Digital Insecurity Is the New Normal

The latest widespread ransomware attack, which has locked up computers in nearly 150 countries, has rightfully captured the world’s attention. But the focus shouldn’t be on the scale of the attack and the immediate harm it is causing, or even on the source of the software code that enabled it (a previous attack against the National Security Agency). What’s most important is that British doctors have reverted to pen and paper in the wake of the attacks. They’ve given up on insecure digital technologies in favor of secure but inconvenient analog ones.

This “back to analog” moment isn’t just a knee-jerk, stopgap reaction to a short-term problem. It’s a rational response to our increasingly insecure internet, and we are going to see more of it ahead.

As part of our research, in 2015 we developed a scenario for the not-so-distant future called “the New Normal,” in which consumers’ baseline belief has flipped from “the internet is basically safe unless I do something stupid” to “the internet is fundamentally insecure, a dangerous neighborhood in which my safety is always at risk.” The impetus for the flipping in that scenario was a flurry of larger, ever more visible hacking attacks — of personal email accounts (Colin Powell and John Podesta) and corporate data (Yahoo and Sony), not to mention bank account information. Last week’s ransomware attack may start to tip a significant proportion of internet users over the edge.

The surprise is not that the frequency of such attacks is accelerating; it’s that it took so long. There are at least three reasons for this acceleration. First, the internet has a fundamentally insecure infrastructure that was initially made for interoperability among a small number of trusted parties, but is now being used by billions who do not know and should not trust one another.

The second reason is that increasingly inventive criminals have become today’s most ambitious internet entrepreneurs. Their work has been made easier by the theft of powerful hacking tools created by and for state security agencies but now available for sale.

Third is the commercial innovation imperative. Consumer demand for digital devices and services keeps pushing companies to the limits of what is technically possible, and then pressing them to go even a little bit further, where security often becomes nice to have but not a necessity.

Silicon Valley has responded creatively, but there’s no silver bullet. Experts have encouraged us all to use two-factor authentication, but text messages can be intercepted even with it. We’ve moved to biometrics, but once a fingerprint or iris scan is stolen, there is no way to change it the way you can change a password. Such security measures are better than nothing, but they won’t repair the internet’s underlying structural flaws.

So what would it mean if we crossed the threshold to digital insecurity? One possibility is that some things we now take for granted — from banking online to electronic medical records — will shift from being seen as common sense to being viewed as scary, dangerous, even reckless.

We know what it looks like when expectations of security in physical environments degrade: People put triple locks on their doors, retreat into gated communities, look over their shoulder as they walk down the street. In our scenario, we’ve imagined the digital equivalent. Will you soon be asked to place your phone and laptop in a locker before you are allowed to enter an office building or a friend’s home? Will you tell your colleagues to call you before they send you an email with an attachment?

Governments will start worrying more about protecting themselves than about innovating in services. Industries like health care and finance will go back to basics. Getting paper money from a bank teller may be less a novelty than a necessity. What happens if your hospital has fully converted to digital X-rays and doesn’t have an analog backup machine lying around? (The British National Health Service is already finding out.)

A society and economy that moves in this direction would be different from the one we have today, and very different from what Silicon Valley is looking to build. Security needs to be made a priority at least as great as innovation right now. We recognize that the consequences of prioritizing security are not all good, and the slowing or reversal of digitization will be a significant headwind for the United States economy even more than for other countries, at a time and in a political environment that really can’t afford such a setback. But there is no other viable choice. You can’t fix a broken foundation by simply building more stories atop the house that rests on it.

The world spends a lot of time right now thinking and dreaming about how life will be digitized, mostly for the better. We don’t yet have a word for even a partial “return to analog,” but we will have to start looking for one at the same time as we work to create a much more secure internet.

The New York Times

Saudi Crown Prince Receives NSA Director

Riyadh – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdulaziz, Deputy Premier and Minister of Interior has met at the Ministry the Director of United States National Security Agency (NSA), Navy Admiral Michael Rogers and his accompanying delegation.

During the meeting on Thursday, they discussed a number of security issues of mutual interest, including enhancing joint cooperation to combat extremism and terrorism.

The meeting was attended by Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Naif bin Abdulaziz, Advisor to Minister of Interior, Deputy Minister of Interior Abdulrahman bin Ali al-Rubai’an, Deputy Director General of General Investigation Lieutenant General Abdullah al-Qarni and Chargé d’Affaires of the United States Embassy to the Kingdom Christopher Henzel.

Trump Accuses Democrats of Making up Russia Collusion Story

US President Donald Trump accused Democrats on Monday of fabricating allegations of presidential election interference against Russia and creating more “fake news.”

His tweet came just as Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency chiefs were to speak to Congress on what ties Trump may have with Russia and his shocking claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Former national intelligence director “James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!” Trump said on Twitter.

“The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!” he added.

Trump also tweeted that the “real story” is the leaking of classified information.

The House Intelligence Committee will hear from FBI Director James Comey on whether US officials believe Russia tried to bolster Trump’s chances in the election and if there were any connections between Moscow and Trump’s campaign aides.

Comey has been invited to testify along with NSA director Michael Rogers.

Trump and his entourage’s possible ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin have been the subject of much speculation since before he was elected on November 8.

US intelligence agencies in January took the extraordinary step of stating publicly that they had concluded that hackers working for Russia broke into the email accounts of senior Democrats and released embarrassing ones with the aim of helping Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.

Even since then, the question of whether Trump and company were or are somehow in cahoots with Russia has dominated the national conversation.

A congressional panel so far has found no evidence that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia, its chairman said Sunday.

Based on “everything I have up to this morning — no evidence of collusion,” by Trump’s team and Moscow, Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News.

Moscow has denied involvement in the hacks, and Trump has denounced the tumult over alleged Russia connections as a “total witch hunt.”

Bahrain: NSA’s Control Limited to Terror Crimes

In this Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 file photo, Bahraini anti-government protesters wave flags and chant during a rally of thousands organized by Al-Wefaq.

Manama – Kingdom of Bahrain has announced a new decree granting National Security Agency (NSA) judicial powers to arrest and detain civilians involved in terror crimes.

Referring to Decree 1/2017 that amended provisions of Decree 14/2002 establishing the NSA which granted the Agency officers judicial control powers, Senior Advocate General Ahmed al-Dossary said the powers of NSA officers to assume judicial control power to arrest and detain will be restricted to terror crimes.

“The powers of NSA officers to exercise judicial powers to arrest and detain will be restricted to terror crimes as stipulated in the Decree,” said Dossary in a statement, adding, the amendment is in view of the high risk of terror crimes which necessitates prompt action to thwart plots, halt their impact, gather evidence and arrest the culprits.

The arresting and detainment power in all other crimes remains the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior.

Whenever the NSA discovers crimes that have no terror link, it will refer them to the Ministry of Interior to take the legal action in this regard.

The decree stipulates that apart from terror crimes, the NSA should refer the cases that require making arrests or detentions to the Ministry of Interior to take the legal action in this regard.

The amendment to the Decree comes in the wake of the recent Jau jail attack by armed gunmen in which a policeman was killed and another wounded allowing several prison inmates to escape.

There has been no information about the attackers, who freed about 10 prisoners from the Jau central prison.

Congressional Report Slams Snowden as Backers Press Obama for Pardon

New York-A report from Congress issued Thursday condemned Edward Snowden, saying the National Security Agency leaker is not a “principled” whistleblower and that the vast majority of the documents he stole were defense secrets that had nothing to do with privacy.

The Republican-led House intelligence committee released a three-page unclassified summary of its two-year bipartisan examination of how Snowden was able to remove more than 1.5 million classified documents from secure NSA networks, what the documents contained and the damage their removal caused to U.S. national security.

Snowden was an NSA contract employee when he took the documents and leaked them to journalists who revealed massive domestic surveillance programs begun in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The programs collected the telephone metadata records of millions of Americans and examined emails from overseas. Snowden fled to Hong Kong, then Russia, to avoid prosecution and now wants a presidential pardon as a whistleblower.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, said Snowden betrayed his colleagues and his country.

“He put our service members and the American people at risk after perceived slights by his superiors,” Nunes said in a statement. “In light of his long list of exaggerations and outright fabrications detailed in this report, no one should take him at his word. I look forward to his eventual return to the United States, where he will face justice for his damaging crimes.”

Snowden insists he has not shared the full cache of 1.5 million classified documents with anyone. However, the report notes that in June, the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s defense and security committee publicly conceded that “Snowden did share intelligence” with his government.

Ben Wizner, Snowden’s attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, blasted the report, saying it was an attempt to discredit a “genuine American hero.”

All members of the committee sent a bipartisan letter to President Barack Obama urging him not to pardon Snowden.

“The vast majority of what he took has nothing to do with American privacy,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee.

“The majority of what he took has to do with military secrets and defense secrets,” Schiff said in an interview Thursday for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.” ”I think that’s very much at odds with the narrative that he wants to tell that he is a whistleblower.”

The Obama administration has urged Snowden to return to the U.S. and face trial.

The committee report says that he was a “disgruntled employee who had frequent conflicts with his managers.”

Publicly revealing classified information does not qualify someone as a whistleblower, the report said. The committee “found no evidence that Snowden took any official effort to express concerns about U.S. intelligence activities to any oversight officials within the U.S. government, despite numerous avenues for him to do so.”

According to the committee, Snowden began mass downloads of classified material two weeks after he was reprimanded for engaging in a spat with NSA managers. The committee also described Snowden as a “serial exaggerator and fabricator.”

The report said Snowden claimed to have worked for the CIA as a senior adviser, when he was a computer technician.

Speaking by video link from Moscow, Snowden said Wednesday that whistleblowing “is democracy’s safeguard of last resort, the one on which we rely when all other checks and balances have failed and the public has no idea what’s going on behind closed doors.”

The 33-year-old addressed a New York City news conference where advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International announced an online petition drive to persuade Obama to pardon Snowden before he leaves office in January.

The supporters called Snowden a hero for exposing the extent of government surveillance by giving thousands of classified documents to journalists.

“Presidents normally take some of the most difficult actions of their eight years in office in the final months,” Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s executive director, told the news conference.

The campaign for a pardon includes the website www.pardonsnowden.org.

But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Snowden’s “conduct put American lives at risk and it risked American national security. And that’s why the policy of the Obama administration is that Mr. Snowden should return to the United States and face the very serious charges that he’s facing.”

Kerry: Some NSA surveillance reached ‘too far’

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Select USA Investment Summit in Washington November 1, 2013 (REUTERS)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Select USA Investment Summit in Washington November 1, 2013 (REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington on November 1, 2013. (REUTERS/Gary Cameron)
Washington, AP—Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark that some National Security Agency surveillance “reached too far” was the first time a high-ranking Obama administration official acknowledged that US snooping abroad might be seen as overzealous.

After launching into a vigorous defense of surveillance as an effective counter-terror tool, Kerry acknowledged to a video-conference on open government in London that “in some cases, I acknowledge to you, as has the president, that some of these actions have reached too far, and we are going to make sure that does not happen in the future.”

“There is no question that the president and I and others in government have actually learned of some things that had been happening, in many ways, on an automatic pilot because the technology is there,” Kerry said, responding to a question about transparency in governments.

Kerry was responding to questions from European allies about reports in the past two weeks that the National Security Agency had collected data on tens of millions of Europe-based phone calls and had monitored the cell phones of 35 world leaders, including that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The State Department said Friday his remarks were in sync with what President Barack Obama has already said on the controversial spying practices. But Obama has said the administration was conducting a review of surveillance practices and said that if the practices went too far they would be halted.

Kerry first joked with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, whom he said should also answer the question about surveillance because otherwise, would it mean that Britain did not do its own surveillance abroad? The joke was a subtle jab at the U.S. position that allies spy on each other routinely.

Kerry said in the wake of 9/11, the United States and other countries realized they were dealing with a new brand of extremism where people were willing to blow themselves up, even if it meant civilians would be killed.

“There are countless examples of this,” Kerry said, citing the September 21 Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabab attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which killed at least 67 people.

“So what if you were able to intercept that and stop it before it happens?” Kerry asked. “We have actually prevented airplanes from going down, buildings from being blown up and people from being assassinated because we’ve been able to learn ahead of time of the plans.”

Asked if Kerry’s comments were off-the-cuff or part of a formal administration response to irritated allies, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry was reiterating the same comments administration officials have been conveying all week. However, Obama has said that just because the technology exists to conduct certain kinds of surveillance, it doesn’t mean the US should use it.

“I think that we wouldn’t be having a review if we didn’t think we should look at these programs. That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Psaki said. She said Kerry was conveying “what we all feel, which is that this warrants taking a close look at, evaluating our appropriate posture as it comes to heads of state, how we coordinate with our allies, addressing concerns expressed by our allies, working with them, taking into account their input as well and seeing if we can strengthen our cooperation moving forward.”

In an interview on Monday with Fusion, Obama said intelligence capabilities have continued to develop and expand in recent years.

“That’s why I’m initiating now a review to make sure that what they’re able to do doesn’t necessarily mean what they should be doing,” Obama said.

“Internationally, there are less constraints on how our intelligence teams operate, but what I’ve said—and I said actually even before the Snowden leaks—is that it’s important for us to make sure that, as technology develops and expands, and the capacity for intelligence-gathering becomes a lot greater that we make sure that we’re doing things in the right way and that are reflective of our values,” Obama said.

NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year – report

FILE - This Sept. 19, 2007 file photo shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
FILE – This Sept. 19, 2007 file photo shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
Washington, Reuters—The US National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since 2008, the Washington Post reported on Thursday, citing an internal audit and other top-secret documents.

Most of the infractions involved unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by law and executive order, the paper said.

They ranged from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of US emails and telephone calls, it said.

The Post said the documents it obtained were part of a trove of materials provided to the paper by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been charged by the United States with espionage. He was granted asylum in Russia earlier this month.

The documents included a level of detail and analysis that is not routinely shared with Congress or the special court that oversees surveillance, the paper said. In one of the documents, agency personnel are instructed to remove details and substitute more generic language in reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In one instance, the NSA decided it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans, the Post said. A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a “large number” of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused US area code 202 for 20, the international dialling code for Egypt.

The Post said the NSA audit, dated May 2012, counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications.

The paper said most were unintended. Many involved failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure. It said the most serious incidents included a violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data about more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders.

In 2008, the FISA Amendments Act granted NSA broad new powers in exchange for regular audits from the Justice Department and the office of the Director of National Intelligence and periodic reports to Congress and the surveillance court, the Post said.

“We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” a senior NSA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Post.

“You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day,” he said. “You look at a number in absolute terms that looks big, and when you look at it in relative terms, it looks a little different.”

In what the Post said appeared to be one of the most serious violations, the NSA diverted large volumes of international data passing through fibre-optic cables in the United States into a repository where the material could be stored temporarily for processing and selection.

The operation collected and commingled US and foreign emails, the Post said, citing a top-secret internal NSA newsletter. NSA lawyers told the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that the agency could not practicably filter out the communications of Americans.

In October 2011, months after the program got underway, the court ruled that the collection effort was unconstitutional.

Some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, have been trying for some time to get the NSA to give some kind of accounting of how much data it collects “incidentally” on Americans through various electronic dragnets. The Obama administration has strongly resisted such disclosures.

Snowden leaves airport after Russia grants asylum

A man exits the Terminal E of Sheremetyevo aiport, outside Moscow, Russia, 01 August 2013. Russia granted Edward Snowden temporary asylum and let the US whistleblower leave the Moscow airport where he had been staying for almost five weeks. (EPA/Maxim Shipenkov)
A man exits the Terminal E of Sheremetyevo aiport, outside Moscow, Russia, 01 August 2013. Russia granted Edward Snowden temporary asylum and let the US whistleblower leave the Moscow airport where he had been staying for almost five weeks. (EPA/Maxim Shipenkov)

Moscow, AP—National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden left the transit zone of a Moscow airport and officially entered Russia after authorities granted him asylum for a year, his lawyer said Thursday, a move that suggests the Kremlin isn’t shying away from further conflict with the United States.

Snowden’s whereabouts will be kept a secret for security reasons, lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said, making it even harder to keep track of the former NSA systems analyst, who has been largely hiding out at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport since his arrival from Hong Kong on June 23.

The move could further strain U.S.-Russian relations already tense amid differences over Syria, U.S. criticism of Russia’s human rights record and other disputes.

President Vladimir Putin has said his asylum was contingent on him not hurting U.S. interests, but the Kremlin could have interpreted that to exclude documents he had already leaked to newspapers that continue to trickle out.

The U.S. has demanded that Russia send Snowden home to face prosecution for espionage over his leaks that revealed wide U.S. Internet surveillance practices, but Putin dismissed the request.

In his application for asylum, Snowden said he feared he could face torture or capital punishment if he is returned to the U.S., though the U.S. has promised Russia that is not the case. The U.S. has revoked his passport, and the logistics of him reaching other countries that have offered him asylum, including Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, are complicated.

“He now is one of the most sought after men in the world,” Kucherena told reporters at the airport. “The issue of security is very important for him.”

The Guardian newspaper on Wednesday published a new report on U.S. intelligence-gathering based on information from Snowden, but Kucherena said the material was provided before Snowden promised to stop leaking.

The one-year asylum can be extended indefinitely, and Snowden also has the right to seek Russian citizenship. According to the rules set by the Russian government, a person who has temporary asylum would lose it if he travels abroad.

Kucherena said it would be up for Snowden to decide whether to travel to any foreign destination, but added that “he now has no such plans.”

Snowden’s father said in remarks broadcast Wednesday on Russian television that he would like to visit his son. Kucherena said he is arranging the trip.

WikiLeaks, the secret-spilling group that has adopted Snowden’s cause, said its legal adviser Sarah Harrison is now with him. The group also praised Russia for providing him shelter.

“We would like to thank the Russian people and all those others who have helped to protect Mr. Snowden,” WikiLeaks said on Twitter. “We have won the battle—now the war.”

Kucherena said that Snowden spent little time packing and left the airport in a taxi. The lawyer said the fugitive had friends in Russia, including some Americans, who could help ensure his security, but wouldn’t elaborate.

“He has got friends, including on Russian territory, American friends, who would be able to ensure his safety for the time being,” Kucherena said.

He refused to say whether Snowden would stay in Moscow or move to stay elsewhere in Russia, saying the fugitive would discuss the issue with his family.

Kucherena argued that Russia did the right thing by offering shelter to Snowden despite U.S. pressure. “Russia has fulfilled a humanitarian mission with regard to the U.S. citizen who has found himself in a difficult situation,” he said, voicing hope that the U.S. wouldn’t try to slam Russia with sanctions.

Putin’s foreign affairs aide, Yuri Ushakov, sought Thursday to downplay the impact on relations between the two countries.

“This issue isn’t significant enough to have an impact on political relations,” he said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.

He said that the Kremlin hasn’t heard any signal from Washington that Obama could cancel his visit to Moscow ahead of next month’s G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.

But Sen. Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the Russian decision to grant asylum to Snowden would hurt ties.

“Edward Snowden is a fugitive who belongs in a United States courtroom, not a free man deserving of asylum in Russia,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “Regardless of the fact that Russia is granting asylum for one year, this action is a setback to U.S.-Russia relations. Edward Snowden will potentially do great damage to U.S. national security interests and the information he is leaking could aid terrorists and others around the world who want to do real harm to our country.”

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran of Russia’s human rights movement and head of the respected Moscow Helsinki Group, welcomed the news on asylum for Snowden, but added that his quest for freedom of information has landed him in a country that has little respect for that and other freedoms.

“Having fought for the freedom and rights, Snowden has ended up in a country that cracks down on them,” Alexeyeva said, according to the Interfax news agency.

Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch sounded a similar note. “He cannot but be aware of the unprecedented crackdown on human rights that the government has unleashed in the past 15 months,” Denber said in an e-mailed comment.

Putin has launched a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent since his inauguration for a third presidential term in May 2012, with the Kremlin-controlled parliament stamping a series of laws that introduced heavy fines for participants in unsanctioned protests, imposed new tough restrictions on non-government organizations.

A law passed in June bans imposes hefty fines for providing information about the gay community to minors or holding gay pride rallies, a move that has prompted gays in the U.S. and elsewhere to call for boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

US surveillance becomes election issue in Germany

In this July 5, 2013 file picture German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich  attends a press conference in Nuremberg, Germany. Source: AP Photo/DPA/Daniel Karmann
In this July 5, 2013 file picture German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich attends a press conference in Nuremberg, Germany. Source: AP Photo/DPA/Daniel Karmann

Berlin, AP—Allegations of widespread US data surveillance have created turbulence for Angela Merkel on what looked like a smooth cruise to a third term as German chancellor, even though it remains to be seen whether the flap will threaten her seriously.

Merkel’s center-left opponents have seized on disclosures of National Security Agency surveillance programs by leaker Edward Snowden to assert that she hasn’t been doing enough to confront Washington and protect Germans’ personal data—and to cast doubt on officials’ assertions that they didn’t know of the programs.

The opposition apparently hopes that the issue will breathe life into a so-far stumbling and gaffe-prone campaign for September 22 parliamentary elections. A healthy economy, low unemployment and perceptions that Merkel has managed Europe’s debt crisis well have bolstered the chancellor.

Merkel’s center-left challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, is suggesting that the government turned a blind eye to violations of Germans’ rights and that Merkel violated her oath of office, in which she swore to “keep damage from” her people.

The government, opposition Green party leader Juergen Trittin said, is acting “like the famous three monkeys: hear no evil, speak no evil and definitely see no evil.”

His party called for Germany to take in Snowden. Merkel’s government, like many others, rejected his asylum request.

Protecting personal data is generally a more sensitive issue in Europe than in the US—and particularly in Germany, not least because of memories of surveillance and repression by communist East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, and the Nazis’ Gestapo.

When President Barack Obama visited Berlin June 19, Merkel offered cautious public criticism, saying that a “balance” between national security and data protection must be ensured.

Then, the German weekly Der Spiegel reported that the US bugged European Union offices—prompting officials to say that if true, that would be unacceptable, especially since the Cold War is over. Germany hosted major NSA sites during the Cold War.

Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, dispatched her interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, to Washington last week to discuss the spying issue. There, he conferred with Attorney General Eric Holder and had an unscheduled meeting with Vice President Joe Biden.

After those meetings Friday, Friedrich told German television that PRISM, the secret US program described by Snowden, searches in a “very targeted” way for terrorism-related information and that the NSA says its information helped prevent five attacks in Germany.

Friedrich’s defense of surveillance programs prompted opponents to turn up the heat, charging that he returned empty-handed after promising to secure information from the Americans. Steinbrueck told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the German minister was “fobbed off with a few inconsequential comments and alleged concessions.”

The opposition is also asking what Germany’s own intelligence services knew about the programs. Germany’s foreign intelligence service is ultimately supervised by Merkel’s chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla.

Some 79 percent of Germans surveyed in a July 9-11 poll by the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen group for ZDF television said they thought the German government knew of widespread US surveillance.

However, the same poll found that 62 percent would prefer Merkel as chancellor, with only 29 percent for Steinbrueck. And it showed her current center-right coalition close to a parliamentary majority, with Merkel’s conservative Union bloc enjoying a 15-point lead over Steinbrueck’s Social Democrats.

The poll of 1,338 people had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Peppered with questions about surveillance in a television interview Sunday, Merkel responded with a combination of tough talk and a tried-and-tested calm, methodical approach. She didn’t respond directly to Steinbrueck’s attacks, a tactic that has served her well with voters—and frustrated rivals—since she took office eight years ago.

She said Germany expects “a clear commitment from the American government for the future that they will keep to German law on German soil.” She added, however, that she has no evidence at this point that it hasn’t done so in the past and that Friedrich’s visit “can only be a first step” in a dialogue with the US.

Merkel also called for tougher European and global rules on data protection, and said the US has pledged to declassify some documents.

Friedrich defended his talks in Washington, telling ARD television that “all this talking and muscle-flexing” on the issue “is nonsense.”

“We have to find a joint way forward.” he said. “The Americans know our sensitivities. They are ready to clear things up and, of course, we must draw our own lines.”

Manfred Guellner, the head of Forsa, another polling agency, said he believes the fallout for the chancellor from the issue will be “absolutely minimal, because there is nothing that can be hung on Merkel alone.”

“People from all parties … either knew about it or didn’t,” he added, noting that Steinbrueck’s party was in government until 2009.

Morales back in Bolivia after plane drama over Snowden

Bolivia's President Evo Morales (C), heavily garlanded as he reviews an honour guard on his arrival at El Alto airport in La Paz, Bolivia, late 03 July 2013. Source: EPA/Martin Alipaz
Bolivia’s President Evo Morales (C), heavily garlanded as he reviews an honour guard on his arrival at El Alto airport in La Paz, Bolivia, late 03 July 2013. Source: EPA/Martin Alipaz

La Paz, Reuters—Bolivian President Evo Morales arrived home to a hero’s welcome late on Wednesday, saying some European countries’ refusal to let his plane enter their airspace because of suspicion it carried fugitive US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden was a provocation aimed at all of South America.

Morales was greeted by his Cabinet and cheering, fist-pumping crowds at La Paz’s airport after a dramatic journey from Moscow that ignited a diplomatic furore when his plane had to make an unscheduled stop in Vienna on Tuesday evening.

“This was an open provocation toward a continent, not just a president,” said Morales, his hair strewn with flower petals thrown by people in traditional Andean garb. “North American imperialism uses its people to terrify and intimidate us. I just want to say they will never frighten us because we are a people of dignity and sovereignty.”

Other Latin American leaders were also fuming over the plane incident, with heads of state in the 12-nation South American bloc Unasur denouncing the “unfriendly and unjustifiable acts.”

The bloc said a group of leaders from member countries would hold an emergency summit in Bolivia on Thursday to discuss the matter. Unasur includes close leftist allies of Bolivia like Venezuela, Ecuador and Argentina as well as more centrist governments like those in Chile and Brazil.

Earlier on Wednesday, Bolivia accused the United States of trying to “kidnap” Morales, after his plane was denied permission to fly over France and Portugal.

The Bolivian government said it had filed a formal complaint with the United Nations and was studying other legal avenues to prove its rights had been violated under international law.

Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sacha Llorenti Soliz, said, “We have no doubt that it was an order from the White House. By no means should a diplomatic plane with the president be diverted from its route and forced to land in another country.”

The White House declined to comment on the Bolivian allegations.

Snowden was not on the plane when it landed in Vienna, an Austrian official said. He is believed to be stranded in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport and the United States has been trying to get its hands on him since he revealed details of its secret surveillance programs last month.

The furore was the latest twist in a saga that has raised debate over the balance between privacy rights and national security. Accusations of US surveillance on European countries have also strained transatlantic relations.

France said on Wednesday that free-trade talks between the European Union and the United States should be delayed by two weeks given tensions over media reports, stemming from the Snowden case, that Washington is spying on the 28-nation bloc.

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed on Wednesday to hold talks between their security officials in coming days on US surveillance activities and security issues.

The Bolivian plane was taking Morales home from an energy conference in Moscow when it landed at Vienna airport. Austrian Deputy Chancellor Michael Spindelegger said Morales personally denied that Snowden was aboard his jet and agreed to a voluntary inspection.

“Based on this invitation from Bolivia, a colleague boarded the plane, looked at everything and there was no one else on board,” Spindelegger told reporters.

But Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra said Morales’ plane was not searched because Morales had refused Austrian authorities entry.

Morales’ plane eventually left Vienna and landed in Spain’s Canary Islands for refueling before heading back to Bolivia.
The United Nations said in a statement that the secretary-general understood the Bolivian government’s concerns and urged the countries concerned to discuss the matter.

The Obama administration has advised foreign governments that allowing Snowden to land on their territory could seriously damage their relations with the United States, US and European national security sources said.

The sources said the administration believed such lobbying played a role in persuading countries to which Snowden had applied for asylum to reject or not respond to his bid. The United States believes its diplomacy also has caused countries whose leaders publicly expressed sympathy for Snowden to have second thoughts about the matter in private, they said.

A spokesman at France’s Foreign Ministry blamed the incident on “an administrative mishap,” saying France never intended to ban Morales from its airspace and that there were delays in getting confirmation that the plane had fly-over permits.

International agreements allow civilian airplanes to overfly countries without obtaining permission before every flight. But state aircraft, including Air Force One, which carries the US president, must obtain clearance before they cross into foreign territory.

The treatment of the Bolivian military aircraft hit a nerve in Latin America, which has a history of US-backed coups.

In a statement from Peru’s government, which holds the group’s presidency, Unasur expressed outrage and indignation that the plane was not allowed to land in Portugal and France.

“Latin America demands an explanation,” tweeted Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. “If what happened to Evo does not merit a Unasur summit, I don’t know what does.”

In the Bolivian capital, La Paz, the US Embassy said late on Wednesday its Independence Day party on Thursday had been put off “until further notice.”

Bolivia is among more than a dozen countries where Snowden has sought asylum and Morales has said he would consider granting the American refuge. But he said earlier this week no request had been made.

The 30-year-old Snowden, who worked for the National Security Agency as a contractor in Hawaii, has been trying since June 23 to find a country that will offer him refuge from prosecution in the United States on espionage charges.

But his options have narrowed since he arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong with no valid travel documents after the United States revoked his passport.

Five countries have rejected granting Snowden asylum, seven have said they would consider a request if made on their soil, and eight said they had either not made a decision or not received a request.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is unwilling to send Snowden to the United States, with which Russia has no extradition treaty. But he is also reluctant to damage ties over a man for whom Putin, a former KGB spy, has little sympathy.