limitations might be, this Senate report is still an historic document that will be debated for months and analyzed for years. At its most visceral level, these 534 pages of dense, disconcerting detail takes us into a Dante-like hell of waterboard vomit, rectal feeding, midnight-dark cells, endless overhead chaining, and crippling cold. With its mix of capricious cruelty and systemic abuse, the CIA’s Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan can now join that long list of iconic cesspits for human suffering—Devils’ Island, Chateau d’If, Con Son Island, Robben Island, and many, many more. But perhaps most importantly, these details have purged that awkward euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” from our polite public lexicon. Now everyone, senator and citizen alike, can just say “torture.”

In its most important contribution, the Senate report sifts through some six million classified documents to rebut the CIA’s claim that torture produced important intelligence. All the agency’s assertions that torture somehow stopped terrorist plots or led us to Osama Bin Laden were false, and sometimes knowingly so. Instead of such spurious claims, CIA director John Brennan has now been forced to admit that any link between torture and actionable intelligence is “unknowable.”

Of equal import, the Senate staffers parsed those millions of CIA documents to shatter the agency’s myth of derring-do infallibility and expose the bumbling mismanagement of its two main missions in the War on Terror: incarceration and intelligence. Every profession has its B-team, every bureaucracy has its bumblers. Instead of sending James Bond, Langley dispatched Mr. Bean and Maxwell Smart—in the persons of psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. In perhaps its single most damning detail, the Senate report revealed that the CIA paid these two Air Force retirees $81 million to create sophisticated “enhanced interrogation techniques” after they had spent their careers doing little more than administering the SERE torture-resistance curriculum—a mundane job tailor-made for the mediocrities of modern psychology (more on this in a moment).

Case of Abu Zubaydah:

For all its many strengths, the Senate report is not without some serious limitations. Mired in detail and muffled by opaque pseudonyms, the committee’s analysis of this rich detail is often cursory or convoluted, obscuring its import for even the most discerning reader. This limitation is most apparent in the report’s close case study of Abu Zubaydah, the high-value detainee whose torture at a Thai black site in 2002 proved seminal, convincing the CIA that its enhanced techniques worked and giving these psychologists control over the agency’s program for the next six years. But, says the Senate report, earlier non-coercive interrogation produced more numerous intelligence reports.

This finding is good as far as it goes, but let’s see what more extensive analysis might extract from this critical section of the Senate’s report. Among the countless thousands of interrogations during the War on Terror, Abu Zubaydah’s has been cited repeatedly by conservatives to defend the CIA’s methods. In memoirs published on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Dick Cheney claimed the CIA’s methods turned this hardened terrorist into a “fount of information” and thus saved “thousands of lives.” But just two week later, Ali Soufan, a former FBI counter-terror agent fluent in Arabic, published his own book claiming he gained “important actionable intelligence” by using empathetic methods to interrogate Abu Zubaydah.

If we juxtapose the many CIA-censored pages of Ali Soufan’s memoir with his earlier, unexpurgated congressional testimony, this interrogation becomes an extraordinary four-stage scientific experiment testing the effectiveness of CIA coercion versus the FBI’s empathy.

Stage One. As soon as Abu Zubaydah was captured in 2002, Ali Soufan flew to Bangkok where he built rapport in Arabic to gain the first intelligence about "the role of KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks." Angered by the FBI's success, CIA director George Tenet pounded the table and dispatched psychologist James Mitchell, who stripped Zubaydah naked and subjected him to "low-level sleep deprivation."

Stage Two. After the CIA’s harsh methods got "no information,” the FBI men resumed their empathic questioning of Abu Zubaydah to learn "the details of Jose Padilla, the so-called 'dirty bomber.'" Then the CIA team took over and moved up the coercive continuum to loud noise, temperature manipulation, and forty-eight hours of sleep deprivation.

Stage Three. But this tough CIA approach again failed, so, for a third time, the FBI men were brought back, using empathetic techniques that produced more details of the Padilla bomb plot.

Stage Four. When the CIA ratcheted up the abuse to confinement that was clearly torture, the FBI ordered Ali Soufan home. With the CIA in sole control, Abu Zubaydah was subjected to weeks of sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation , nudity, and waterboarding but gave no further information. Yet in a stunning bit of illogic, Mitchell claimed this negative result was, in fact, positive since these enhanced techniques showed that the subject had no more secrets to hide. Amazingly, the CIA bought this bit of flim-flam.

Examined closely, the results of this ad hoc experiment were blindingly clear: FBI empathy was effective, while CIA coercion proved consistently counterproductive. But this fundamental yet fragile truth has been obscured by CIA claims of good intelligence from the torture of Abu Zubaydah and by censorship of 181 pages in Ali Soufan’s memoir that reduced his account to a maze of blackened lines that no regular reader can understand.

Unanswered Question:

More broadly, the Senate committee’s report also fails to ask or answer a critical question: If the intelligence yield from torture was so consistently low, why was the CIA so determined to persist in these brutal but unproductive practices for so long? Among the many possibilities the Senate failed to explore is a default bureaucratic response by a security agency flailing about in fear when confronted with an unknown threat. “When feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power,” reported a CIA analysis of the Cold War Kremlin applicable to the post-9/11 White House, “they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures upon the secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times police officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy 'confession,' and brutality may become widespread.”

Moreover, the Senate’s rigorously pseudonymous format strips its report of an element critical to any historical narrative, the actor, thereby rendering much of its text incomprehensible. Understanding the power of narrative, the CIA has given us the Oscar-winning feature film Zero Dark 30 about an heroic female operative whose single-minded pursuit of the facts, through the most brutal of tortures, led the Navy SEALs to Osama Bin Laden. While the CIA has destroyed videotapes of these interrogations and censored Ali Soufan’s critical account, scriptwriter Mark Boal was given liberal access to classified sources.

Instead of a photogenic leading lady, the Senate report offers only opaque snippets about an anonymous female analyst who played a pivotal role in one of the CIA’s biggest blunders—snatching an innocent German national, Khaled el-Masri, and subjecting him to four months of abuse in the Salt Pit prison. That same operative later defended torture by telling the CIA’s own Inspector General that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had extracted the name of terrorist Majid Khan—when, in fact, Khan was already in CIA custody. Hinting at something badly wrong inside the agency, the author of these derelictions was rewarded with a high post in the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center.

By quickly filling in the blanks, journalists have shown us the real story about this operative that the Senate suppressed and Hollywood glorified. This CIA “Torture Queen,” reports Jane Mayer in the December 18 issue of the New Yorker, “dropped the ball when the C.I.A. was given information that might very well have prevented the 9/11 attacks; …gleefully participated in torture sessions afterward; …misinterpreted intelligence in such a way that it sent the C.I.A. on an absurd chase for Al Qaeda sleeper cells in Montana. And then she falsely told congressional overseers that the torture worked.”

After all that, this agent, whom Glenn Greenwald has identified as Alfreda Bikowsky, has now been promoted to a top CIA post and rewarded with a high salary that, says an activist website, recently allowed her to buy a luxury home in Reston, Virginia for $875,000. In short, adding the name and narrative reveals a consistent pattern of CIA incompetence, the corrupting influence of intelligence gleaned from torture, and the agency’s perpetrators as self-aggrandizing incompetents.

Cold War History:

The Senate report’s signal failing is its cursory treatment of the sixty-year history of secrecy that inscribed tolerance for psychological torture into the country’s intelligence community, political culture, and federal laws.

Viewed historically, the current controversy is the product of a deeply contradictory U.S. policy toward torture since the start of the Cold War [1]. Publicly, Washington advocated a strong standard for human rights--manifest in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

Simultaneously and secretly, however, the CIA was developing ingenious new torture techniques in contravention of these same international conventions.

From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led a secret allied research effort to crack the code of human consciousness, a veritable Manhattan project of the mind. While its exotic experiments with LSD led nowhere, CIA-funded behavioral research produced two key findings—sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain—that became central to its new doctrine of psychological torture.

After four years of mind control research for use against the enemy, President Eisenhower ordered, in 1955, that all American soldiers at risk of capture be trained to resist torture. During the Korean War, about thirty captured US airmen were tortured to make false statements, some on Radio Beijing, that America had used biological weapons in North Korea. Consequently, the Air Force flipped these methods from offense to defense to give its pilots so-called SERE training—an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape.

After a decade of mind-control research, in 1963 the CIA codified its findings in a secret handbook, cited in the current Senate report, called the "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation" manual with a new method of psychological torture that was, for the next thirty years, disseminated worldwide and within the U.S. intelligence community.

But as the Cold War wound down, Washington abandoned its torture techniques. After a death in custody, the CIA purged these coercive techniques from its interrogation canon and even concluded they were counterproductive. After decades of training Latin American militaries in torture, the Defense Department, under Secretary Dick Cheney, recalled all copies of extant manuals that detailed these illegal methods.

Twelve years later when the Bush administration opted for torture after 9/11, the sole institutional memory for these psychological methods lay in the military’s SERE training. Under contract with the CIA, the two psychologists, Mitchell and Jessen, reverse-engineered this defensive doctrine to produce the agency’s signature “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Instead of outsourcing torture to allies as Washington had done during the Cold War, Bush’s policies required that CIA agents dirty their own hands with the tortures detailed in the Senate report—both the harsh physical methods (wall slamming, facial grab, stomach slap, rectal feeding), and psychological techniques dating back to the KUBARK manual (sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, shackling for enforced standing).

Legal Protection for Torture:

Not only is the use of psychological torture embedded in the nation’s security agencies, it has been sanctioned by U.S. laws designed to prohibit this abuse. The reason for this contradiction is, once again, found in a troubled history ignored by the Senate report.

When the Cold War came to a close, Washington finally ratified the UN Convention Against Torture that banned the infliction of both psychological and physical pain. On the surface, the United States had apparently resolved the long-standing contradiction between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices.

But when President Clinton sent this UN Convention to Congress for ratification in 1994, he included language drafted six years earlier by the Reagan administration with four detailed diplomatic “reservations” focused on just one word in the treaty’s twenty-six printed pages: “mental.”

Instead of the UN Convention's broad ban on “severe pain or suffering,” these U.S. reservations redefined psychological torture as “prolonged mental harm.” Since “prolonged” was vague (how long is prolonged?) and “harm” was ambiguous (what constitutes harm?), these reservations created enormous loopholes—just like the one Bush lawyers later opened by allowing harm up to “organ failure.”

This language and its loopholes have been repeated, verbatim down to the semicolons, in every U.S. law enacted to comply with the UN Convention—first in Section 2340 of the Federal Code; next in the War Crimes Act of 1996; and most recently in the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

Impunity in America:

As America now concludes a decade-long debate over impunity, the Senate report serves as a powerful corrective to years of CIA disinformation. Since CBS Television released those photos from Abu Ghraib prison back in 2004, the United States has been moving, almost imperceptibly, through a five-step process of impunity over torture quite similar to those experienced earlier by nations such as England, France, or the Philippines.

Step One—Bad Apples. For a year after the Abu Ghraib exposé, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blamed some bad apples by claiming the abuse was "perpetrated “by a small number of U.S. military."

Step Two— National Security. In the months following Obama’s inauguration, Republicans took us deep into the second stage by invoking national security, with Dick Cheney saying repeatedly the CIA's methods "prevented the violent deaths of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people."

Step Three—Unity. In April 2009, President Obama brought us to the third stage of impunity when he visited CIA headquarters and appealed for national unity, saying : "We've made some mistakes," but it’s time to "acknowledge them and then move forward."

Step Four—Exoneration.After the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, neo-conservatives formed an a cappella media chorus to claim, without any factual basis, that torture led us to Bin Laden. Within weeks, Attorney General Eric Holder ended the investigation of alleged CIA abuse without a criminal indictment, exonerating both the interrogators and their superiors.

Step Five—Vindication.Since the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in September 2011, we have entered the fifth, final, and most fraught step toward impunity: vindication before the bar of History. Until now, the CIA’s defenders were winning this political battle—interrogation videos destroyed, books censored, indictments quashed, lawsuits dismissed, imagined intelligence coups celebrated, medals awarded, bonuses paid, and promotions secured.

But with the release of this Senate report and the media’s pursuit of the facts behind its obfuscations, the full story of abuse, fabrication, and dissimulation inside the CIA is finally starting to emerge. Instead of steely guardians willing to break laws, trample treaties, and dedicate their lives in defense of America, this report reveals these perpetrators as mendacious careerists willing to twist any truth to win a promotion or secure a lucrative contract.

Despite its rich fund of hard-won detail, the Senate report has, at best, produced a neutral outcome, a draw in this political contest over impunity. Over the past forty years, there have been a half-dozen similar scandals over torture that have followed a familiar cycle—revelation, momentary sensation, vigorous rebuttal, and then oblivion. Unless we inscribe the lessons from this Senate report deeply into the country’s collective memory, then some future crisis might prompt another recourse to torture that will do even more damage to this country’s moral leadership.

Alfred McCoy is professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of two recent books on this subject—"Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation" [2] (Madison, 2012); and "A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror" [1] (New York, 2006).
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Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Monday, December 29, 2014

New Snowden Documents Reveal the NSA's War on Internet Security and Tools to Protect Yourself

The NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. (photo: DPA/NSA)

New Snowden Documents Reveal the NSA's War on Internet Security and Tools to Protect Yourself

By Der Spiegel

29 December 14

US and British intelligence agencies undertake every effort imaginable to crack all types of encrypted Internet communication. The cloud, it seems, is full of holes. The good news: New Snowden documents show that some forms of encryption still cause problems for the NSA.

When Christmas approaches, the spies of the Five Eyes intelligence services can look forward to a break from the arduous daily work of spying. In addition to their usual job -- attempting to crack encryption all around the world -- they play a game called the "Kryptos Kristmas Kwiz," which involves solving challenging numerical and alphabetical puzzles. The proud winners of the competition are awarded "Kryptos" mugs.

Encryption -- the use of mathematics to protect communications from spying -- is used for electronic transactions of all types, by governments, firms and private users alike. But a look into the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden shows that not all encryption technologies live up to what they promise.

One example is the encryption featured in Skype, a program used by some 300 million users to conduct Internet video chat that is touted as secure. It isn't really. "Sustained Skype collection began in Feb 2011," reads a National Security Agency (NSA) training document from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Less than half a year later, in the fall, the code crackers declared their mission accomplished. Since then, data from Skype has been accessible to the NSA's snoops. Software giant Microsoft, which acquired Skype in 2011, said in a statement: "We will not provide governments with direct or unfettered access to customer data or encryption keys." The NSA had been monitoring Skype even before that, but since February 2011, the service has been under order from the secret US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), to not only supply information to the NSA but also to make itself accessible as a source of data for the agency.

The "sustained Skype collection" is a further step taken by the authority in the arms race between intelligence agencies seeking to deny users of their privacy and those wanting to ensure they are protected. There have also been some victories for privacy, with certain encryption systems proving to be so robust they have been tried and true standards for more than 20 years.

For the NSA, encrypted communication -- or what all other Internet users would call secure communication -- is "a threat". In one internal training document viewed by SPIEGEL, an NSA employee asks: "Did you know that ubiquitous encryption on the Internet is a major threat to NSA's ability to prosecute digital-network intelligence (DNI) traffic or defeat adversary malware?"

The Snowden documents reveal the encryption programs the NSA has succeeded in cracking, but, importantly, also the ones that are still likely to be secure. Although the documents are around two years old, experts consider it unlikely the agency's digital spies have made much progress in cracking these technologies. "Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on," Snowden said in June 2013, after fleeing to Hong Kong.

The digitization of society in the past several decades has been accompanied by the broad deployment of cryptography, which is no longer the exclusive realm of secret agents. Whether a person is conducting online banking, Internet shopping or making a phone call, almost every Internet connection today is encrypted in some way. The entire realm of cloud computing -- that is of outsourcing computing tasks to data centers somewhere else, possibly even on the other side of the globe -- relies heavily on cryptographic security systems. Internet activists even hold crypto parties where they teach people who are interested in communicating securely and privately how to encrypt their data.

German officials suggest "consistent encryption"

In Germany, concern about the need for strong encryption goes right up to the highest levels of the government. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet now communicate using phones incorporating strong encryption. The government has also encouraged members of the German public to take steps to protect their own communication. Michael Hange, the president of the Federal Office for Information Security, has stated: "We suggest cryptography -- that is, consistent encryption."

It's a suggestion unlikely to please some intelligence agencies. After all, the Five Eyes alliance -- the secret services of Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States -- pursue a clear goal: removing the encryption of others on the Internet wherever possible. In 2013, the NSA had a budget of more than $10 billion. According to the US intelligence budget for 2013, the money allocated for the NSA department called Cryptanalysis and Exploitation Services (CES) alone was $34.3 million.

Last year, the Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica reported on the contents of a 2010 presentation on the NSA's BULLRUN decryption program, but left out many specific vulnerabilities. The presentation states that, "for the past decade, NSA has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies," and "vast amounts of encrypted Internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable." Decryption, it turns out, works retroactively - once a system is broken, the agencies can look back in time in their databases and read stuff they could not read before.

The number of Internet users concerned about privacy online has risen dramatically since the first Snowden revelations. But people who consciously use strong end-to-end encryption to protect their data still represent a minority of the Internet-using population. There are a number of reasons for this: Some believe encryption is too complicated to use. Or they think the intelligence agency experts are already so many steps ahead of them that they can crack any encryption program.

Still Safe from the NSA

This isn't true. As one document from the Snowden archive shows, the NSA had been unsuccessful in attempts to decrypt several communications protocols, at least as of 2012. An NSA presentation for a conference that took place that year lists the encryption programs the Americans failed to crack. In the process, the NSA cryptologists divided their targets into five levels corresponding to the degree of the difficulty of the attack and the outcome, ranging from "trivial" to "catastrophic."

Monitoring a document's path through the Internet is classified as "trivial." Recording Facebook chats is considered a "minor" task, while the level of difficulty involved in decrypting emails sent through Moscow-based Internet service provider "" is considered "moderate." Still, all three of those classifications don't appear to pose any significant problems for the NSA.

Things first become troublesome at the fourth level. The presentation states that the NSA encounters "major" problems in its attempts to decrypt messages sent through heavily encrypted email service providers like Zoho or in monitoring users of the Tor network*, which was developed for surfing the web anonymously. Tor, otherwise known as The Onion Router, is free and open source software that allows users to surf the web through a network of more than 6,000 linked volunteer computers. The software automatically encrypts data in a way that ensures that no single computer in the network has all of a user's information. For surveillance experts, it becomes very difficult to trace the whereabouts of a person who visits a particular website or to attack a specific person while they are using Tor to surf the Web.

The NSA also has "major" problems with Truecrypt, a program for encrypting files on computers. Truecrypt's developers stopped their work on the program last May, prompting speculation about pressures from government agencies. A protocol called Off-the-Record (OTR) for encrypting instant messaging in an end-to-end encryption process also seems to cause the NSA major problems. Both are programs whose source code can be viewed, modified, shared and used by anyone. Experts agree it is far more difficult for intelligence agencies to manipulate open source software programs than many of the closed systems developed by companies like Apple and Microsoft. Since anyone can view free and open source software, it becomes difficult to insert secret back doors without it being noticed. Transcripts of intercepted chats using OTR encryption handed over to the intelligence agency by a partner in Prism -- an NSA program that accesses data from at least nine American internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple -- show that the NSA's efforts appear to have been thwarted in these cases: "No decrypt available for this OTR message." This shows that OTR at least sometimes makes communications impossible to read for the NSA.

Things become "catastrophic" for the NSA at level five - when, for example, a subject uses a combination of Tor, another anonymization service, the instant messaging system CSpace and a system for Internet telephony (voice over IP) called ZRTP. This type of combination results in a "near-total loss/lack of insight to target communications, presence," the NSA document states.

ZRTP, which is used to securely encrypt conversations and text chats on mobile phones, is used in free and open source programs like RedPhone and Signal. "It's satisfying to know that the NSA considers encrypted communication from our apps to be truly opaque," says RedPhone developer Moxie Marlinspike.

Too Robust for Fort Meade

Also, the "Z" in ZRTP stands for one of its developers, Phil Zimmermann, the same man who created Pretty Good Privacy, which is still the most common encryption program for emails and documents in use today. PGP is more than 20 years old, but apparently it remains too robust for the NSA spies to crack. "No decrypt available for this PGP encrypted message," a further document viewed by SPIEGEL states of emails the NSA obtained from Yahoo.
Phil Zimmermann wrote PGP in 1991. The American nuclear weapons freeze activist wanted to create an encryption program that would enable him to securely exchange information with other like-minded individuals. His system quickly became very popular among dissidents around the world. Given its use outside the United States, the US government launched an investigation into Zimmermann during the 1990s for allegedly violating the Arms Export Control Act. Prosecutors argued that making encryption software of such complexity available abroad was illegal. Zimmermann responded by publishing the source code as a book, an act that was constitutionally protected as free speech.

PGP continues to be developed and various versions are available today. The most widely used is GNU Privacy Guard (GnuPG), a program developed by German programmer Werner Koch. One document shows that the Five Eyes intelligence services sometimes use PGP themselves. The fact is that hackers obsessed with privacy and the US authorities have a lot more in common than one might initially believe. The Tor Project*, was originally developed with the support of the US Naval Research Laboratory.

Today, NSA spies and their allies do their best to subvert the system their own military helped conceive, as a number of documents show. Tor deanonymization is obviously high on the list of NSA priorities, but the success achieved here seems limited. One GCHQ document from 2011 even mentions trying to decrypt the agencies' own use of Tor -- as a test case.

To a certain extent, the Snowden documents should provide some level of relief to people who thought nothing could stop the NSA in its unquenchable thirst to collect data. It appears secure channels still exist for communication. Nevertheless, the documents also underscore just how far the intelligence agencies already go in their digital surveillance activities.

Internet security comes at various levels -- and the NSA and its allies obviously are able to "exploit" -- i.e. crack -- several of the most widely used ones on a scale that was previously unimaginable.
VPN Security only Virtual

One example is virtual private networks (VPN), which are often used by companies and institutions operating from multiple offices and locations. A VPN theoretically creates a secure tunnel between two points on the Internet. All data is channeled through that tunnel, protected by cryptography. When it comes to the level of privacy offered here, virtual is the right word, too. This is because the NSA operates a large-scale VPN exploitation project to crack large numbers of connections, allowing it to intercept the data exchanged inside the VPN -- including, for example, the Greek government's use of VPNs. The team responsible for the exploitation of those Greek VPN communications consisted of 12 people, according to an NSA document SPIEGEL has seen.

The NSA also targeted SecurityKiss, a VPN service in Ireland. The following fingerprint for Xkeyscore, the agency's powerful spying tool, was reported to be tested and working against the service:
fingerprint('encryption/securitykiss/x509') = $pkcs and ( ($tcp and from_port(443)) or ($udp and (from_port(123) or from_por (5000) or from_port(5353)) ) ) and (not (ip_subnet('' or '' or '' )) ) and 'RSA Generated Server Certificate'c and 'Dublin1'c and 'GL CA'c;

According to an NSA document dating from late 2009, the agency was processing 1,000 requests an hour to decrypt VPN connections. This number was expected to increase to 100,000 per hour by the end of 2011. The aim was for the system to be able to completely process "at least 20 percent" of these requests, meaning the data traffic would have to be decrypted and reinjected. In other words, by the end of 2011, the NSA's plans called for simultaneously surveilling 20,000 supposedly secure VPN communications per hour.

VPN connections can be based on a number of different protocols. The most widely used ones are called Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) and Internet Protocol Security (Ipsec). Both seem to pose few problems for the NSA spies if they really want to crack a connection. Experts have considered PPTP insecure for some time now, but it is still in use in many commercial systems. The authors of one NSA presentation boast of a project called FOURSCORE that stores information including decrypted PPTP VPN metadata.

Using a number of different programs, they claim to have succeeded in penetrating numerous networks. Among those surveilled were the Russian carrier Transaero Airlines, Royal Jordanian Airlines as well as Moscow-based telecommunications firm Mir Telematiki. Another success touted is the NSA's surveillance of the internal communications of diplomats and government officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey.

Ipsec as a protocol seems to create slightly more trouble for the spies. But the NSA has the resources to actively attack routers involved in the communication process to get to the keys to unlock the encryption rather than trying to break it, courtesy of the unit called Tailored Access Operations: "TAO got on the router through which banking traffic of interest flows," it says in one presentation.

Anything But Secure

Even more vulnerable than VPN systems are the supposedly secure connections ordinary Internet users must rely on all the time for Web applications like financial services, e-commerce or accessing webmail accounts. A lay user can recognize these allegedly secure connections by looking at the address bar in his or her Web browser: With these connections, the first letters of the address there are not just http -- for Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- but https. The "s" stands for "secure". The problem is that there isn't really anything secure about them.

The NSA and its allies routinely intercept such connections -- by the millions. According to an NSA document, the agency intended to crack 10 million intercepted https connections a day by late 2012. The intelligence services are particularly interested in the moment when a user types his or her password. By the end of 2012, the system was supposed to be able to "detect the presence of at least 100 password based encryption applications" in each instance some 20,000 times a month.

For its part, Britain's GCHQ collects information about encryption using the TLS and SSL protocols -- the protocols https connections are encrypted with -- in a database called "FLYING PIG." The British spies produce weekly "trends reports" to catalog which services use the most SSL connections and save details about those connections. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Hotmail, Yahoo and Apple's iCloud service top the charts, and the number of catalogued SSL connections for one week is in the many billions -- for the top 40 sites alone.
Hockey sites monitored

Canada's Communications Security Establishment (CSEC) even monitors sites devoted to the country's national pastime: "We have noticed a large increase in chat activity on the hockeytalk sites. This is likely due to the beginning of playoff season," it says in one presentation.

The NSA also has a program with which it claims it can sometimes decrypt the Secure Shell protocol (SSH). This is typically used by systems administrators to log into employees' computers remotely, largely for use in the infrastructure of businesses, core Internet routers and other similarly important systems. The NSA combines the data collected in this manner with other information to leverage access to important systems of interest.
Weakening Cryptographic Standards

But how do the Five-Eyes agencies manage to break all these encryption standards and systems? The short answer is: They use every means available.

One method is consciously weakening the cryptographic standards that are used to implement the respective systems. Documents seen by SPIEGEL show that NSA agents travel to the meetings of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an organization that develops such standards, to gather information but presumably also to influence the discussions there. "New session policy extensions may improve our ability to passively target two sided communications," says a brief write-up of an IETF meeting in San Diego on an NSA-internal Wiki.

This process of weakening encryption standards has been going on for some time. A classification guide, a document that explains how to classify certain types of secret information, labels "the fact that NSA/CSS makes cryptographic modifications to commercial or indigenous cryptographic information security devices or systems in order to make them exploitable" as Top Secret.

Cryptographic systems actively weakened this way or faulty to begin with are then exploited using supercomputers. The NSA maintains a system called Longhaul, an "end-to-end attack orchestration and key recovery service for Data Network Cipher and Data Network Session Cipher traffic." Basically, Longhaul is the place where the NSA looks for ways to break encryption. According to an NSA document, it uses facilities at the Tordella Supercomputer Building at Fort Meade, Maryland, and Oak Ridge Data Center in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It can pass decrypted data to systems such as Turmoil -- a part of the secret network the NSA operates throughout the world, used to siphon off data. The cover term for the development of these capabilities is Valientsurf. A similar program called Gallantwave is meant to "break tunnel and session ciphers."

In other cases, the spies use their infrastructure to steal cryptographic keys from the configuration files found on Internet routers. A repository called Discoroute contains "router configuration data from passive and active collection" one document states. Active here means hacking or otherwise infiltrating computers, passive refers to collecting data flowing through the Internet with secret NSA-operated computers.

An important part of the Five Eyes' efforts to break encryption on the Internet is the gathering of vast amounts of data. For example, they collect so-called SSL handshakes -- that is, the first exchanges between two computers beginning an SSL connection. A combination of metadata about the connections and metadata from the encryption protocols then help to break the keys which in turn allow reading or recording the now decrypted traffic.

If all else fails, the NSA and its allies resort to brute force: They hack their target's computers or Internet routers to get to the secret encryption -- or they intercept computers on the way to their targets, open them and insert spy gear before they even reach their destination, a process they call interdiction.
A Grave Threat to Security

For the NSA, the breaking of encryption methods represents a constant conflict of interest. The agency and its allies do have their own secret encryption methods for internal use. But the NSA is also tasked with providing the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) with "technical guidelines in trusted technology" that may be "used in cost-effective systems for protecting sensitive computer data." In other words: Checking cryptographic systems for their value is part of the NSA's job. One encryption standard the NIST explicitly recommends is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). The standard is used for a large variety of tasks, from encrypting the PIN numbers of banking cards to hard disk encryption for computers.

One NSA document shows that the agency is actively looking for ways to break the very standard it recommends - this section is marked as "Top Secret" (TS): "Electronic codebooks, such as the Advanced Encryption Standard, are both widely used and difficult to attack cryptanalytically. The NSA has only a handful of in-house techniques. The TUNDRA project investigated a potentially new technique -- the Tau statistic -- to determine its usefulness in codebook analysis."

The fact that large amounts of the cryptographic systems that underpin the entire Internet have been intentionally weakened or broken by the NSA and its allies poses a grave threat to the security of everyone who relies on the Internet -- from individuals looking for privacy to institutions and companies relying on cloud computing. Many of these weaknesses can be exploited by anyone who knows about them -- not just the NSA.
Inside the intelligence community, this danger is widely known: According to a 2011 document, 832 individuals at GCHQ alone were briefed into the BULLRUN project, whose goal is a large-scale assault on Internet security.

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