The NSA's data tapping: America through the PRISM

The <em>Guardian</em>'s stories of the last two days are the highest-level US leaks since the Pentagon Papers.

Yesterday, I asked if the story about the US National Security Administration secretly  requisitioning phone records went deeper – if social networking data might not be as easily requisitioned by security forces as phone metadata. Within hours, the Guardian provided the answer, in the form of a leaked PowerPoint presentation, classified 'Top Secret', which was “apparently used to train intelligence operatives” as part a program named PRISM.

This is now the second of two such 'Top Secret' documents obtained by the Guardian in as many days; an astonishing achievement, considering that the last documents of this level of American security classification to be actually published in the press were the famous “Pentagon Papers”, by the New York Times in 1971, forty-two years ago.

Nothing that WikiLeaks published ever carried this level of security classification. Most of the documents they leaked to the press were “secret” level, with a few “confidential” and unclassified documents thrown in.

This puts the Guardian in a unique position. Whoever leaked these documents – both the Verizon court order, and the intelligence training PowerPoint presentation the following day, two separate leaks – could be in real trouble under the Espionage Act as well as several other US statutes.

It is also worth mentioning that the Nixon administration did place an injunction on the New York Times and the Washington Post over the release of the Pentagon Papers, though it was lifted after fifteen days by the Supreme Court, which upheld the papers' First Amendment rights. Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday that the DoJ “will not prosecute any reporter from doing his or her job.”

Nonetheless, this leak is absolutely unprecedented in the internet age, and the Obama administration is developing a worrying reputation for hostility to journalists; the DoJ named Fox News reporter James Rosen as a 'co-consipirator' under the Espionage Act in order to put him under surveillance in 2010, the first time a journalist had ever been targeted this way in the US.

This also comes at a time when Army Private Bradley Manning, who gave WikiLeaks their biggest information-dump of classified material, is facing military trial for leaks. Prosecutors are seeking to prove that he was “aiding the enemy” - which is technically a capitol offence in the US, though they apparently do not intend to seek the death penalty.

US Director of National Intelligence James R Clapper gave a statement yesterday condemning the leaks, saying that they threaten “potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation,” and highlighted that everything the NSA has been shown to be doing is “within the constraints of the law”. House intelligence chairman Mike Rogers defended the phone data requisition program to the Washington Post too, saying that within the last few years, the phone record requisition program had been used to stop a terrorist attack within the United States. But libertarian senator Rand Paul called the seizure shown by the first leak an “astounding assault on the constitution”.

The PRISM logo.

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics