Dilemmas, dilemmas.

America’s involvement in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq has forced Americans to confront all sorts of painful issues. It appears that they have had a hard time reaching a steady conclusion.

America may be the “most powerful nation in the world,” but most Americans don’t want to be part of projecting that power. Ten years ago, two years after the invasion of Iraq, 70 percent of Americans opposed reviving the military draft; 66 percent would attempt to dissuade a daughter from enlisting; 55 percent would attempt to persuade a son not to enlist. On the other hand, 27 percent favored reviving the draft; and 32 percent would encourage a son to enlist.[1]

The means used to wage the war on terror have disturbed Americans. In January 2010, 63 percent of American voters believed that government efforts to combat terrorism were too concerned with protecting the civil rights at the expense of national security.[2] (But the NSA already knew that.)   In early July 2013, 42 percent of Americans had a positive view of Edward Snowden. By mid-July, however, his approval rating had fallen to 36 percent, while 43 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him.[3]

At the end of 2014, 56 percent of Americans believed that torture used by the CIA on captured Al Qaeda members and other suspected terrorists had provided valuable information that helped prevent terrorist attacks. Curiously, only 51 percent of Americans believed that the methods used had been justified. That is, about 5 percent of Americans believed that torture had produced valuable intelligence and still thought it unjustified. Partisan division on this issue matched that on many other issues: 76 percent of Republicans believed the methods were justified compared to 37 percent of Democrats.[4]

In July 2014, just after the dramatic advances made by ISIS in Iraq, 51 percent of Americans laid the crisis at the feet of former President George W. Bush, while 55 percent said that President Barack Obama was doing a poor job of handling the crisis.[5] Even so, a clear majority then opposed intervention, while 39 percent supported it.

In Spring 2015, ISIS outlawed the wearing of “Nike” brand clothing or footwear by its soldiers.[6] In retaliation, the United States began bombing. (The rich man’s IED.) By August 2015, 5,500 American air-strikes against ISIS had killed an estimated 15,000 jihadists. (That’s fewer than three jihadists/air strike. Not exactly cost-efficient, since most of the strikes are launched off carriers in the Arabian Sea.) Moreover, new recruits have filled up the places of many of the dead. Intelligence estimates suggested that ISIS still fielding a force of 20,000 to 30,000 troops.[7] American air-strikes also sought to disrupt, even destroy, the ability of ISIS to pump, transport, and sell oil from wells in Iraq and Syria. Again, the results disappoint. ISIS still earns $50 million a month from covert oil sales.[8]

By mid-August 2015, Americans were having a hard time sorting out the proposed agreement with Iran on nuclear issues. They divided into roughly equal groups between supporters (35 percent), opponents (33 percent), and “don’t know” (32 percent). The divisions within the parties are interesting. While a big block of Democrats (58 percent) support the agreement and a big block of Republicans (60 percent) oppose it, a small share of Democrats (8 percent) oppose it and a small share of Republicans (15 percent) support it. That leaves 34 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans “not sure.”[9]

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 July 2015, p. 19. My best friend from high-school has a son who is an Army Ranger. He has deployed seven times. “Some gave all, most gave none.”

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 29 January 2010, p. 21.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 July 2013, p. 15.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 26 December 2014, p. 17.

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 18 July 2014, p. 15. About half as many (27 percent) blamed President Obama for the crisis.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 16.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 16.

[8] “Noted,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 20.

[9] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 17.

No Strings Attached.

In 1930 the U.S. Army’s Signal Corp created the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS). The tasks of SIS included the interception and cryptanalysis of the radio communications of foreign powers. Over time, SIS evolved into the current National Security Agency (NSA).[1]  It employs something between 30,000 and 40,000 people.[2] That’s more than double the number of people working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).[3]

Several decades of dramatic advance in communications technology has allowed the NSA to extend its reach. When more and more communications began to pass through satellites, the NSA built parabolic dish aerials to snatch the messages out of the ether. When communications shifted to fiber-optic cables, the NSA both tapped the cables and accessed the data hubs of telecommunications companies.

Huge amounts of data flow through these systems, with useful intelligence buried in among the innocuous rest. How does the NSA find the needle in the haystack? It has a program called Echelon that searches the huge mass of collected messages for names, phone numbers, addresses, and even phrases that have been submitted by the intelligence community. Its computers look for patterns of interest to the intelligence community in among all the other patterns that are created by global business and migration.[4]

This powerful tool in the struggles waged in the shadows has raised concern about threats to the privacy of American citizens. Already in the 1970s it was revealed that NSA had files on 75,000 Americans. Well, it wasn’t against the law. Congress then passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Act barred the NSA from collecting data on Americans at home and required approval from a special (secret) court before carrying out foreign interceptions that might involve Americans.

The came 9/11. President George W. Bush signed a (secret) executive order allowing the NSA to engage in wiretapping of Americans who fell under suspicion of being in touch with foreign terrorists. Not even a FISA court warrant was required. Eventually, news did leak out. Instead of the outrage that had accompanied revelation of the NSA surveillance of Americans in the 1970s, however, the shock of 9/11 made Congress confirm the new course. In July 2007, Congress passed a new law that made legalized the work done under the secret executive order.

Much of what we know about the NSA comes from two sources. One is James Bamford, a former intelligence analyst-turned-journalist. He has written a series of books on the agency based on troves of information acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. The other is Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor who published immense amounts of information stolen from NSA computers.[5] Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. But is civil rights or vital intelligence the baby?

[1] Beginning in 1943 the SIS intercepted the radio communications of America’s then-ally, the Soviet Union. The code in which the messages were sent could not be broken, but the messages were archived. Subsequently, code-breakers found a way to read the messages. This led to a hunt for Soviet agents in the United States. The Rosenberg ring were among the agents captured as a result. In 1952, President Harry Truman signed a secret executive order creating the enlarged and empowered NSA.

[2] Once upon a time, being gay or even being suspected of being gay got one discharged from the U.S. government as a security risk. Now, NSA has an LGBT club.

[3] “America’s most secret agency,” The Week, 31 August 2007, p. 9.

[4] For example, cash flows to the Cayman Islands or Indonesians calling home on Friday evenings.

[5] Curiously, both Bamford and Snowden worked in Hawaii. Makes me wonder what goes on in the Haleakala Observatory on Maui.