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Video: Booz Allen VP McConnell on Edward Snowden

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Nearing the end of a half hour talk on cybersecurity at a conference of contracting professionals in Alexandria, Va., Thursday, Booz Allen Hamilton vice president Mike McConnell had not uttered the name Edward Snowden.

And Snowden, after all, is someone who has people talking a lot about cybersecurity these days.

The now famous former Booz Allen employee stands charged with espionage and is still on the run from U.S. authorities after leaking details to the media on once secret government surveillance programs.

As McConnell, a former director of national intelligence, was wrapping up his presentation, he said he’d take a question or two. That’s when an audience member brought up Snowden.

While brief in his response, McConnell went beyond the carefully worded statement that Booz Allen’s public relations staff had issued in the days after Snowden’s leaks became public.

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Comey nomination draws positive reaction from two FBI employee groups

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President Obama’s choice of James Comey to head the FBI has been welcomed by two groups representing key elements of the bureau’s workforce.

The FBI Agents Association had previously backed a former special agent—House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.—for the job. But in a Friday statement issued shortly after Obama formally nominated Comey,  the association’s president, Konrad Motyka, said the former Justice Department official has an “outstanding reputation” among agents.

“We believe that Mr. Comey understands the centrality of the special agent to the bureau’s mission of protecting our country from criminal and terrorist threats,” Motyka said. “We look forward to meeting with him soon and working with him on the wide array of challenges facing our country.”

Also reacting favorably was the FBI Intelligence Analysts Association. While the association does not make endorsements, “we deeply admire his [Comey's] moral courage, vigorous defense of the Constitution, and unqualified belief that ‘intelligence under law is the only sustainable intelligence in the country,’” the organization, whose president is Daniel O’Donnell, said in a release today. “Mr. Comey also demonstrated his unwavering dedication to protecting the American people during the implementation of the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act (IRTPA) in his previous role as deputy attorney general.”

If confirmed by the Senate as the next FBI director, Comey would replace Robert Mueller, who is retiring.

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Snowden the whistleblower? Not exactly

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Dubbed a traitor by House Speaker John Boehner and yet hailed as a brave whistleblower by Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden’s leaks about National Security Agency data collection techniques have ignited public debate about privacy, security and the scope of U.S. government surveillance activities.

But legally speaking, the 29-year old, self described high school dropout isn’t really a whistleblower: “Whistleblowers are individuals who have engaged in lawful disclosure,” said R. Scott Oswald, managing principal of The Employment Law Group, a DC-based law firm that represents whistleblowers, including some in the intelligence community.

Snowden, however, leaked classified information subject to a court order, which is hardly lawful, Oswald said.

“What Mr. Snowden did here was not protected and was illegal under our laws, so it’s not correct to say he’s a whistleblower in that sense,” Oswald said. “What he is, I think, is a conscientious objector.”

“He has information that he believes is important for the American public to know,” he said. “What he has decided to do is to commit an illegal act in order to have that information disseminated, so he is subject to criminal prosecution.”

The whistleblower distinction is getting closer attention in newsrooms, too. The Huffington Post, citing a memo it obtained, reported Monday that Associated Press standards editor Tom Kent told staff that “whether the actions exposed by Snowden and [WikiLeaks source Bradley] Manning constitute wrongdoing is hotly contested, so we should not call them whistle-blowers on our own at this point.”

Whether he’s a whistleblower or not, one thing is for sure. Snowden is now officially a former Booz Allen employee.

With its famous former employee’s precise whereabouts unknown, Booz Allen on Tuesday released a statement confirming that it fired Snowden over violations to the firm’s policy and code of ethics.

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Obama administration still pondering proposed classification system changes

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For anyone who’s counting, this week marks six months since an advisory board released 14 recommendations for modernizing the national security classification system.

The White House remains on square one—mulling the board’s first recommendation to form a steering committee to guide implementation of the other 13.

“Options for the creation of a senior-level group are currently being considered,” said Laura Lucas, a National Security Council spokeswoman, who had no information today on the timetable for a decision.

The Public Interest Declassification Board issued the recommendations Dec. 6 in response to a 2009 charge from President Obama for a “more fundamental transformation” of the classification system, whose roots date back to World War Two.  Among its suggested changes, the panel urged compressing the current three-tier system to two; requiring automatic declassification  of records with short-lived sensitivity; and providing “safe harbor” to classifying officials who decide that something doesn’t warrant a secrecy stamp.

Despite the lack of overt movement since then, the board’s chairman, Nancy Soderberg, said in an interview last month that she was pleased overall with the White House’s reaction.

“There is a lot of effort behind the scenes,” Soderberg said, “and we are hopeful that it will soon produce a publicly noticeable response.”


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New chief on board at classification oversight office

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As of today, the Information Security Oversight Office has a new director in the person of John P. Fitzpatrick, a former top security official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

ISOO, part of the National Archives and Records Administration, is a small but critical cog in oversight of the government’s security classification system. The agency has also been charged with bringing order to the mishmash of agency approaches for handling controlled unclassified information.

“A strong advocate for information sharing and protection, he has demonstrated his ability to lead and oversee change both within and beyond the intelligence community throughout his career,” Archivist David Ferriero told NARA staff in announcing Fitzpatrick’s appointment. The announcement was posted on the Secrecy News blog of the Federation of American Scientists, where Steven Aftergood wrote that Fitzpatrick is taking over at “at a particularly crucial moment in secrecy policy.”

Fitzpatrick succeeds William Bosanko, who was promoted in March; William Cira, ISOO associate director for classification management, has been filling in.

Fitzpatrick formerly served as assistant deputy director of National Intelligence for Security at ODNI and previously headed the agency’s special security center, according to his official bio. He has also worked at the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office.

A Senior Executive Service member, Fitzpatrick has a bachelor’s degree in economics and psychology from the College of William and Mary.

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Obama picks Intelligence Community CIO

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Former CIA chief information officer Al Tarasiuk is President Barack Obama’s top choice for CIO of the Intelligence Community.

Tarasiuk served as the CIO of CIA from 2005 to 2010. Before that, he was director of the CIA’s Information Service Center.

“Al is well known for his leadership in information sharing and intelligence integration, and his experience, distinguished career and dedication to duty will greatly benefit the entire Intelligence Community,” National Intelligence Director James Clapper said in a news release.


Fed rights at risk in WikiLeaks backlash, groups say

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Just as agencies are wrapping up security reviews launched after the latest WikiLeaks breach, a coalition of open government groups is warning of possible consequences for federal employee rights.

Although improving safeguards for classified information is laudable, “we urge you not to craft policies that encourage agencies to unduly restrict free speech, or otherwise distract agencies from actually improving information security,” representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and eight other organizations wrote Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew in a letter dated Friday.

Ordered by Lew early this month and due to be finished Jan. 28, the “initial assessments” are supposed to address more than 100 different points, according to a memo posted on OMB’s web site.  While no one’s quarreling with the overall purpose, the ACLU and other letter signers say they are particularly concerned about a suggestion that agencies monitor employees’ “pre- and post-employment activities” or their participation in on-line sites like WikiLeaks or Open Leaks.

“It’s not at all clear how agencies could accomplish this, and, more importantly, such monitoring sweeps so broadly as to threaten constitutional rights,” the letter says.

Federal Times reached out Friday to an OMB spokesperson for a response to the letter. Radio silence so far, but we’ll add anything that comes in.

For the record, the assessments are being overseen by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office.

The intelligence folks aren’t commenting, but Jay Bosanko, director of the oversight office, said recently that all of the requirements listed in the memo don’t apply to all agencies. The open government coalition, however, would like to see that spelled out for the record, said Amy Bennett of OpenTheGovernment.org, which also signed the letter.

“A lot of these requirements aren’t standards-based and they aren’t rules-based,” she said.

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Diplomacy FAIL: ‘Taliban leader’ in peace talks was phony

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This one falls in the “laugh so you don’t cry” category. The Afghan government and NATO has been negotiating for months with someone they thought was Taliban second-in-command Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, hoping to find a way to end the nine-year war. But it turns out — whoops! — this supposed militia leader was an imposter. In reality, he was just a shopkeeper from Quetta, Pakistan, who was running a scam. And according to the New York Times, it worked:

“It’s not him,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul intimately involved in the discussions. “And we gave him a lot of money.”

Positively identifying the members of an ultra-secret, resilient militia is not an easy task, of course. But considering the fact that intelligence failures allowed an al Qaida suicide bomber to infiltrate a CIA outpost in Khost last year and kill 7 employees, the fact that a faker could get a face-to-face meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai is embarrassing — and frightening. Just imagine what could have happened if he was a killer instead of a con artist.

But the most damning statement comes from an anonymous U.S. official in Kabul, who spoke to the Washington Post:

One would suspect that in our multibillion-dollar intel community there would be the means to differentiate between an authentic Quetta Shura emissary and a shopkeeper. On the other hand, it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. It may have been Mullah Omar posing as a shopkeeper; I’m sure that our intel whizzes wouldn’t have known.

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The Washington Post’s ‘Top Secret America’

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52207228AW006_Meet_The_PresThe Washington Post this morning has a must-read story illustrating how massive, unwieldy and redundant the federal government’s post-9/11 security mission has become — and questioning whether it’s actually made us safer. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Dana Priest and writer William Arkin’s three-part, two year investigation found that “after nine years of unprecedented spending and growth”:

  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence at about 10,000 locations nationwide.
  • About 854,000 people hold top secret security clearances.
  • In the Washington area, 33 complexes for top secret intelligence work — the equivalent of three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings — are under construction or have been built since 9/11.
  • 51 different federal organizations and military commands in 15 U.S. cities are all assigned the same job — to track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
  • One senior official in the Defense Department — a so-called Super User with the rare authority to have total knowledge of the department’s intelligence workings — became overwhelmed at the amount of information being dumped on him in his first briefing, threw up his hands and yelled, “Stop!”
  • Because of the crushing bureaucratic secrecy surrounding the homeland security, counterterrorism and intelligence mission — secrecy that in some cases undermines the chain of command — nobody knows exactly how much it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs it has or how many of those programs are redundant.

The Post’s article raises good questions about whether the government — desperate to show results after the Sept. 11 sneak attack — has grown its counterterrorism apparatus so large that it risks collapsing under its own weight. “These are not academic questions,” Priest and Arkin write. “Lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.”

The intelligence community is already firing back at the Post. Acting Director of National Intelligence David Gompert this morning released a statement saying “The reporting does not reflect the intelligence community we know,” but did not challenge any of the article’s specific findings. And last week, someone in the intel community leaked an ODNI memo to the Washington Times that expressed concern that the Post was going to reveal sensitive information. (The Times published the memo under the headline, “Is Wash Post harming intelligence work?” drawing dozens of frothing, angry comments.)

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DNI Blair’s resignation statement

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Adm. Dennis Blair

Adm. Dennis Blair

Adm. Dennis Blair is officially stepping down as Director of National Intelligence. Here’s the statement he just sent out to the intelligence community:

It is with deep regret that I informed the President today that I will step down as Director of National Intelligence effective Friday, May 28th. 

I have had no greater honor or pleasure than to lead the remarkably talented and patriotic men and women of the Intelligence Community. 

Every day, you have worked tirelessly to provide intelligence support for two wars and to prevent an attack on our homeland. 

You are true heroes, just like the members of the Armed Forces, firefighters, and police whose job it is to keep our nation safe.

Your work over the past 16 months has made the Intelligence Community more integrated, agile, and representative of American values.  Keep it up – I will be cheering for you.

Dennis C. Blair

 Roundup of other reaction after the break:

Read the rest of this entry »

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