Monday, July 23, 2007

CIA & the Family Jewels

We don't know what we don't know.

FOIA Blog points to an interesting story in the Sydney Morning Herald that tells a tale of stonewalling that makes the Berlin Wall look like a picket fence. Bureaucratic stonewalling, that is, measured more in decades than years...certainly not months or weeks.

The family jewels are a 700-page set of files detailing some of the most notorious operations carried out by the CIA in some of the darker parts of its history. They reveal, among other things, how the US spy agency offered a Mafia boss $US150,000 to kill Fidel Castro, how it placed illegal wiretaps and how it considered a plan to poison the Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba.

While the material is interesting, such CIA activities have been well-known for years. What's not known is why the agency suddenly released them when it has resisted disclosing them for so long.

Copies of the jewels were finally obtained by a US organisation called the National Security Archive, which describes itself as an independent non-governmental research institute at the George Washington University. It uses FoI to get hold of documents which it then publishes and holds in its library.

As part of its work, it submitted a request for the jewels in 1992 and had been waiting for them since.

That's slow going but have a look at the archive's website and you'll see some others are even worse. They make the slowest Australian FoI officers look efficient.

Interested readers can now go to the CIA reading room online and plow through these musty old files for themselves.
George Washington University's National Security Archives (not to be confused, I'm sure, with the National Security Agency) was the origin of the "request" that finally made its tiresome way through the bureaucracy.
That story can be found at their site.

Officials sometimes use the word "transparency." It's like dictators speaking of "kindness and mercy." Something is wrong with the picture.

Yesterday at work one of the employees brought one of the new i-phones. Amazing piece of technology. One of the fun pastimes was getting some one's address and finding a photo image of their street, sometimes the roof of their house or apartment building, shown right there on the screen. It took about half a minute to access the satellite image. And that's what the whole world can find and see if they know the right keys to push. We can be sure that government technology (and private as well, we can guess) is much better, but not available to you and me.

This morning I spoke with a man who knows someone in a government facility with access to satellite surveillance in real time. His friend says that when he's not busy he can watch him in real time as he walks about his property...down to the lake, across the yard, to the garden. He sees how he parks his vehicles and can watch as they drive away. And this guy's just messing around in the same way that a policeman on duty stops for a cup of coffee. Nothing sinister. Just everyday stuff. And he's only using garden-variety scopes. We can be sure the really good stuff is much better. The man I was talking with told his friend, "Give me a call next time and I'll wave at you as the satellite passes over."

Over the last several weeks I have noticed a low-level Google search interest in my Roving Bug post from last year. Not a week passes without half a dozen hits to that post. Someone is curious and thinking about it. I hope it's the right people. That's an even more devious piece of technology than satellite surveillance and with a lot more capability for violating privacy. Where I am and where I go is my business, but I cannot expect to conceal my physical existence. But what I say to someone in confidence can be expected to remain private. At least if a confidence is broken I know where to go to find the leak. But eavesdropping makes privacy non-existent.

When I contemplate the breathtaking hubris of today's leaders I am sure that our destiny is in the Lord's hands. No single individual or group of people can possibly know enough to make smart enough decisions about how this technology should be used. Most imagine that they do. And that is the scariest part of all. Lord, hear our prayer.

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