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Syria’s Jihadi Migration Emerges as Top Terror Threat in Europe, Beyond

July 24, 2013 - 11:56am

MADRID — Rachid Wahbi came to Syria from a Spanish slum, rushing toward death.

And he didn’t plan to die alone.

Facing a camera hours before the end, the bearded, 33-year-old cabdriver wore a black headdress and a black flak vest and held an AK-47 rifle. He spoke in hesitant classical Arabic with a north Moroccan accent. He said he had studied his target and, God willing, his action would end in triumph. He wished the glory of martyrdom for his fellow fighters in the al-Nusrah Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian branch.

When the cameraman asked about his mother, the Spaniard became emotional.

“I want to thank my mother because she inspired me,” Wahbi said, according to a translation by the Spanish national police. “Mother, you must be happy because God will reward you.”

The al-Nusrah propaganda video shows Wahbi disguised in the helmet and uniform of a Syrian soldier as he hugs a comrade and climbs into a truck packed with explosives. The truck bears down on an army outpost. An explosion thunders. A column of smoke, seen from multiple camera angles, climbs toward the sky.

Wahbi killed 130 people in that suicide bombing on the al-Nairab military base in northern Syria on June 1 of last year, according to Spanish authorities. And the numbers get grimmer.

Five holy warriors from Spain have died in Syria, three in bombings that killed another 100 people, police say. Last month, Spanish police stormed the hillside ghetto where Wahbi lived in Ceuta, a Spanish territory in North Africa, and arrested a ring of extremists who are charged with sending as many as 50 fighters to Syria. Indicating a threat much closer to home, the accused leader had previously been acquitted of plotting attacks on targets in Spain with a group linked to al-Qaida and a former Guantanamo inmate.

“The global jihad has prioritized the Syrian conflict as its principal front,” said a top Spanish intelligence official who requested anonymity because of the continuing investigation. “And it has directed its subsidiaries to move combatants to the zone. What worries us is that this experience could serve as preparation, as training to return to European countries and carry out attacks at home.”

Hundreds of Europeans and thousands of other Sunni Muslim foreign fighters have made Syria the new land of jihad. The migration complicates an already delicate calculus in Washington and in European capitals that are aiding the fractious rebel coalition in Syria. European security chiefs see the flow of extremists to and from Syria as their top terrorist threat. It also raises concerns that European militants radicalized by or returning from the Syrian conflict could strike U.S. targets overseas or travel across the Atlantic.

“Imagine this: Between 2001 and 2010, we identified 50 jihadists who went from France to Afghanistan,” said a senior French counterterror official who also requested anonymity. “Surely there were more, but we identified 50. With Syria, in one year, we have already identified 135. It has been very fast and strong.”

The statistics are even stronger in adjoining Belgium, one-sixth the size of France. Between 100 and 300 jihadis have journeyed from Belgium’s extremist enclaves to Syria, according to a veteran Belgian counterterror official. Other significant fighting contingents represent Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, Central Asia, Libya, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The senior French official estimated the total number of Europeans to be at least 400. Others say it could be double that, but counterterror officials warn that precise numbers are difficult to establish.

The foreign fighter phenomenon in Syria “is one of the things that most worries a number of European government agencies,” Italian Defense Minister Mario Mauro said in an interview. “But this is also within the reactive capacity of a system built by democracies, therefore based not on preventive arrests but on monitoring and intelligence activity to prevent situations like this from degenerating.”

The total number of the rebel forces – Syrians and foreigners, full-time and occasional fighters – is thought to be in the tens of thousands. Estimates range from above 60,000 to below 100,000, based on interviews with U.S. and European officials and experts.

A recent private report examines the role of Sunni foreign fighters who have converged from across the Muslim world to battle the regime of Bashir Assad and his powerful Shiite allies, Hezbollah and Iran. Foreign fighters account for up to 10 percent of the rebels in the data sample examined by the study, which relies on sources including online obituaries of militants and social networks and is titled “Convoy of Martyrs in the Levant.”

Released last month by Flashpoint Partners, a New York security contracting firm, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that tends to align with Israeli views, the report compares the conflict to previous arenas that attracted extremists: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen.

“At the very least, the current war in Syria can be considered the third-largest foreign mujahideen mobilization since the early 1980s — falling short only of Afghanistan in the 1980s and Iraq during the last decade,” the study concludes. “[T]he mobilization has been stunningly rapid — what took six years to build in Iraq at the height of the U.S. occupation may have accumulated inside Syria in less than half that time.”

Syria is familiar turf that once served as a hub for militants en route to fight in Iraq. It is closer and more accessible to Europe than other jihadi destinations: Militants travel by air or land to Turkey, where smugglers sneak them across the border. There is little interference by authorities in Turkey, a major sponsor of the Syrian rebels.

Despite the ferocity of the civil war, Syrian cities offer better living conditions to foreign volunteers than al-Qaida’s remote compounds in Pakistan or the impoverished wastes where Islamists operate in Somalia and Mali. The ever-improving technology of the Internet and mobile phones allow combatants to trumpet their exploits and remain in close communication with comrades back home.

“There are guys who regularly update their Facebook pages from Syria,” said Claudio Galzerano, the chief of the international terrorism unit of the Italian police in Rome.

Moreover, the cause enjoys unique popularity. Many Sunnis and non-Muslims alike regard it as a crusade to overthrow a brutal dictator who uses chemical weapons to slaughter his people. The Obama administration and European governments support the Syrian opposition and the Supreme Military Command, which encompasses the Free Syrian Army and other relatively moderate groups. The Convoy of Martyrs study describes “Arab Spring-motivated, pro-democratic revolutionary fervor” that pushes foreign volunteers to join the Free Syrian Army, rather than extremist rebel units.

Nonetheless, secular idealists are a minority among the foreign fighters, according to European counterterror officials. The octopus-like embrace of anti-Western, al Qaida-connected networks in Europe and the Muslim world— sometimes led by the same chiefs as in past conflicts — has shifted to Syria. Many foreign recruits join al-Nusrah or the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaida allies that field some of the toughest fighters. These Sunni Islamist groups clash with other rebel factions and argue among themselves about whether to widen their jihad beyond the borders of Syria, according to counterterror officials.

European police fear that well-trained, battle-hardened veterans will return from Syria and, on their own or acting on orders from terrorist bosses, decide to continue the war. Western leaders say they are taking pains to prevent stepped-up aid to the Syrian opposition from reinforcing the extremists. When the European Union ended an arms embargo to the rebels in May, reluctance about that decision resulted partly from concerns that the weapons would end up in the wrong hands.

“There is a risk, and how,” said Stefano Dambruoso, an Italian parliamentary deputy who is a former top anti-terror prosecutor. “In a situation that is out of control like the one in Syria, it is really very dangerous. Italy supported maintaining the embargo because really we don’t know who we are dealing with. The rebels are still not clearly identifiable.”

Dambruoso knows the treacherous turf. Based in Milan in the early 2000s, he led prosecutions of al Qaida operatives involved in plots in Europe and linked to the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, a legendary anti-Taliban commander in Afghanistan, just two days before the 9/11 attacks on New York.

Several cases in Italy involved the Tunisian Combatant Group, part of al Qaida’s terrorist coalition. Some Italian cells sent recruits via Syria to join the insurgency in Iraq. Key operatives were arrested by Italian police and then deported to prisons in Tunisia, sometimes after serving time in Italy.

After the Tunisian revolution ended in 2011, however, a new government in Tunis released convicted terrorists and allowed them to create a radical Islamic party, Ansar al Sharia. It is led by Seifallah Ben Hassine, who is a founder of the Tunisian Combatant Group and a former ally of Osama bin Laden, according to European and UN counterterror officials and documents. His party has been recruiting and deploying holy warriors to the Syrian front from camps in the south of Tunisia, according to European investigators.

Tunisians account for 16 percent of foreign fighters in Syria, the second-largest group there, according to the data sample in the Convoy of Martyrs Study.

“This is one of our top concerns,” said Galzerano, the Italian police commander. “They are sending a lot of Tunisians to Syria. Everyone is welcomed by the rebels, including those who have little skills or experience.”

Syria holds another attraction for aspiring holy warriors: It serves as a refuge from law enforcement. Some Europeans in Syria are seen as active threats to their homelands. An illustrative case began last September when someone threw a hand grenade at a kosher grocery store in a suburb north of Paris, wounding one person. Traces of DNA on the grenade led French investigators to a known Islamic radical and revealed a dangerous network operating in three cities.

When a police tactical team raided the Strasbourg apartment of the suspected leader, a Muslim convert of French-Caribbean descent, he opened fire and died in the ensuing shootout, authorities said. Police made a dozen arrests and discovered a garaged stockpile of explosives, including pressure-cooker bombs like those used in the Boston Marathon attack.

“We learned they were planning a campaign of attacks, including car bombs,” said the senior French counterterror official. “They wanted to launch the attacks, then flee to Syria and fight there. Three of them were able to escape to Syria.”

The three suspects who fled the French manhunt joined the al-Nusrah front. One has been badly wounded in combat against the Syrian military, according to the French counterterror official.

Western investigators track the communications and travels of foreign fighters because of their proven capacity for violence and potential contact with al Qaida and its affiliates, who hate the West as much as they hate Assad, investigators say.

“We hear threatening rhetoric in the intercepts,” a European police commander said.

The presence of a minority of hardcore Islamic terrorists in the insurgency poses a conundrum when it comes to Western intervention. One school of thought urges restraint in order to avoid creating a monster comparable to the U.S.-backed Islamists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and then morphed into al Qaida. Others, in contrast, believe the West could influence the Syrian rebel movement by doing more.

A former CIA counterterror chief leans in the latter direction. Author Charles (Sam) Faddis served in South Asia and the Middle East, where he led clandestine CIA operations in Iraq that preceded the U.S. invasion in 2003. He communicates periodically with leaders of the Free Syrian Army and thinks the Western support is “too little, too late.”

“I’m the first guy who parts company with the neo-cons (neo-conservative Republicans in Washington) who think we should get involved everywhere,” Faddis said. “I’m against putting American troops in there, and I’m against a no-fly zone. But our approach has been short-sighted.”

There is a real threat of a blowback against the West even from a relatively small number of trained, combat-hardened veterans of the conflict, Faddis said. But he criticizes the Obama administration for not having moved quickly to provide arms and intelligence to the Free Syrian Army.

“You were going to have extremists flocking in there anyway,” he said. “Now you’ve increased their influence. Their power has been enhanced by our not getting involved in a more significant way. We need to get on the ground, map the terrain, figure out who we can work with.”

Last month, President Obama authorized providing small arms and training to Syrian rebels to augment nonlethal aid that they already receive. The U.S. government is working hard to support the pro-democracy forces and thwart al-Nusrah, which the U.S. designated as a terrorist group last year, and other extremist groups, State Department officials say.

“We remain deeply concerned by the violent extremism there,” said a State Department official who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. “We distinguish between those in the opposition seeking a moderate, democratic Syria and those who are trying to hijack it. We make clear with the armed opposition leaders who don’t espouse these [extremist] ideals the importance of isolating the extremists, so it doesn’t take root in the future Syria they are trying to fight for.”

The U.S. has committed $250 million in nonlethal assistance to the rebels and $815 million in humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict, according to a State Department fact sheet. In areas of Syria under rebel control, the U.S. attempts to shore up the democratic opposition by helping local governments deliver security and other essential services, providing material such as trucks, communications equipment and computers. U.S. officials put the recipients through a vetting process intended to prevent aid from going to the extremists, the State Department official said.

“It’s important that the vetting is in place precisely because there are groups like al-Nusrah trying to intercept things,” the official said. “Sometimes there’s a delay as a result.”

In Europe, authorities have a hard time identifying and prosecuting suspected jihadis for terrorist activity when they return from Syria. Some known extremists insist they fought in the Free Syrian Army, which they indignantly point out has the backing of President Obama, French President François Hollande and others. Judges are more skeptical of the prosecutions than they were with defendants returning from Afghanistan or Iraq, counterterror officials say.

Courts in Europe often struggle to find enough evidence to lock up Islamic extremists if their alleged crimes center on ideological activity or combat in foreign countries.

Raphael Gendron is an example. In late 2008, Italian police arrested Gendron, a Frenchman residing in Belgium, and Bassam Ayachi, a Syrian-Belgian imam, in a camping vehicle coming off a ferry from Greece in Bari, a city at the heel of the Italian boot. Police discovered five illegal immigrants and a trove of jihadi propaganda in the vehicle.

In 2006, Gendron had been convicted of a charge of inciting hate and violence against Jews with Internet propaganda in Belgium. Ayachi had performed the marriage in Brussels of the Tunisian suicide bomber who later killed Massoud in Afghanistan, investigators say. Both had longtime ties to networks that had been implicated in terror plots and had sent jihadis to Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, according to investigators and Italian court documents.

An Italian court convicted the duo of acting as recruiters and operatives for al Qaida, but an appellate panel freed them last year. Soon Gendron went to Syria to join a rebel battalion commanded by Ayachi’s son, a veteran of the Belgian military, according to Belgian investigators. In April, the 37-year-old Gendron died in combat near Homs, Syria.

Most suspects in past al Qaida-related terrorist plots against the West traveled first to jihadi combat theaters, and many were European or spent time in Europe. The combat zones and training venues of Pakistan and Afghanistan generated a stream of militants intent on striking the West — from the Sept. 11 hijackers to the failed Times Square bomber in 2010.

Fears of massive blowback against Western nations from Iraq did not materialize, however. The Iraqi conflict certainly played a role in radicalization. But some European jihadis who returned from Iraq told investigators that, despite their eagerness to fight in a war zone, they would not commit violence against civilians at home.

The background of foreign volunteers determines the reception they get from Syrian extremist groups, investigators say.

“We see a little of everything in the profile of the recruits,” the top Spanish intelligence official said. “There are people who are clearly with al Qaida, or are associates of its subsidiaries. Then there are people who have no connection with anything. Solitary actors inspired to go to there and fight.”

Militants with useful skills, such as medical professionals or computer experts, are kept out of combat and given support roles. Men with military experience deploy in front-line units.

Those with little to offer quickly become human bombs.

Wahbi, the Spanish suicide attacker, died soon after his arrival in Syria. He had no criminal record. Also known as Rachid Mohamed, he had supported his wife and children driving a white Mercedes taxi in Ceuta, one of two Spanish cities on the Moroccan coast. His predominantly Muslim neighborhood, known as El Principe, resembles a Brazilian favela or a North African casbah: The slum sprawls over a canyon near the Moroccan border and serves as a fortress for organized crime and Islamic extremism.

In 2006, 300 Spanish police officers raided El Principe, a show of force planned for the rough topography and hostility to law enforcement. Police rounded up 11 suspects accused of belonging to an al Qaida-linked group that allegedly plotted to attack a military base and a fairground in Ceuta and discussed joining the jihad in Iraq or Afghanistan. The suspects included an accused ideologue known as “Marquitos” and two brothers of a Spaniard once imprisoned in the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

However, the prosecution ran into problems with turning intelligence into evidence and presenting the testimony of two protected witnesses. The trial ended last year in acquittals. There were cries in the media and Muslim community that innocent men had been railroaded.

Spanish prosecutors now have filed an indictment alleging that the accused ideologue never relinquished his command role in Ceuta’s Islamic underworld. After war broke out in Syria in 2011, Marquitos allegedly recruited men from Ceuta and neighboring Morocco to join the new jihad, according to Spanish intelligence officials.

The taxi driver and two friends were among the first recruits. They departed in April of last year, flying via Malaga and Madrid to Istanbul, where smugglers helped them enter Syria and join al-Nusrah.

“They were in Syria very few days,” Wahbi’s widow, Sanaa, told El País newspaper last year. “Maybe not even a week. During the trip, which lasted a month and a half, he communicated with us by Messenger (internet chat). They were in Turkey quite a while because it seems they couldn’t reach Damascus. When they arrived in Syria he called us, but he didn’t give us details of what he was doing.”

Wahbi’s attack stands out as one of the war’s deadliest. Police say the ring in Ceuta sent at least 20 and up to 50 recruits along the same route or via Morocco. The sophisticated operation paid for travel and provided funds to widows and children of fallen fighters. Police are still trying to determine if the financing came from the criminal activity such as the drug trade, according to Spanish intelligence officials.

On June 21, authorities launched another raid on El Principe. Four hundred officers of the police and Guardia Civil participated, backed by a helicopter hovering over the densely populated canyon. Police once again arrested Marquitos, now 39, and seven accused accomplices. They are awaiting trial.

Police believe the clandestine flow to Syria continues from European hotbeds of extremism.

“There are two categories,” said a Spanish intelligence official who requested anonymity because of the continuing investigation. “Those who go intending to die quickly in a suicide attack. And there are those who want to participate in an act of jihad, taking a great risk because they are going to acquire contacts, training and experience. They want to fight, survive and return. Those are the ones who worry us the most.”

Categories: Media, Politics

NSA Says It Can’t Search Its Own Emails

July 23, 2013 - 11:39am

The NSA is a "supercomputing powerhouse" with machines so powerful their speed is measured in thousands of trillions of operations per second. The agency turns its giant machine brains to the task of sifting through unimaginably large troves of data its surveillance programs capture. 

But ask the NSA, as part of a freedom of information request, to do a seemingly simple search of its own employees' email? The agency says it doesn’t have the technology.

"There's no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately," NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Blacker told me last week.

The system is “a little antiquated and archaic," she added.

I filed a request last week for emails between NSA employees and employees of the National Geographic Channel over a specific time period. The TV station had aired a friendly documentary on the NSA and I want to better understand the agency's public-relations efforts.

A few days after filing the request, Blacker called, asking me to narrow my request since the FOIA office can search emails only “person by person," rather than in bulk. The NSA has more than 30,000 employees.

I reached out to the NSA press office seeking more information but got no response.

It’s actually common for large corporations to do bulk searches of their employees email as part of internal investigations or legal discovery.

“It’s just baffling,” says Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “This is an agency that’s charged with monitoring millions of communications globally and they can’t even track their own internal communications in response to a FOIA request.”

Federal agencies’ public records offices are often underfunded, according to Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at University of Maryland and a longtime observer of FOIA issues.

But, Dalglish says, “If anybody is going to have the money to engage in evaluation of digital information, it’s the NSA for heaven’s sake.”

For more on the NSA, read our story on the agency’s tapping of Internet cables, our fact-check on claims about the NSA and Sept. 11, and our timeline of surveillance law.

Categories: Media, Politics

Podcast: FEMA’s Flawed Flood Maps

July 23, 2013 - 10:01am

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is responsible for drawing the flood maps that determine how much millions of Americans must pay in flood insurance premiums. A number of these maps, however, often rely on outdated data and can mistakenly place homeowners into high-risk flood areas.

ProPublica’s Theo Meyer and Al Shaw join us on the podcast this week to discuss their reporting on FEMA’s flawed flood maps; how Congress has drastically cut funding for updating flood maps in recent years, even as extreme weather has grown more frequent; and how certain federal programs have encouraged developers to build and rebuild in areas that are increasingly vulnerable to flooding.

You can read all of Meyer and Shaw’s reporting on flood maps on our series page. You can also listen to this podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.

Do you know about problems with FEMA’s flood mapping? Tell our reporters about it here.

Categories: Media, Politics

Does the NSA Tap That? What We Still Don’t Know About the Agency’s Internet Surveillance

July 22, 2013 - 12:41pm

Among the snooping revelations of recent weeks, there have been tantalizing bits of evidence that the NSA is tapping fiber-optic cables that carry nearly all international phone and Internet data.

The idea that the NSA is sweeping up vast data streams via cables and other infrastructure — often described as the “backbone of the Internet” — is not new. In late 2005, the New York Times first described the tapping, which began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. More details emerged in early 2006 when an AT&T whistleblower came forward.

But like other aspects of NSA surveillance, virtually everything about this kind of NSA surveillance is highly secret and we’re left with far from a full picture.

Is the NSA really sucking up everything?

It’s not clear.

The most detailed, though now dated, information on the topic comes from Mark Klein. He’s the former AT&T technician who went public in 2006 describing the installation in 2002-03 of a secret room in an AT&T building in San Francisco. The equipment, detailed in technical documents, allowed the NSA to conduct what Klein described as “vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the internet -- whether that be peoples' e-mail, web surfing or any other data.”

Klein said he was told there was similar equipment installed at AT&T facilities in San Diego, Seattle, and San Jose.

There is also evidence that the vacuuming has continued in some form right up to the present.

A draft NSA inspector’s general report from 2009, recently published by the Washington Post, refers to access via two companies “to large volumes of foreign-to-foreign communications transiting the United States through fiberoptic cables, gateway switches, and data networks.”

Recent stories by the Associated Press and the Washington Post also described the NSA’s cable-tapping, but neither included details on the scope of this surveillance.

A recently published NSA slide, dated April 2013, refers to so-called “Upstream” “collection” of “communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past.” 

These cables carry vast quantities of information, including 99 percent of international phone and Internet data, according to research firm TeleGeography.

This upstream surveillance is in contrast to another method of NSA snooping, Prism, in which the NSA isn’t tapping anything. Instead, the agency gets users’ data with the cooperation of tech companies like Facebook and Google.  

Other documents leaked by Edward Snowden to the Guardian provide much more detail about the upstream surveillance by the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the NSA’s U.K. counterpart.

GCHQ taps cables where they land in the United Kingdom carrying Internet and, phone data. According to the Guardian, unnamed companies serve as “intercept partners” in the effort.

The NSA is listening in on those taps too. By May 2012, 250 NSA analysts along with 300 GCHQ analysts were sifting through the data from the British taps.

Is purely domestic communication being swept up in the NSA’s upstream surveillance?

It’s not at all clear.

Going back to the revelations of former AT&T technician Mark Klein — which, again, date back a decade — a detailed expert analysis concluded that the secret NSA equipment installed at an AT&T building was capable of collecting information “not only for communications to overseas locations, but for purely domestic communications as well."

On the other hand, the 2009 NSA inspector general report refers specifically to collecting “foreign-to-foreign communications” that are “transiting the United States through fiber-optic cables, gateway switches, and data networks”

But even if the NSA is tapping only international fiber optic cables, it could still pick up communications between Americans in the U.S.

That’s because data flowing over the Internet does not always take the most efficient geographic route to its destination.

Instead, says Tim Stronge of the telecom consulting firm TeleGeography, data takes “the least congested route that is available to their providers.”

“If you’re sending an email from New York to Washington, it could go over international links,” Stronge says, “but it’s pretty unlikely.”

That’s because the United States has a robust domestic network. (That’s not true for some other areas of the world, which can have their in-country Internet traffic routed through another country's more robust network.)                            

But there are other scenarios under which Americans’ purely domestic communication might pass over the international cables. Google, for example, maintains a network of data centers around the world.

Google spokeswoman Nadja Blagojevic told ProPublica that, “Rather than storing each user's data on a single machine or set of machines, we distribute all data — including our own — across many computers in different locations.”

We asked Blagojevic whether Google stores copies of Americans’ data abroad, for example users’ Gmail accounts.  She declined to answer.  

Are companies still cooperating with the NSA’s Internet tapping?

We don’t know.

The Washington Post had a story earlier this month about agreements the government has struck with telecoms, but lots of details are still unclear, including what the government is getting, and how many companies are cooperating.

The Post pointed to a 2003 “Network Security Agreement” between the U.S. government and the fiber optic network operator Global Crossing, which at the time was being sold to a foreign firm.

That agreement, which the Post says became a model for similar deals with other companies, did not authorize surveillance. Rather, the newspaper reported, citing unnamed sources, it ensured “that when U.S. government agencies seek access to the massive amounts of data flowing through their networks, the companies have systems in place to provide it securely.”

Global Crossing was later sold to Colorado-based Level 3 Communications, which owns many international fiber optic cables, and the 2003 agreement was replaced in 2011.

Level 3 released a statement in response to the Post story saying that neither agreement requires Level 3 “to cooperate in unauthorized surveillance on U.S. or foreign soil.”

The agreement does, however, explicitly require the company to cooperate with “lawful” surveillance.

More evidence, though somewhat dated, of corporate cooperation with NSA upstream surveillance comes from the 2009 inspector general report.

“Two of the most productive [signals intelligence] collection partnerships that NSA has with the private sector are with COMPANY A and COMPANY B,” the report says. “These two relationships enable NSA to access large volumes of foreign-to-foreign communications transiting the United States through fiber-optic cables, gateway switches, and data networks.”

There’s circumstantial evidence that those companies may be AT&T and Verizon.

It’s also worth noting that the NSA might not need corporate cooperation in all cases. In 2005, the AP reported on the outfitting of the submarine Jimmy Carter to place taps on undersea fiber-optic cables in case “stations that receive and transmit the communications along the lines are on foreign soil or otherwise inaccessible.”

What legal authority is the NSA using for upstream surveillance?

It’s unclear, though it may be a 2008 law that expanded the government’s surveillance powers.

The only evidence that speaks directly to this issue is the leaked slide on upstream surveillance, and in particular the document’s heading: “FAA702 Operations.” That’s a reference to Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act. That legislation amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 1970s law that governs government surveillance in the United States.

Under Section 702, the attorney general and director of national intelligence issue one-year blanket authorizations to for surveillance of non-citizens who are “reasonably believed” to be outside the U.S. These authorizations don’t have to name individuals, but rather allow for targeting of broad categories of people.

The government has so-called minimization procedures that are supposed to limit the surveillance of American citizens or people in the U.S. Those procedures are subject to review by the FISA court.

Despite the procedures, there is evidence that in practice American communications are swept up by surveillance under this section.

In the case of Prism, for example, which is authorized under the same part of the law, the Washington Post reported that the NSA uses a standard of “51 percent confidence” in a target’s foreignness.

And according to minimization procedures dating from 2009 published by the Guardian, there are also exceptions when it comes to holding on to American communications. For example, encrypted communications — which, given the routine use of digital encryption, might include vast amounts of material — can be kept indefinitely.

The government also has the authority to order communications companies to assist in the surveillance, and to do so in secret.

How much Internet traffic is the NSA storing?

We don’t know, but experts speculate it’s a lot.

“I think that there’s evidence that they’re starting to move toward a model where they just store everything,” says Dan Auerbach, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The Utah data center is a big indicator of this because the sheer storage capacity has just rocketed up.”

We know more details about how the GCHQ operates in Britain, again thanks to the Guardian’s reporting. A breakthrough in 2011 allowed GCHQ to store metadata from its cable taps for 30 days and content for three days. The paper reported on how the spy agency — with some input from the NSA — then filters what it’s getting:

The processing centres apply a series of sophisticated computer programmes in order to filter the material through what is known as MVR – massive volume reduction. The first filter immediately rejects high-volume, low-value traffic, such as peer-to-peer downloads, which reduces the volume by about 30%. Others pull out packets of information relating to "selectors" – search terms including subjects, phone numbers and email addresses of interest. Some 40,000 of these were chosen by GCHQ and 31,000 by the NSA.

How does the NSA do filtering of the data it gets off cables in the United States?

“I think that’s the trillion dollar question that I’m sure the NSA is working really hard at all the time,” Auerbach, the EFF expert. “I think it’s an incredibly difficult problem.”

Categories: Media, Politics

Introducing the Voices of Patient Harm

July 19, 2013 - 1:42pm

Over the last year, ProPublica has been investigating patient harm, one of the leading causes of death in America, and inviting providers and patients to share their experiences with our reporters. We’ve received hundreds of responses, and continue to report based on those tips as well as insights shared in our growing Facebook community.

Today, we’re expanding our call for stories with the Voices of Patient Harm, a new Tumblr featuring a mosaic of personal stories from people affected by patient safety issues. There are those who've been harmed directly, like Carla Muss-Jacobs, who describes the consequences of a surgical injury:

The injuries I sustained were NOT the standard “known risks." It was later discovered by my highly experienced medical expert that I did not need a total knee athroplasty, there was no medical evidence for the procedure. I was butchered and used as a medical guinea pig.

And there are others who have watched as loved ones suffered, like Veronica James, who recounts the injury and death of her mother, Vera Eliscu, in acute-care hospital in New Jersey:  

After her injury, Mom never spoke again nor barely moved. I learned coma-stimulation, and became her therapist, as [physical therapists] refused to exercise her. From Jan. 09 until her Wrongful Death in Aug 09, I spent 7 days a week advocating in facilities on Mom’s behalf, documenting her med’s and [hospital-acquired illnesses] ... bringing in acupuncture & nutrition, and fighting with staff, firing 3 doctors in the process. 

Robin Karr underwent a total hysterectomy without her consent. She concludes her tragic story with a call for change based on her own experience:

I want to see a better system put in place for checking for correct surgery and proper consent.

Have you been affected by patient harm? Help us capture the stories behind the statistics by sharing your story and photo with us here. 


The Voices of Patient Harm is part of ProPublica’s ongoing investigation into patient safety. Have a private tip? Share it with our reporters here.

Categories: Media, Politics

Do You Know About Problems With FEMA’s Flood Mapping?

July 19, 2013 - 12:18pm

Homeowners across the country are facing headaches over flooding, but not because of water-damaged property or lack of insurance. They are being asked to buy insurance they don’t need for houses built on high ground. 

That’s because the Federal Emergency Management Agency has used outdated data in a number of its new flood maps and mistakenly mapped homeowners into high-risk flood areas. Homeowners in such areas with federally backed mortgages (and most mortgages are) are required to buy insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.

We’ve heard from homeowners such as Donna Edgar, whose home in Texas was mapped into a high-risk flood area last year by mistake. But we don’t know exactly how widespread the problem is. That’s where you can help. If you think FEMA has mapped into a high-risk flood area by mistake, please let us know by filling out the form below.

Categories: Media, Politics

Using Outdated Data, FEMA Is Wrongly Placing Homeowners in Flood Zones

July 18, 2013 - 12:07pm

When Donna Edgar found out that new flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would place her house in a high-risk flood zone, she couldn’t believe it.

Her home, on the ranch she and her husband own in Texas hill country about 60 miles north of Austin, sits well back from the nearby Lampasas River.

“Her house is on a hill,” said Herb Darling, the director of environmental services for Burnet County, where Edgar lives. “There’s no way it’s going to flood.”

Yet the maps, released last year, placed the Edgars in what FEMA calls a “special flood hazard area.” Homeowners in such areas are often required, and always encouraged, to buy federal flood insurance, which the Edgars did.

FEMA eventually admitted the maps were wrong. But it took Edgar half a dozen engineers (many of whom volunteered their time), almost $1,000 of her own money and what she called an “ungodly number of hours” of research and phone calls over the course of a year to prove it.

Edgars is far from alone.

From Maine to Oregon, local floodplain managers say FEMA’s recent flood maps — which dictate the premiums that 5.5 million Americans pay for flood insurance — have often been built using outdated, inaccurate data. Homeowners, in turn, have to bear the cost of fixing FEMA’s mistakes.

“It’s been a mess,” Darling said. “It’s been a headache for a lot of people.”

Joseph Young, Maine’s floodplain mapping coordinator, said his office gets calls “almost on a daily basis” from homeowners who say they’ve been mapped in high-risk flood areas in error. More often than not, he said, their complaints have merit. “There’s a lot of people who have a new map that’s unreliable,” he said.

Maps built with out-of-date data can also result in homeowners at risk of flooding not knowing the threat they face.

FEMA is currently finalizing new maps for Fargo, N.D., yet the maps don’t include any recent flood data, said April Walker, the city engineer, including from when the Red River overran its banks in 1997, 2009 and 2011. Those floods were the worst in Fargo’s history.

Fargo has more recent data, Walker said, but FEMA hasn’t incorporated it.

It’s unclear exactly how many new maps FEMA has issued in recent years are at least partly based on older data. While FEMA’s website allows anybody to look-up flood maps for their areas, the agency’s maps don’t show the age of the underlying data.

FEMA’s director of risk analysis, Doug Bellomo, said it was “very rare” for the agency to digitize the old paper flood maps without updating some of the data. “We really don’t go down the road” of simply digitizing old maps, he said.

FEMA did not respond to questions about the maps for Fargo or other specific areas.

State and local floodplain officials pointed to examples where FEMA had issued new maps based at least in part on outdated data. The reason, they said, wasn’t complicated.

“Not enough funding, pure and simple,” Young said.

Using new technology, FEMA today is able to gather far more accurate elevation data than it could in the 1970s and 1980s, when most of the old flood maps were made. Lidar, in which airplanes map terrain by firing laser pulses at the ground, can provide data that’s 10 times more accurate than the old methods.

Lidar is also expensive. Yet as we’ve reported, Congress, with the support of the White House, has actually cut map funding by more than half since 2010, from $221 million down to $100 million this year.

With limited funding, FEMA has concentrated on updating maps for the populated areas along the coasts. In rural areas, “it’s sort of a necessary evil to reissue maps with older data on them,” said Sally McConkey, an engineer with the Illinois State Water Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has a contract with FEMA to produce flood maps in the state.

When old maps are digitized, mapmakers try to match up road intersections visible on them with the ones seen in modern satellite imagery (similar to what you can see using Google Earth). But the old maps and the new imagery don’t always line up correctly, leading to what Alan R. Lulloff, the science services program director with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, called a “warping” effect.

“It can show areas that are actually on high ground as being in the flood hazard area when they’re not,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem.”

When FEMA issued new maps last year for Livingston Parish in Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, they included new elevation data. But the flood studies, said Eddie Aydell III, the chief engineer with Alvin Fairburn in Denham Springs, La., who examined the maps, were “a conglomeration of many different ancient engineering studies” dating from the 1980s to 2001. The mapmakers did not match up the new elevation data with the older data correctly, he said, making structures in the parish seem lower than they really are.

“It’s going to be a nightmare for the residents of our parish,” he said.

Bonnie Marston’s parents, Jim and Glynda Childs, moved to Andover, Maine, where Marston lives with her husband, in 2010 with the intention of building a house. But when they applied for a loan the bank told them that FEMA’s new flood maps for the county, issued the year before, had placed the land on which they planned to build in a special flood hazard area. The cost: a $3,200 annual flood insurance bill, which the Childs had to pay upfront.

Marston spent about $1,400 to hire a surveyor, who concluded her parents did not belong in a special flood hazard area. FEMA eventually removed the requirement for them to buy flood insurance — though it didn’t actually update the map. The bank refunded the flood insurance premium, but Marston said FEMA wouldn’t refund the cost of the survey.

“In my mind it’s a huge rip-off,” Marston said.

Edgar, 68, a retired IBM software developer, said she couldn’t understand why FEMA thought her house was suddenly at risk of flooding. When she called FEMA and asked, she said the agency couldn’t tell her.

“They just said, ‘You need to buy flood insurance,’” she said, and told her she could apply for what’s known as a letter of map amendment if she thought she’d been mapped into a special flood hazard area in error. She worried that being in a high-risk flood area would diminish the value of her home.

Her husband, Thomas, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, knew David R. Maidment, a civil engineering professor there who is an expert on flood insurance mapping. While she hired a surveyor and wrangled with FEMA, Maidment and several of his Ph.D. students drove up to the ranch to study it as a class project.

The experience, Maidment said, showed him “in a very small microcosm” the importance of using up-to-date elevation data in new maps. The Texas state government paid to map Burnet County, where the Edgars’ ranch is located, in 2011 using lidar. But FEMA’s new maps for the county don’t include the lidar data.

FEMA removed the Edgars from the special flood hazard area in March, but again it hasn’t actually changed the maps. Letters of map amendment acknowledge that FEMA’s maps were incorrect without actually changing them. While the Edgars don’t have to buy flood insurance, the new, inaccurate maps remain.

Darling, the county’s director of environmental services, said he had gotten calls from dozens of homeowners with similar complaints about the new flood maps.

“We’ve still got ‘em coming in,” he said.

The contractor that created the new maps appeared to have taken shortcuts in drawing them, Darling said. Without new lidar data, he added, issuing a new map is “just a waste of money.”

The experience, Edgar said, had left her feeling deeply frustrated, as a both homeowner and a taxpayer. FEMA hasn’t reimbursed her for the surveying costs or for the flood insurance premium she and her husband paid. “It falls to the homeowner to hire a professional engineer and pay” hundreds, even thousands, “to disprove what I would call their shoddy work,” she said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

Have you experienced problems with FEMA's flood maps firsthand? Let us know.

Categories: Media, Politics