THE BLOG
06/11/2013 11:09 am ET | Updated Aug 11, 2013

'Endless Wars Overseas, Infringing on Civil Liberties at Home': An Interview on NSA Surveillance With Former State Department Official Matthew Hoh

Matthew Hoh is a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq before being stationed in Afghanistan as a high-ranking foreign service officer. In 2009, Hoh resigned from the State Department in protest over the U.S.' misguided occupation of Afghanistan.

Leighton Woodhouse interviewed Hoh to get his perspective on the NSA's sweeping surveillance of both foreigners and U.S. citizens. Leighton blogs at Dog Park Media.

Reactions to the NSA surveillance revelations have ranged from phrases like "beyond Orwellian" to ones like "making a mountain out of a digital molehill." Given your experience and prior government security clearance, how surprised were you by the scope of the digital and telephone metadata surveillance of foreigners and U.S. citizens by the NSA, and how big of a deal do you think this news is?

I'm not very surprised, I had heard about such abilities from friends and also I was aware of the data center the NSA is constructing in Utah. I think that there is much more to come about this. I believe certainly credit card and banking information is being captured and tracked, as well as any travel information (flights, toll booths, train tickets, etc). Also, I don't believe the phone record seizure ends with Verizon, I'm sure all the carriers are involved. Pretty much any electronic communication or transaction you make I think can be reasonably assumed to be captured and/or tracked by the NSA. I am surprised however at the blanket capture of data; I assumed they were looking for keywords or established patterns, not treating every American citizen as a potential criminal, and I am surprised that it has been going on for seven years (I think that is what I read).

Why this is such a big deal to me is, of course, the seemingly obvious violation of the 4th Amendment. I just can't fathom how this can be constitutional. What is also of tremendous concern, and I think this is something that both you and I have known for some time, but this is just the most recent and evident example of the crisis, is the seemingly complete capitulation of the legislative and judicial branches to the authority of the executive branch under the pretense of national security.

From all accounts, the FISA court is a rubber stamp; I just don't see any counter argument to that description or evidence to the contrary. Additionally, that the Administration has been able to keep any challenges, and not just this but many other issues related to national security, effectively out of the courts is extremely troubling and is a great worry for me on the overall health of our system of checks and balances.

Oversight from Congress is more or less meaningless and has basically been abdicated. The congressional committees charged with oversight have only a handful of cleared staff and they are only shown the information that the intelligence services provide directly to them. So, even if there was a desire or interest in either the House or Senate to perform oversight it just simply is not possible. The numbers of cleared staff in the Congress, including the members, and not including assigned members of DOD or the intelligence community, is below 1,000. Compare that to the 1 million+ members of the executive branch who have top secret clearances and the multiple millions who hold secret clearances and the image is striking. Plus, DOD and the intelligence community provide the information they want to provide to Congress, so independent and capable oversight just simply isn't possible.

With regards to the comments about this being symbolic of an Orwellian or totalitarian state/society, I think what we are seeing is the result of a $1 trillion a year national security establishment. Just like we shouldn't be surprised we have 15,000 murders a year in this country when we have 300 million guns, we shouldn't be surprised that a government establishment that is not being held accountable or in check by any other institution, that is Byzantine in size, structure and purpose, and that receives 25 percent of all government funding (and growing if the majority in the House have their way) is overreaching by conducting endless wars overseas and infringing on civil liberties at home.

It's been reported that PRISM gathers "audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs." You suspect that credit card transactions, banking information and travel arrangements are being monitored as part of PRISM as well? Do you believe that that information is being gathered for U.S. citizens, and not just foreigners, as the Obama administration claims PRISM is designed to zero in on?

I don't know if it is part of PRISM or not, as I am not well read up enough on what PRISM completely encompasses. I have no reason to believe it is not being captured, in fact it would be poor tradecraft and incomplete work on the NSA's part if that type of information wasn't being captured. You get a much fuller picture if you capture that data too.

Yes, I think U.S. citizens are being gathered on.

The people involved in these programs, the decision makers, are of a few stripes: Some believe that their mission to provide security trumps civil liberties. In their minds they are: the dog protecting the sheep from the wolf, the guardians on the wall, good men not willing to stand by and let evil men prosper, or any other host of tired, silly and banal self-lionizations that people inside the Beltway like to assign to their email signature blocks or put on placards on their desks. The others are loyal and hold their oaths to the dollar and to their cut of the $1 trillion in national security spending that has transformed Washington DC into the wealthiest area in the country since 9/11. Then there are some who are trying to do the right thing and believe in an appropriate balance and need for national security, but are overwhelmed by the institutional inertia of the massive national security system and the fervor/greed of their peers, while others are just men and women, doing a job and bound to that job by the golden handcuffs of family, mortgages, student loans, etc.

I don't know if you read David Simon's provocative blog post, which argued that the government analyzing telephone "raw data" prior to acquiring court orders to actually listen in on calls is nothing new; it's how law enforcement has been going after organized crime rings (such as drug dealers) for decades. As you point out, there's probably a pretty huge difference between the ratio of cops to judges versus the ratio of security-cleared executive branch members to security-cleared Congressional staffers that has a big impact on how meaningful "oversight" is in one case versus the other. Do you think Simon is being too blasé about the threat to our privacy? Does his analogy have any merit?

I disagree with him for a variety of reasons, including the scope and scale of this sweep and the very large difference between using public pay phones in the '80s and modern communication today using private and personal phones and computers, particularly in the expectation of privacy. Most importantly, I didn't see him reference case law, he just uses an unsubstantiated anecdote. I am uncertain if this type of collection of raw data by the Baltimore police over 30 years ago (and again very different in its methods, purposes and contents from modern communications) was a one time use, was limited to Baltimore and that time period, or is established and in continuance across the nation. If there was a court case that established this practice Simon should cite it or refer to the conduct of this practice outside of Baltimore or in the last 30 years. Without such evidence I am unconvinced of the merits of his argument.

The 4th amendment requires probable cause, which you can make a case for in collecting data from specific public pay phones in certain areas of Baltimore, but the same case for probable cause cannot be made for collecting the communications data of every American.

Additionally, he references 9/11 in the same vein and manner the Munich Agreement was referenced from 1945 until 2001, as a way to shame, chastise and shout down anyone making an argument against war (or in this case violation of the 4th Amendment). There is no evidence the NSA collection of communications has been effective in the last seven years (of course the government and its defenders will say that there is such evidence, but it is classified and that the public will just have to trust the government).

I'm actually quite surprised that Simon isn't making the case for another core theme in "The Wire" in order to go after terror groups, that of using good old-fashioned police work. Such law enforcement type detective work is what led to the most high profile and successful aspects of the dismantling of al-Qaeda after they fled Afghanistan in late 2001/early 2002, in particular, Khalid Sheik Muhammad's capture (done in conjunction with the Pakistanis before we completely destroyed our relationship with them) and, ten years after the fact, Osama bin Laden; even though SEALs were used to kill him, the effort up to that point was law enforcement-like and you can view the SEALs as simply a very well-equipped SWAT team. By the way, my preference would have been for bin Laden's capture.

I remember you remarking once that al-Qaeda isn't in Quetta anymore, they're on the internet. The point you were making was that boots on the ground in Afghanistan weren't going to stop terrorism. Presumably, intelligence services like the NSA would agree with the first part at least, about terrorist networks having shifted to a significant extent online. If massive digital surveillance is the wrong answer, what are other ways the government can more effectively pursue terrorists without starting wars and violating civil liberties in this new context of a hyper-digital world?

They are on the internet, but it's a passive presence. I tend to use the term "ideological cloud" to describe how it works. There is an online presence, made up of forums, videos, testominals, writings, etc. that is used to passively recruit and instruct. If you look at the attacks since 9/11, the majority have been conducted by single individuals or small groups (Madrid, London, Fort Hood, Boston) that are operating independently or with little guidance and that plan, prepare and conduct the attacks in their own local areas. There has been some direct and indirect contact between individuals in the West and al-Qaeda leaders in Muslim countries, but I don't believe such contact to be necessary or to be the model on which terror groups have evolved to operate since 9/11.

The first thing we need to do is to properly understand the scope and the nature of the threat. The majority of al-Qaeda operatives are as described above and tend to be men in their 20s and 30s, well educated, urban, from middle class or upper class backgrounds, and technologically savvy. The actual size of al-Qaeda and its associated groups is quite small, numbering in the high hundreds or low thousands, around the world. There are quite a number of larger insurgent groups that al-Qaeda has aligned with, but those groups, such as the Afghan Taliban, have memberships and constituencies that are local in nature and not involved or interested in conducting worldwide operations. So several hundred or a few thousand young men in cities around the world, out of a worldwide population of 1.6 billion Muslims -- that is who we are looking for. On top of that, al-Qaeda and other groups have only succeeded in killing 37 Americans since 9/11. That small number is certainly due to certain counter-terrorism efforts, I'm not going to argue against that, but I believe the larger reason is that al-Qaeda and other groups are simply not that capable. They used their A-Team on 9/11 (which based on Peter Bergen's and others' reports constituted nearly 10 percent of the organization at the time) and they hit a home run. Since then they have had a few successes, but certainly nothing that is an existential threat to the U.S. or the West, certainly not a threat large enough or disconcerting enough to invalidate parts of our Constitution (if we didn't need to tear up our Constitution when facing the Soviet Union and its 25,000 nuclear weapons, I see no need to do so against al-Qaeda.)

The second thing is to stop lending credence or validating the propaganda claims of al-Qaeda and other terror groups. In 2005, while on the Iraq Desk at the State Department, I recall reading the summaries of interrogations of non-Iraqi fighters we had captured in Iraq (the actual number of non-Iraqi fighters was quite small, in the few hundreds). The overwhelming reason for their travel to Iraq to fight the Americans were the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the photos from Abu Ghraib and the stories from Guantanamo (the reason for the Iraqi fighters fighting us was quite simple: we were there). Al-Qaeda's message to its recruits is not one of establishing worldwide Muslim rule or of gaining virgins in Paradise, but rather it is a defensive message, an exhortation to defend Muslim lands, culture and people from Western invasion and occupation, and, increasingly, revenge for American attacks. The greatest recruitment event for al-Qaeda was not 9/11, but rather the invasion of Iraq and subsequently, the escalation of the Afghan War and the worldwide, too often indiscriminate, targeted killing campaign (additionally, President Bush calling our actions in the Muslim world a Crusade may be one of the greatest foreign policy mis-pronouncements ever). So we need to stop validating and proving the terror groups' propaganda and recruitment messages.

Utilizing a law enforcement approach to ferreting out the very small number of actual al-Qaeda members worldwide is what should be done. Our greatest successes against al-Qaeda leadership, after 9/11, came in law enforcement style operations, that utilized good detective work (done by both FBI and CIA) and relied extensively on cooperation and relationships with other nations, in particular Pakistan. We've thoroughly destroyed our relationship with Pakistan and in other countries, like in Yemen with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, we threw our total support behind dictators (similar to what we did in the Cold War, backing any dictator and his human rights abuses, as long as they were anti-Communist) that served to further aggrieve the local population and forcing them to turn to al-Qaeda or other extreme groups and accept support.

Massive communication dragnets, as Ed Snowden exposed, are simply not necessary, and worse, they violate our civil liberties. It is important to remember that the intelligence to stop the 9/11 attacks existed and was in American possession, however, it just wasn't pieced together, primarily due to competing bureaucratic interests within the U.S. government. More importantly, while al-Qaeda and other terror groups are a real threat and a danger -- I'm not downplaying that -- they are not an existential threat. Insanely, as if it is out of some over-the-top satirical novel or movie, we've seen the existential threat come to be within and from our own government institutions, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, in the form of not just a willingness to violate the Constitution, but actual sustained violations of it, all affirmed by a toothless and compliant legislative branch and a rubber-stamp quasi-judiciary.

This reminds me quite a bit of the conversations we've had with Robert Pape, who has shown empirically that the biggest cause of terrorist attacks worldwide is foreign occupation. I also heard Bob Scheer make a point similar to yours on a radio show last week, arguing that every government points to security threats to justify consolidating power, that the U.S. is far from unique in facing the probability of terrorist attacks, but that in spite of those very real threats, the United States, with something like half the world's combined firepower, remains perhaps the most materially secure nation in human history. Is the terrorist threat overstated, and if it is, are policymakers overreacting in a sort of collective hysteria, or is it something more insidious -- a convenient narrative to bolster the architecture of social control?

I can't think of a better term than "convenient narrative."

There are real threats out there and real dangers. There are people out there that want to blow up airplanes or get ahold of nuclear weapons, but it is a pretty small group and I think it is a factor of a life, a risk that is acceptable and one that is manageable. I think the last decade has been one terrible American mistake after another overseas, and what concerns me greatly is that our actions are perpetuating the terrorism problem. Our actions are giving credence to terrorist propaganda and recruitment, and, our killing of people throughout the world, many of whose identities we do not know, is setting the United States up for revenge attacks that may last longer than a generation.

But fear, war and patriotism are good for politics, and so it is in our political leaders best self interest to wave the bloody flag and be tough against our enemies, even if those enemies are now of our making. Of course, funding a massive trillion dollar a year national security establishment creates a Leviathan that exists for its own purposes.

You know from your own experience what it means to step away from your colleagues, your professional community, the institutions that have shaped your career and to blow the whistle on very powerful actors whose actions you believe to be reckless and wrong. Can you describe what you imagine Edward Snowden might be experiencing right now, and over the last week?

Wow. I can't even begin to compare my situation to Snowden's. I didn't face legal prosecution and I never broke any laws. What he did is incredibly brave, while what I did, in comparison, is more akin to being one of the first rats off a sinking ship.

I didn't face the very real possibility that I wouldn't see home again and the chance I'd never live with my girlfriend or family as he now does. That must be incredibly difficult and terribly scary. The fear his family and girlfriend must be going through right now must be overwhelming too and I've been reminded by others to keep them in my thoughts too.

He's given most of his life to institutions that were supposed to be supporting and defending values he had been taught were the foundation of his country and he believed so much in his country that he dedicated his life to his country's service. There must be a hollowness in him to see those institutions betray those values and his country, and he must be in possession of a sadness caused from having to do what he did.

I imagine he felt there was no other way and I hope his conscience is clear even though he must be physically sick with fear and apprehension.

I also hope he knows that there are a great many Americans, including a lot of veterans, who are very proud of him and ready to support him however we can.

Do you consider Snowden a hero for what he's done?

Based on what I know, yes, I do. He has stood up to our government, against very powerful people and institutions; knowingly breaking laws, facing jail time, character assassination, financial ruin and voluntarily sacrificed ties with his family, his friends and his girlfriend; and he did this in order to let the American public know their government was treating every one of its citizens like criminals. I'm not sure any other word than hero is fitting.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?