The Complex

U.S. Shipping Thousands of Cluster Bombs to Saudis, Despite Global Ban

Cluster bombs are banned by 83 nations. The world recoiled in horror when it learned that Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad's forces have killed children with such weapons.

But that isn't stopping the U.S. military from selling $640 million worth of American-made cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, despite the near-universal revulsion at such weapons, and despite the fact that relations between the two countries haven't been entirely copacetic of late.

Cluster bombs spit out dozens, even hundreds, of micro-munitions in order cover a wide area with death and destruction. These weapons are used for killing large groups of people, destroying thinly-skinned vehicles and dispensing landmines or poison gas. Some of the Soviet-made incendiary cluster bombs used by Assad's forces during Syria's civil war are even designed to light buildings on fire and then explode after sitting on the ground for a while -- thereby killing anyone who gets close enough to try to extinguish the flames.

The irony of the U.S. selling one authoritarian Middle East country 1,300 cluster bombs while criticising the use of indiscriminate weapons by another isn't lost on the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international group dedicated to ending the use of such weapons.

"This transfer announcement comes at a time when Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have joined international condemnations of Syria's cluster bomb use," said Sarah Blakemore, director of the Cluster Munition Coalition, in a statement about the sale.

These weapons are loathed because in addition to killing enemy combatants, their fairly indiscriminate nature means they can kill plenty of civilians. And not just in the heat of battle. The little ball-shaped bomblets dispersed by cluster munitions don't always detonate on first impact. Often, they will just sit there on the ground until someone, often a child, picks them up and causes them to explode.

So far, 112 countries have signed an international treaty banning cluster bombs, with 83 ratifying it. Guess who isn't part of that club? China, Russia, most for the former USSR, Syria... and the United States, which is selling thousands Textron-made cluster bombs to the Saudis between now and 2015.

Despite the fact that the U.S. State Department says it "shares in the international concern about the humanitarian impact of all munitions, including cluster munitions" it's in no hurry to sign the ban. Foggy Bottom insists that "their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers and those of its coalition partners at risk."

That's because "cluster munitions can often result in much less collateral damage than unitary weapons, such as a larger bomb or larger artillery shell would cause," the State Department claims.

Still, the U.S. has actually put a moratorium on exporting cluster weapons that result in more than one percent of the bomblets falling unexploded to the ground, where they can wound and kill years after conflicts end. The CBU-105D/B weapons the U.S. is selling to Saudi Arabia don't fall under that moratorium, however. Fewer than one-percent of their submunitions fail to detonate. "Clear victories, clear battlefields," promises a Textrtron brochure for the weapons.

"The U.S. should acknowledge the treaty's ban on cluster munition exports and reevaluate the criteria for its export moratorium so that no cluster munitions are transferred," said Blakemore.

Don't expect that to happen anytime soon. The cluster bomb sale is just the latest in a string ongoing arms deals between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that include dozens of F-15SA Strike Eagle fighter jets, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, H-60 Blackhawk helicopters and AH-6 Little Bird choppers as well as radars, anti-ship missiles, guided bombs, anti-radar missiles, surface to air missiles and even cyber defenses for those brand new Strike Eagles. It's a relationship that's worth tens of billions to American defense contractors. And even though the Saudi and the American governments have recently been at odds over a range of issues -- Riyadh recently offered to replace any financial aid to Egypt's military rulers that the U.S. withdrew --  those arms sales are all-but-certain to continue. If the Saudis want cluster bombs, the U.S. will provide -- no matter what the world thinks.

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National Security

Declassified Docs: NSA Misled Court (and Themselves) About Spying on Americans

For three years, NSA promised a secret surveillance court that it was collecting "discrete" Internet communications about terrorists and spies, and not snooping on ordinary Americans. That turned out to be untrue, a newly declassified opinion revealed on Wednesday. In fact, the NSA was scooping up tens of thousands of Americans' emails, while assuring the court no such thing could possibly be happening.

The NSA made its guarantees because it was confident that the agency's systems could tell good guys from bad guys in the digital ether. They couldn't. And now, the myth of the National Security Agency's electronic omnipotence -- the myth that undergirds its massive power to pry into every aspect of our digital lives -- has taken another hit.

"Tens of thousands of wholly domestic communications" were inadvertently scooped up in NSA's digital dragnets, the court found, a tiny fraction of the total haul, but nonetheless a significant violation of the rules for handling Americans' private information.

"For the first time, the government has now advised the Court that the volume and nature of the information it has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the Court had been led to believe," wrote Judge John Bates of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2011. His opinion was declassified Wednesday amid increasing pressure for the Obama administration to reveal more about how and when the NSA monitors Americans' communications.

The problem was that the NSA was grabbing what the agency described as whole "transactions," or bundles or emails that were neither to, from, nor about the intended target. The NSA estimates it was collecting 56,000 communications per year in this manner for three years before officials discovered the problem and notified their overseers.

"That revelation fundamentally alters the Court's understanding of the scope of [NSA's] collection... and requires careful reexamination of many of the assessments and assumptions underlying its prior approvals," Bates wrote.

The court didn't find that the NSA was looking at Americans' emails without authorization or using that information in appropriately. The problem was with how the information was retained and apparently not protected from potential misuse.

In a briefing with reporters, a U.S. intelligence official, who declined to be identified, said the agency's systems had been taking a "screenshot" of the email inboxes of individuals who had been in touch with an original target.

Email communications travel the Internet as a single communication, the official said.  "For technological reasons, the NSA was not capable of breaking those down, and still is not capable, of breaking those down into their individual components."

Bates also alluded to a problem with other NSA programs, including one that collects the metadata of Americans' phone records. The issue there concerned the terms NSA was using to search, or query, the massive database.

"Contrary to the government's repeated assurances, NSA had been routinely running queries of the metadata using querying terms that did not meet the required standard for querying," Bates wrote. "The Court concluded that this requirement had been 'so frequently and systematically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall ... regime has never functioned effectively.'"

Elsewhere, Bates wrote, "The Court is troubled that the government's revelations ... mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program."

It is technically impossible to avoid collecting U.S. persons' emails when the NSA is targeting those of foreigners. So, rather than halt the surveillance, the NSA changed its minimization procedures in a way that the court found acceptable.

The government developed the technical means to segregate data that is mostly likely to have involved U.S. persons, after it is collected. Data that cannot be segregated is subjected to limits on how it can be used and disseminated, according to another U.S. intelligence official, who also declined to be identified. And any information retained in this way must be purged from NSA's systems in two years. Some other U.S. person information, such as encrypted emails or metadata phone records, can be kept for up to five years before it must be discarded.

In what intelligence officials described as an attempt to be more transparent with Americans about how the NSA gathers intelligence, officials announced that they'd set up a Tumblr page for declassified documents, official statements, testimony, and other materials.

The declassified court opinion was not posted to the site when officials held a briefing with reporters at 3 P.M. Wednesday. Several journalists complained they were unable to ask detailed questions about the overcollection of emails since they hadn't' had a chance to read the court's lengthy opinion.