As shocked as you may have been to learn about the secret National Security Agency programs leaked by Ed Snowden earlier this month, this type of surveillance is not entirely new or unheard of. In his 2010 book, The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, journalist Shane Harris traced the evolution of these surveillance programs in the U.S. Harris says that as the digital age advanced, the NSA reached a crossroads at which they realized that analog tactics like phone tapping were quickly becoming obsolete: there was a whole new world of digital information to be accessed.
"[T]hey're realizing," says Harris, "if we can get into this 'Digital Network' ... [that] they would effectively be able to monitor global communications."
Because these communications were traveling through lines inside the United States, the United States was the central switching station for the global communications grid. The laws at the time, however, forbid much of that kind of intelligence gathering in the United States. But the law at the time forbid that kind of intelligence gathering in the United States.
"9/11," says Harris, "changed that."
Shane Harris is a reporter at Foreign Policy. He's also written about intelligence, surveillance and cybersecurity for Washingtonian and National Journal.
On why T.I.A. (Total Information Awareness) was shut down
"[W]hat he was proposing at the time — and this is before we realized what had been going on in secret at the NSA, sounded Orwellian. It sounded almost absurd. The idea that you would want to go out and give the government access to every single person's record and let them root through it, really seemed just a step too far, even in the one or two years after 9/11 when the country was still very much on edge and we were fighting a war in Afghanistan; it just seemed like it was just excessive. The name creeped people out. It was called 'Total Information Awareness.' It had this logo of the pyramid from the great seal of the united states with this floating eye on it casing a beam over the globe, it looked very menacing."
On Snowden working for a private contractor
"What I'm surprised by is how it is that any employee at his level, whether it a contractor or not, would have access to some of the information that he had access to. The NSA prides itself on being one of the most secure agencies in government. This is the agency after all that specializes in cryptology. They are code-makers and code-breakers. So how is it that these incredibly sensitive documents — particularly the court order related to metadata — was just accessible to anyone and to remove with a thumb drive, regardless of whether they were a contractor or not?"
On the generational value gap
"There is a cultural collision, a clash that's going on here with these organizations that are built on compartmentalization and secrecy and deceit to a certain degree, needing the expertise of someone like Ed Snowden who grew up in the digital age, who grew up using computers as if they were regular household items. That's the workforce that the NSA has to pull from. The value systems may not be compatible, however. It strikes me that, you know, there are a lot of people though who work for the NSA who probably do feel the way that Snowden did, who believe in this idea of freedom of information. ... But you make a commitment when you go to work for these agencies, to keep the secrets and to almost kind of push your own beliefs to the side. ... It used to be perhaps, that commitment to that secrecy and that code of ethic was more likely to trump anyone's personal beliefs, but the more that you have these people coming in who do see things differently, I think it does increase the likelihood that you're going to have leaks like this in the future. At the same time, the NSA can't afford to say, 'We won't anybody under the age of 35.' or, 'We won't hire anybody who has expressed an interest in digital privacy rights.'"
"You could call it a 'grave' mistake," says WNBC-TV of New York City.
The tombstone of Edward I. Koch, the city's colorful, three-term mayor who died in February, listed an incorrect birth date for him. Instead of showing Dec. 12, 1924, the year mistakenly read 1942 — until yesterday.
The company that prepared the headstone corrected it Tuesday using composite granite, according to CNN. The network also interviewed former Koch spokesman George Arzt, who said, "Ed would have loved this attention and called the situation 'ridiculous'!"
Tommy Flynn of Flynn Funeral and Cremation and Memorial Services, which engraved the stone, told the New York Daily News: "It was a simple mistake, and once it was brought to my attention I moved heaven and earth to fix it, because I admired the guy."
Koch had arranged for his headstone four years before his death, and inspected it when it was finished in 2009, says The New York Times. The last items to be filled in were his birth and death dates.
The mayor's former chief of staff, Diane Coffey, told WNBC, "As Ed Koch used to say, 'It's always important to correct the record.' "
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is using drones on United States soil for surveillance purposes, the agency's director, Robert Mueller, told a Senate committee today.
"Our footprint is very small, and we have very few and of limited use, and we're exploring not only the use but also the necessary guidelines for that use," said Mueller , answering a question from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
Mueller, who was testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said they were used in a "very, very minimal way and very seldom."
"FBI hostage negotiators used surveillance drones during a standoff earlier this year with an Alabama man who had taken a boy hostage inside a makeshift underground bunker.
"Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) about what privacy protections are used in deploying drones and storing the images they collect, Mr. Mueller said their use was narrowly focused on specific incidents.
" 'It's very seldom used and generally used in a particular incident when you need the capability,' said Mr. Mueller, who said he wasn't sure what becomes of the images recorded by such drones. 'It is very narrowly focused on particularized cases and particularized needs.' "
NPR's Carrie Johnson reminds us that "the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms also have drones."
If you remember, drones became a huge topic of discussion after Rep. Rand Paul led a 13-hour filibuster, where he demanded the Obama administration pledge not to use drones against U.S. citizens on American soil.
Of course, Mueller said the aircraft are being used for surveillance, so this is different.
Attorney General Eric Holder did eventually respond to Paul, saying the president doesn't have the "authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil."
We didn't plan it, but somehow, it has turned into Potato Week here at The Salt. The latest twist in the tater tales takes us to Capitol Hill.
Americans love to pile on the potatoes - we consumed a whopping 112 pounds per capita last year. But lately, the potato industry has been playing the part of jilted lover and taking its heartache to Congress.
According to the National Potato Council, the U.S. Department of Agriculture "discriminates" against fresh, white potatoes.
Back in 2007, the USDA ruled that women and children enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, couldn't buy potatoes with the program's vouchers. Instead, the nearly 9 million WIC participants, who have to be poor and at risk of under- or malnutrition to enroll in the program, are given a monthly benefit ($10 for women and $6 for children) to buy any fruit or vegetable except white potatoes.
This month, industry groups persuaded some members of the House Appropriations Committee to introduce an amendment to change that — by permitting states the option to include potatoes in their WIC programs. The potato lobby is also hoping to change the final WIC rule on what foods are eligible for the WIC benefit. USDA is taking comments on it until June 29.
"There is an inconsistency with the program, and it creates a misperception that the potato doesn't have nutritional value," Mark Szymanski, spokesman for the National Potato Council, tells The Salt. Potatoes, and especially potato skins, are loaded with nutrients like Vitamin C, potassium and antioxidants. And, Szymanski adds, the most recent USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that women and children increase their consumption of starchy vegetables.
So why not add potatoes to the WIC program?
According to WIC advocates, potatoes don't belong in the program because a scientific panel, the Institute of Medicine, found in 2005 that Americans already consume more than enough starchy vegetables.
"The point of the supplementation program is to get our population to consume more leafy green, red, and orange fruits and vegetables because they're lacking in their diet," says Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association. "And it makes sense that these food [rules] are driven by science and not by politics."
Also, it's not as though people in WIC can't or don't eat potatoes.
"People are still buying them with their own money," says Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy for the Food Research and Action Center, a group that works closely with people in food assistance programs like WIC. "We aren't hearing from them that they have a potato access problem. They can get potatoes."
Instead, Henchy argues that the potato industry's current campaign to change the USDA rule is just another one of its attempts to circumvent the scientific process that determines which foods should be allowed in publicly funded food assistance programs.
Potato industry groups were able to influence the updating of the school lunch program's nutritional standards in 2012, Henchy says. At first, the USDA wanted to limit the amount of potatoes in school lunches and mandate no more than two servings a week. But the industry argued the spud was being unfairly excluded. And it found friends in Congress to ensure that french fries would remain a staple in the school cafeteria.
"They were emboldened by that win to try to do something on WIC," says Henchy. "So ultimately, this isn't just a potato war. It's about open, transparent processes versus people who have political clout and money to direct nutrition policy through veiled amendments."
The industry, however, maintains that it's about restoring the good image of the potato. "This policy impacts potato growers, but it's not a financial issue for us," says Szymanski. "The problem is that the government is saying one class of vegetables is less important than another."
It was early September, that's springtime in Western Australia, and two young biologists, Dwayne Gwynne and David Rentz, were on a field trip, wandering dirt roads near the highways, looking for insects, when one of them noticed a loose beer bottle lying on the ground — not so unusual in the Dongara region, where Australians zooming by often launch beer bottles from their car windows. This particular bottle was a "stubbie," squat, 370 milliliters, colored golden brown.
When the two looked more closely, they saw something extra, hanging on the bottom end. It was a beetle, and it was fiercely gripping the glass. They shook it, and it wouldn't fall off. It wanted to be there.
Looking even closer, they recognized it as an Australian jewel beetle, and looking closer, they noticed it had (as they wrote later) its "genitalia everted — attempting to insert the aedeagus," which is a very polite way to say they were looking at a beetle attempting to mate with a glass container. Clearly, this was a very confused individual.
But then they found three more stubby beer bottles, and on two of them, surprisingly, were more male beetles, also "mounting" their bottles. That makes three frustrated males.
Hmmm. That got them interested. So they wandered about, found four loose stubbies, and placed them side by side on open ground where they could be seen by any male beetles flying overhead. "Within 30 minutes," they wrote later, "two of the bottles had attracted beetles. In total, 6 male beetles were observed to mount the stubbies. Once on the bottles, the beetles did not leave unless displaced by us."
More surprising, Gwynne and Rentz found one beetle hanging onto his bottle even while when "a number of ants" were busy biting "the soft portions of his everted genitalia" — and still he stuck to his business. This was not just a pattern, this was a mission. What, the two scientists wondered, could explain these beetles' super-allegiance to Australian beer bottles? It wasn't the beer. These males didn't gather at the spout end, and the bottles, the scientists said, were long dry.
The answer became obvious when they got a close look at a female Australian jewel beetle. Females, as it happens, are golden brown. They are big, much bigger than the males. But most important, they are covered, as you see here, with dimples, little bumps.
Australian beer bottles at the time (this happened in the 1980s) were also big, also golden brown, and down near the base, they also had little bumps, arrayed very much like the bumps on a female jewel beetle.
Clearly, Gwynne and Rentz wrote in their paper, the males were unable to distinguish between beer bottles and lady beetles. They thought — or rather their inner wiring told them — they were mating.
This is what biologists call "an evolutionary trap." It's what happens when birds, turtles, moths, beetles, all kinds of animals, wired to respond to certain cues in nature, bump instead into a human inventions and get confused. They try to do the right thing — like having a little baby beetle, and end up spending hours scraping glass.
When sea turtles finish laying eggs on beaches, they look for moonlight over the ocean. The light tells them which direction leads back to the sea. Hotels with big lights on their end of the beach can confuse mother turtles, making them go the wrong way. Some hotels now douse their lights when sea turtles come to lay their eggs.
There are so many examples. Farmers in the Midwest used to put red insulators on their electric fences. Hummingbirds thought they were red flowers. If they touched the wire with their beaks, they died. The insulator company, when it realized what was happening, stopped using red paint, and farmers eventually substituted not-red models. As the world gets more crowded, some humans are learning to try — at least some of the time — to be less of a nuisance to other animals.
That, happily, is how our jewel beetle story ends. When beer companies in Australia learned that their bottles were having a discernible effect on the population of jewel beetles — so many males were spending useless hours fornicating, often dying under the hot Australian sun and leaving no heirs — the companies decided to change their bottles. The little bumps were eliminated to be replaced by smooth glass, the beetles lost all interest bottles, and life in the Australian west — at least beetle life — went back to normal.
The problem is, this problem doesn't end. Humans keep inventing things. Animals keep bumping into these things, sometimes with very unhappy results, and we have to keep correcting our mistakes. That's one reason we've been given the big brains, I suppose, to help us undo the many things we've done when didn't even know we were doing them.
Thanks to Carl Zimmer, Radiolab regular and author of the wonderful blog, The Loom, whose musings about evolutionary traps and the work of Bruce Robertson of Bard College, Jennifer Rehage of Florida International University, and Andrew Sih of University of California, Davis, got me thinking about all this. Also, thanks to two wonderful songwriters out of Britain, Flanders and Swann, who years ago wrote about the impossible love of an armadillo for an Army Tank — one of the most poignant evolutionary traps ever. Their song includes these lines ...
Then I saw them in a hollow, by a yellow muddy bank
An Armadillo singing ... to an armour-plated tank.
Should I tell him, gaunt and rusting, with the willow tree above,
This - abandoned on manoeuvres - is the object of your love?
I left him to his singing,
Cycled home without a pause,
Never tell a man the truth
About the one that he adores.
And to further celebrate my theme, for those of you who want to see beetle/bottle footage from Australia, here's a BBC video which would be X-rated if you were an underage beetle unaccompanied by an adult.