Commentary Magazine


Topic: NSA intercepts

Not News: The U.S. and Israel Cooperate

On her blog today, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, took issue with her paper’s news judgment. Responding to complaints from readers, she said she disagreed with the paper’s decision not to run a piece following up on a Guardian article alleging that the United States and Israel have shared intelligence that might be derived from intercepts of communications by the National Security Agency. Though I rarely concur with many if not most of the choices made by the Grey Lady’s editors, in this case I think managing editor Dean Baquet was right: the Guardian, which is the main conduit for stories stemming from the leaks of classified U.S. material by Edward Snowden, had hyped a detail gleaned from the stolen material that was neither “significant or surprising.” Though those hostile to Israel (such as Snowden’s journalistic partner Glenn Greenwald) may think this is worth treating as if it were a scandal, the notion that the two allies share data about terrorist suspects or related material is not news. Nor is it anything for anyone who cares about protecting either country from Islamist terrorists to worry about.

While Sullivan apparently thinks anything about the NSA intercepts is newsworthy and may well have succumbed to the cliché about Jews being news, this mini-controversy about what the Times publishes should give us insight into much of the breathless hype about the government’s data mining. Though libertarians, isolationists, and critics of big government have been feeding public paranoia about the NSA, this particular nugget of information tells us just how uncontroversial much of the agency’s activity has been. Just as the intercepts are both legal and a reasonable use of resources, so, too, is the NSA’s sharing of some of material with a country that shares much of its own considerable intelligence resources with the United States. The attempt to render this useful cooperation controversial or, as the Guardian implies, illegal does nothing to protect civil liberties while potentially damaging U.S. national security.

Read More

On her blog today, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, took issue with her paper’s news judgment. Responding to complaints from readers, she said she disagreed with the paper’s decision not to run a piece following up on a Guardian article alleging that the United States and Israel have shared intelligence that might be derived from intercepts of communications by the National Security Agency. Though I rarely concur with many if not most of the choices made by the Grey Lady’s editors, in this case I think managing editor Dean Baquet was right: the Guardian, which is the main conduit for stories stemming from the leaks of classified U.S. material by Edward Snowden, had hyped a detail gleaned from the stolen material that was neither “significant or surprising.” Though those hostile to Israel (such as Snowden’s journalistic partner Glenn Greenwald) may think this is worth treating as if it were a scandal, the notion that the two allies share data about terrorist suspects or related material is not news. Nor is it anything for anyone who cares about protecting either country from Islamist terrorists to worry about.

While Sullivan apparently thinks anything about the NSA intercepts is newsworthy and may well have succumbed to the cliché about Jews being news, this mini-controversy about what the Times publishes should give us insight into much of the breathless hype about the government’s data mining. Though libertarians, isolationists, and critics of big government have been feeding public paranoia about the NSA, this particular nugget of information tells us just how uncontroversial much of the agency’s activity has been. Just as the intercepts are both legal and a reasonable use of resources, so, too, is the NSA’s sharing of some of material with a country that shares much of its own considerable intelligence resources with the United States. The attempt to render this useful cooperation controversial or, as the Guardian implies, illegal does nothing to protect civil liberties while potentially damaging U.S. national security.

The Guardian’s attempt to blow this detail about Israel into a major aspect of the NSA falls flat. The lede of the piece centers on the fact that some of what is shared with Israel is “raw intelligence” without “sifting it to remove information about U.S. citizens.” The implication is that the NSA is not only wrongly spying on American citizens but that it is facilitating Israel’s efforts to do the same thing. It then goes on to repeat gossip about Israel spying on the U.S. government and attempts to imply that the relationship between the two countries is lopsided in favor of the Jewish state even if it acknowledges further down that many allies, including the U.S., spy on each other.

First, it is far from clear that any sharing of intelligence data with Israel is illegal or even violates government guidelines. As even the article notes, anything shared with Israel is done under strict rules that prevent any targeting of U.S. individuals and limits use of the information.

Moreover, while there is some understandable concern about the broad-based nature of the NSA intercepts that could occasionally cause them to scrutinize material that is not pertinent to their mission, this story illustrates just the opposite of what most people were worried about. After all, the U.S. is not handing over billions of files but rather individual cases that clearly merit a closer look. Anyone whose “privacy” is intruded upon in such cases is not a random average citizen but most likely someone with clear connections to suspicious if not dangerous foreign contacts. Giving the Israelis a closer look at such information merely enhances the ability of the U.S. to defend our homeland and is not merely a gift to Jerusalem.

While in the anti-Zionist universe in which the Guardian operates any kind of cooperation with Israel is suspect, even the editors of the Times know that the intelligence agencies of the two countries have worked closely together to fight terrorism for many years. Israel has long punched far above its weight in terms of the strategic assistance it gives the United States. While Israel cannot compete with the vast technological resources that the U.S. can bring to bear on the problem, its Mossad is renowned for its skill in ferreting out information about Arab and Muslim radicals. It is obviously in the best interests of the West that the two cooperate, and that is exactly what they should be doing. 

As for any of this being such a big secret, as anyone who paid attention to the presidential campaign last year knows, President Obama and his surrogates spent a disproportionate amount of time bragging about how much he had improved security cooperation between the two countries.

As for the talk about spying, again none of this is new or surprising. All countries, even allies, spy on each other and that includes U.S. spooks that do what they can to learn all of Israel’s secrets.

At the heart of the outrage about the Snowden leaks is a belief on the part of some, especially Greenwald and the Guardian, that there is something inherently wrong with the work of the NSA in fighting Islamist terror. Those who wish to criminalize legal activity that is aimed at enemies of the United States speak of civil liberties being violated, but their main agenda might well be termed counter-counter-terrorism. If that effort dovetails with the anti-Israel agenda of others on the left or the far right, that suits them just fine. But if they succeed, it will be the safety of Americans that will suffer.

The U.S.-Israel alliance is based on common values but also on an understanding that they share common enemies as well. That the Times sees nothing remarkable in this shows that for all of their demonstrated anti-Israel bias, they are still light years removed from the hardened anti-Zionist prejudice that is business as usual at the Guardian and other British papers.

Read Less

Scandals? Yes. Conspiracy Theories? No.

After the last couple of months of scandals, it’s hard to blame Americans who wonder exactly how far our cynicism about big government should go. With the Internal Revenue Service discriminating against conservatives and Tea Party groups, the Justice Department spying on journalists and unanswered questions still lingering about the Benghazi terror attack and the lies the Obama administration told about it, the government’s credibility has nose-dived along with trust in our institutions. These cases deserve to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Congress, and those who seek to minimize or rationalize the outrageous behavior we’ve learned about are sacrificing their own reputations for what appears to be partisan motivations. But even in this season of scandal, it’s necessary for thinking citizens to resist the temptation to believe every conspiracy theory that comes down the block or to impute the most evil motives to the government in every possible circumstance.

Understanding the difference between legitimate government scandals and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories is not always easy. That’s why so many Americans are assuming the worst about the National Security Agency’s accumulation of data about everyone’s phone calls. That’s especially true since many conservatives—most of whom were fierce defenders of the equally broad though perhaps not quite so transparent information gathering conducted by the Bush administration—have good reason not to trust the Obama administration. Yet that doesn’t relieve them of the obligation to assess the revelations of leaker Edward Snowden by the same criteria they did Bush’s actions. The same is true when we look at the latest conspiracy theory to float up to the top of the news cycle: the allegations in a new documentary that the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that killed 230 people was no accident but rather the result of some external explosion that was subsequently covered up by the government. In both these cases, we do well to look closely at the charges of conspiracy but should not buy into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories just because we’re in a doubting mood about the government and the people who run it.

Read More

After the last couple of months of scandals, it’s hard to blame Americans who wonder exactly how far our cynicism about big government should go. With the Internal Revenue Service discriminating against conservatives and Tea Party groups, the Justice Department spying on journalists and unanswered questions still lingering about the Benghazi terror attack and the lies the Obama administration told about it, the government’s credibility has nose-dived along with trust in our institutions. These cases deserve to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Congress, and those who seek to minimize or rationalize the outrageous behavior we’ve learned about are sacrificing their own reputations for what appears to be partisan motivations. But even in this season of scandal, it’s necessary for thinking citizens to resist the temptation to believe every conspiracy theory that comes down the block or to impute the most evil motives to the government in every possible circumstance.

Understanding the difference between legitimate government scandals and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories is not always easy. That’s why so many Americans are assuming the worst about the National Security Agency’s accumulation of data about everyone’s phone calls. That’s especially true since many conservatives—most of whom were fierce defenders of the equally broad though perhaps not quite so transparent information gathering conducted by the Bush administration—have good reason not to trust the Obama administration. Yet that doesn’t relieve them of the obligation to assess the revelations of leaker Edward Snowden by the same criteria they did Bush’s actions. The same is true when we look at the latest conspiracy theory to float up to the top of the news cycle: the allegations in a new documentary that the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that killed 230 people was no accident but rather the result of some external explosion that was subsequently covered up by the government. In both these cases, we do well to look closely at the charges of conspiracy but should not buy into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories just because we’re in a doubting mood about the government and the people who run it.

The NSA intercepts sound ominous. But the closer one looks at the metadata collection, the harder it is to lump it together with the other scandals that have seized our attention this spring. The information obtained by the government is far reaching, but it is clearly intended as a way to monitor phone calls by known terrorist targets to people in the United States. Put simply, unless you’re getting calls from al-Qaeda operatives, the government won’t be tapping your phone or seeking to listen to your calls or read your emails. Given that Congress and the FISA court supervised the project it isn’t possible to argue that it was used to target political enemies of the administration or to unreasonably intrude upon the lives of ordinary Americans. Moreover, given the testimony from security officials about the way it helped stop more than 50 terror plots on the United States, it’s also difficult to argue that it was an extraneous fishing expedition which did not save lives.

One can, of course, dismiss those accounts of foiled plots, but unless you are willing to believe that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are really as dead as President Obama was fraudulently claiming during his re-election campaign, it is reasonable to assume that such plots did happen and—unlike the Boston Marathon bombers who slipped through the cracks of the system—were stopped. Suspicion of the government is as American as apple pie, but in wartime—and we have been at war with Islamist terrorists since before 9/11—we have no choice but to put our trust in the institutions set up to protect the homeland. Since it is clear those agencies have done a good job of preventing another 9/11 under both Bush and Obama, it is neither fair nor reasonable to treat them as if they were the Cincinnati office of the IRS. Conspiracies may exist, but they must have some rhyme or reason and be able to be proven. In this case, the theories about the use of this information being a nefarious plot doesn’t pass the smell test.

The same may well be true in the TWA Flight 800 case.

I haven’t seen the new documentary and will reserve full judgment about it until I do. But I have to confess that reports about the film and the comments from those who were tasked with the investigation about the theories it promotes leads me to be highly skeptical about its claims. I’m no expert about the case or about plane crashes. I’m agnostic about its specific claims about whether the plane could have gone down in the way that government agencies ultimately said it did. But I do know a thing or two about conspiracy theories.

They generally crop up because human beings always prefer to believe that senseless acts have not only a sensible explanation but also one that fits into their views about the world in general. That’s why liberals and left-wingers still claim that right-wingers killed John F. Kennedy even though there’s no evidence to back up that charge and the murderer was actually a Communist. Such theories help make an otherwise random and hard-to-understand world easier to live with.

In the TWA 800 case, the conspiracy theory doesn’t look like it will pass the smell test. The so-called whistle-blowers not only can’t explain how a missile could have hit the plane (since the pet theory about a U.S. Navy training exercise gone awry was sunk long ago) but why an FBI investigative team that was predisposed to think it an act of terrorism would have covered up such a conclusion. The only way to buy into the film’s thesis appears to be based on a blind distrust of government that doesn’t seem based in any hard proof. But it does give us a villain to blame that an accident based on faulty wiring doesn’t provide.

More to the point, we also know that the original promoter of the conspiracy theorist was a crackpot. Former White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger’s much publicized accusations of a cover up was based on recycled lies culled from the Internet, not, as he claimed, a government intelligence report.

The point about government misconduct is that sooner or later our democratic system and free press will ferret out the truth. We do well to be cynical about any government, but blindly assuming that everything it says is a lie is even more irrational than taking administration spin at face value. But merely assuming that the real world that we live in mirrors the fictional world of Hollywood conspiracy theory movies, in which the powers that be are always out to kill and cover up and everything we think we know is a lie, is not a reliable guide for understanding complex events. It is, in fact, a psychosis, not a blueprint for government accountability.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.