DC Mayor Vince Gray, congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and the US Secret Service got into an epistolary shouting match after the Secret Service shut down several blocks of 14th St., NW, downtown DC this week. Gray fired off a letter yesterday, complaining that it made the post-snowstorm commute particularly hellish for drivers trying to travel between the District and Northern Virginia.
The road closure was connected to the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in town for the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention, and staying at the Willard Hotel. Ordinarily, a dignitary like Netanyahu would stay at Blair House, but the White House’s official guest quarters are being renovated.
But to Gray’s consternation, the Secret Service gave the District very little advance warning of the three-day road closure. “I appreciate that important dignitaries visiting the nation’s capital and the White House must be afforded every courtesy and protection available by the United States government and local jurisdictions,” the mayor wrote. “However, I do not understand why the Secret Service insists on dignitaries staying in a hotel that results in significant portions of downtown Washington being paralyzed by traffic.”
Tuesday’s closures caused a torrent of angry phone calls into city agencies. “This was very crippling,” Gray’s spokesman Pedro Ribeiro says of losing access to 14th St. “It’s one of the leading intakes and outtakes between the city and Northern Virginia.”
Secret Service Director Julia Pierson responded promptly, sending a letter back to Gray striking a conciliatory tone. “They’re willing to work with the city,” Ribeiro says of the letter.
But even after Pierson sent her letter, Norton jumped into the ring, slamming the Secret Service for imposing a “unilateral” street closure.
“I was astonished and distressed to learn of the unusually extensive street closures of major downtown thoroughfares for extended periods of time, over a period of three days,” she writes in a statement. “Had the Secret Service consulted with the appropriate city officials, a plan could have been developed that would not have paralyzed the city and region. We are very grown up in this city about the need for closures and protection of highly placed U.S. officials and foreign dignitaries. However, DC is not a fiefdom to be subjected to the dictatorship of the Secret Service or any other federal agency.”
The Federal Communications Commission said today it intends to propose allowing commercial airliners to install equipment making it possible for passengers to make phone calls during flight.
“Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a news release. The FCC will discuss the proposed rule change at its December 12 meeting.
The FCC’s announcement comes just a few weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration came around to the fact that iPads and laptops do not disrupt aviation equipment. But the FAA’s rule change kept in place longstanding restrictions on using cellular signals during flight.
In order to make it possible to use a cell phone during flight, airlines would install equipment that carries wireless signals via satellite from the ground to planes, similar to a system already in place in Europe. The European Commission last week approved allowing air passengers there to make calls during flight.
No one in the ballroom came right out and shouted, “William McRaven for elected office!” but the idea hovered like a thought bubble over the OSS Society’s William J. Donovan Award Dinner Saturday night, where the commander of US Special Operations was honored—including by President Obama—and even sounded himself a bit like a candidate. The annual celebration commemorating the World War II spy agency and predecessor of the CIA—for the intelligence and special operations communities, it’s the prom and the Oscars wrapped in one—is a time for reminiscing and gossiping for both the smooth-skinned, ramrod-spined young operatives and the retired spies and warriors with more medals than hair or teeth. But McRaven, the Navy admiral who oversaw the 2011 Navy SEAL mission that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden and who received the Donovan award, gave this year’s gathering a political edge.
President Obama addressed the audience and the honoree via taped video, his image filling three ceiling-high screens. He called McRaven “one of the finest special operators our nation has ever produced. Few Americans will ever see what you do, but every American is safer because of your service.” Also lauding him in taped messages were two other individuals who were directly involved in the bin Laden mission, former CIA director Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
A third official who was a player in that historic episode, John Brennan, now director of Central Intelligence, relived the experience in his remarks. He said the deliberations to undertake the mission were “difficult and fraught with uncertainty.” He said there was “a key moment in those deliberations when President Obama seemed to move a step closer to his final decision. It was when Adm. McRaven looked at the President and said, ‘Sir, we can get this job done.’ You could hear a pin drop. It was at that time that everyone in that room knew the decision was made and we were going forward.”
McRaven was the last act after at least nine toasts, as many speeches, and several videos (including one of soldiers singing a spoof of At The Hop), a jazz performance, and repeated standing ovations. It probably helped that waiting for each guest at his or her place, was a gin martini with onions, to be raised in a toast to Ernest Hemingway, who famously liberated the Paris Ritz at the same time as the allies liberated Paris. It’s a ritual of the dinner.
If an unauthorized plane or a cruise missile sneaked into Washington airspace, the last line of defense would fall to soldiers under the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, headquartered at an armory at 3111 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The large windowless building has a sign that says AMERICA’S SHIELD, but there’s no perimeter fence and only waist-high Jersey barriers stand at three of its four entrances. The fourth is open to traffic, without even a gate arm to regulate entry.
The reason for the lax security may be that Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard isn’t in DC. It’s in Anderson, South Carolina.
Arrangements for Washington’s air defenses are classified, of course, but according to both published plans and documents I’ve obtained, our protection against rogue attacks has long depended on a shadow world of overlapping commands and jurisdictions that overlay the capital region and extend far beyond it. In the 12 years since American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, the top-level organization responsible for super-emergencies has become more complicated as our national-security apparatus has exploded in size. The Program, as this group is known (short for Program Coordination Division, its name before responsibility shifted from FEMA to the White House), is now a broad interagency network comprising military and civilian functions. One fact about the Program, however, has not changed: There’s no single person who understands it, no one really controls it, and no one is really in charge.
No territory has as many watchers as the area called the National Capital Region (NCR)—originally consisting of the District and the surrounding counties but repeatedly enlarged to cover sensitive sites as far away as Pennsylvania. Fighter jets, on alert 24-7, scramble on the orders of a command center at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, on the Potomac River opposite Reagan National Airport. Bolling reports to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, which in turn answers to the main command in Colorado. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and Park Police helicopters stand ready to intercept “low and slow” movers. Faster-moving threats are the concern of that armory in South Carolina, which oversees antimissile batteries around DC, manned by personnel from North Dakota, Ohio, Florida, and Mississippi who take rotating stints in the NCR.
These lines of command merge at the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region at Fort Mc-Nair, near the Jefferson Memorial, and ultimately report to the Secretary of Defense. On paper, it all seems perfectly prudent and redundant. In an actual attack, though, the various security forces would implement their contingency plans while officials in the Program’s org chart consulted code-red envelopes and attempted to assert control.
In the case of a terrorist act involving, say, weapons of mass destruction, the Program would go into action, directing the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Energy Department, and a host of others, even as the DC government executed its own “homeland security” plan involving hundreds of federal agencies and police departments.
The best analogy for the Program is Wall Street: a collection of institutions whose common interests supposedly allocate resources efficiently. Five years ago, we got to see how Wall Street handled a crisis. How did that work for you?
William Arkin is a national-security expert, a former Army intelligence officer, and the author of more than a dozen books, including his latest, American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
The SUVs and helicopters arrived one by one all morning at Camp David, the presidential retreat hidden deep within the Catoctin Mountains on Maryland’s border, assembling on September 15, 2001, the men who would lead the nation into war. There was President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, General Hugh Shelton, CIA Director George Tenet with the agency’s head of counterterrorism, Cofer Black, and Attorney General John Ashcroft with the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller. Sitting at a large conference table in casual clothes—the President wore a parka—they spent the morning and afternoon plotting the nation’s response to the devastating terrorist attacks and by day’s end settled on a course that would lead the country first into Afghanistan and, later, into Iraq.
Twelve years later, they’re all gone from the government—their war on terror over, their memoirs written, their speaking tours mostly wrapped up, their consulting firms up and running. The George W. Bush presidential library opened this spring in Dallas, and the former president has now taken up painting.
They’re all gone, that is, except one.
Robert Mueller’s war on terror has continued.
On the day of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Mueller, who started as director just a week before 9/11, watched from the seventh-floor windows of the Hoover Building as the new President and the inaugural parade passed below on Pennsylvania Avenue—one of just two senior national security officials, along with Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who carried over from one president to the next. He’s gotten used to the revolving doors around him. In his roughly 4,000 daily terrorism threat briefings—give or take a few hundred—he’s worked with four attorneys general and six CIA directors. Internally, he’s seen five deputy directors and nearly a dozen heads of counterterrorism rotate through.
In 2011, he became the longest-serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover himself—and undoubtedly the most influential since. Later that year, his mandatory ten-year term poised to force him from office, Mueller was considered so vital to national security that Congress at President Obama’s request passed unprecedented special legislation allowing him to extend his term an additional two years. In almost any meeting now, he’s the senior and most experienced voice. “He’s the grownup around the table,” says one senior Justice Department official. “He’s like EF Hutton—when he talks, people listen. He can redirect a whole conversation, because he’s been doing this the longest. Everyone respects him.”
But today, after nearly 4,400 days, Bob Mueller’s war on terror is set to end.
At midnight tonight, he’ll hand over the reins of the nation’s premier domestic law-enforcement agency to newly confirmed FBI director Jim Comey, his longtime friend and onetime companion in the trenches of the war on terror.
Mueller has remade the Bureau from top to bottom, transforming its intelligence capabilities, focusing it on counterterrorism and cybercrime, and growing it internationally in ways Hoover never could have imagined. With little public note, the FBI under Mueller has become the first truly global police force, transforming the domestic agency created to combat interstate crime into one focused increasingly on transnational crime, especially in the arenas of cybercrime and counterterrorism. Whereas Hoover in his lifetime never crossed either the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean, Mueller has become a global diplomat. A world map in the deputy director’s office shows more than 60 locations abroad where FBI agents are now posted, and Bureau leaders talk of its reach “from Indianapolis to Islamabad.” As Mueller says, “The FBI has never faced a more complex threat environment than it does today, whether one considers terrorism, espionage, cyber-based attacks, or traditional crimes.”
Indeed, Mueller’s final year has been especially difficult—perhaps his most challenging since the year after 9/11. In March, he personally fell victim to the rising tide of online identity theft when the details of his life—along with those of celebrities like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Britney Spears, and Donald Trump—were leaked by a Russian hacker website. It was as disruptive to him as it was to anyone else, with Mueller spending evenings and weekends reassembling the mundane details of modern life, changing credit cards and bank accounts, and so forth.
The following month, the Boston Marathon bombing—the first successful terrorist attack on US civilians since 9/11 itself—tested the agency, first with the initial attack, then with the subsequent citywide lockdown and manhunt, then finally with the public questions surrounding whether better investigation in previous years might have stopped the attackers earlier. In the weeks after the bombing, too, in a confusing incident that still remains murky publicly, an FBI agent in Florida shot and killed a Chechen immigrant being interrogated about his connection to the Tsarnaevs.
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A new surveillance regime represents a "sea change" in how the U.S. government tries to monitor terrorists, and implicates untold number of innocent citizens in a vast electronic dragnet, according to an important and intriguing new report in the Wall Street Journal.
The change concerns not what information the government is collecting on you, but how long a particular agency can hold onto it before having to permanently delete the information from its records. According to the Journal, the new rules were put in place after a high-level debate over whether they would allow "unprecedented government surveillance of U.S. citizens."
"The rules now allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice, which barred the agency from storing information about ordinary Americans unless a person was a terror suspect or related to an investigation.
"Now, NCTC can copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited. Data about Americans 'reasonably believed to constitute terrorism information' may be permanently retained."
For a few years now, NCTC analysts and their bosses have complained that they don't have enough time to examine certain kinds of data, because the rules on how long they can hold onto it are set by the agency that gives it to them. There's an important distinction here: The NCTC doesn't actually collect information on its own. It's entirely dependent on the CIA, the FBI, the Homeland Security Department and others to provide it with intelligence reports, visa applications, travel records, and other sources of information. There's a lot of it; usually NCTC analysts get several thousands new pieces of information every day. It is the NCTC's responsibility, by law, to fuse all that information together and provide warnings of future terrorist plots.
The issue chronicled in the Journal article was that the rules for retaining the information weren't uniform. Some agencies allowed NCTC to hang onto their records for several months or years, some as few as 30 days. I'm told that intelligence agencies in particular were concerned about relinquishing control of information that they viewed as hard-won and too precious to share. But officials in other agencies, namely some in the Homeland Security Department, were more inclined to give the NCTC longer-term access. One analyst said recently that the lack of uniformity in the rules was making it harder for the NCTC to do its job.
Supporters of the new rules, which apparently were put in place with no public notice, say it does the NCTC little good to have access to all this material if it can't hold onto it for a considerable period of time, perhaps several years.
The Journal reports that the disagreements over where to draw the lines became so heated that a deputies-level meeting of national security officials was convened in the White House Situation Room in March.
"Not everyone was on board. 'This is a sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public,' Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer of the Department of Homeland Security, argued in the meeting, according to people familiar with the discussions."
Stewart Baker, who was the first assistant secretary for policy at Homeland Security, thinks there was more bureaucratic rivalry at play here than concern over civil liberties. "This is a turf fight dressed up as a privacy dispute," he says, questioning whether allowing NCTC to hang onto information that other government agencies already possess really limits people's privacy any further. "How many Americans would agree with this statement: 'Janet Napolitano [the Homeland Security Secretary] has a record of my flights in and out of the country. I'm fine with that. But if Matt Olsen [the NCTC director] gets those same records, my privacy has been so damaged that it's a sea change.'?"
Having written extensively about terrorism surveillance and the NCTC, I'm not convinced that giving the center more direct, longer-term access to existing information fundamentally undermines privacy any more than the collection of that information in general. But there's a real concern that by putting all that information under one roof, so to speak, the temptation to move beyond NCTC's mandate to track terrorists and start looking for other criminal activity is heightened. The Journal article is clearly driving at that concern, which is apparently shared by the sources who revealed the debate in the first place.
In a blog post, the ACLU's Chris Calabrese distills the essence of the concern here.
Innocent people can be investigated and their data kept for years. It can be shared with foreign governments. All of this in service of not just terrorism investigations but also investigations of future crimes.
It might seem like a distinction without a difference to say that the data in TIA's world would stay where it originated. But it underscores how important, both to a bureaucracy and to privacy protection, it can be to keep some data separate. This feature was deliberately designed by TIA's architect, John Poindexter, to protect both those interests.
Putting aside the rules over who can see what and for how long, there's still the question of whether NCTC can make sense of the flood of information it receives every day. Back in 2009, when the underwear bomber got onto an airplane, it became clear that there was no systematic way for the center to understand the collective significance of, in that case, intelligence reports, immigration records, and flight manifests. But it was also true that even if the center had the technology to do that, it might never spot the bomber among thousands of other passengers it was tracking.
The failed attack exposed critical weaknesses. Leiter says that things have improved somewhat on that score. "[NCTC] certainly has more to do. But it's vastly improved. The tools [for searching and analyzing information] are better."