by Bob Barr
When he introduced his “national security team” last week, Joe Biden declared that “America is back.” A more accurate label would be, “the Establishment is back.” Long-time denizens of the Washington Beltway are hoisting more than one glass of champagne in anticipation of more such announcements in the coming weeks.
Whether or not this “team” will “lead the world” as Biden boldly declared is at best open to debate, but what is not in dispute is the unmistakable Washington Establishment pedigree of the men and women he brought forth two days before Thanksgiving.
His Secretary of State designee, Antony Blinken, is described by the media as a “veteran foreign policy hand” and a “longtime diplomat.” In other words, someone who will be greeted with relief by the many careerists at Foggy Bottom who have chafed for nearly four years at the current administration’s diplomatic bluntness.
Biden also announced Alejandro Mayorkas, who had served in that Department for several years during the Obama administration, as his pick for Secretary of Homeland Security. While fellow Democrats unsurprisingly praised this choice, the fact that his 2013 Senate confirmation hearing to be deputy secretary at DHS was marred by a serious ethics investigation during his tenure as head of the Citizenship and Immigration Services is already raising red flags in the Senate, which remains for now at least under GOP control.
Potentially problematic also is Biden’s choice as national security adviser – Jake Sullivan. While Sullivan possesses “extensive foreign policy background,” which certainly is appropriate for the job, he also served as a top deputy and close confidant of Hillary Clinton during her contentious tenure as Secretary of State. While national security adviser is not a post subject to confirmation by the Senate, Sullivan’s friendship with Clinton, coupled with his inside work negotiating the controversial “Iran nuclear deal,” will win him no friends on the Republican side of the congressional aisle.
With a national security budget of $750 billion and a foreign intelligence budget of nearly $86 billion, individuals selected by Biden who will be spending all that money should be subject to robust if not intense scrutiny not only by members of Congress from both parties, but by the voting public as well.
Relevant to such inquiry should be tough questions regarding how the incoming president and his team intend to protect individual privacy from abusive government surveillance powers and technology. This is reflected in a November 27 article by Byron Tau in the Wall Street Journal — “Next Step in Government Data Tracking Is the Internet of Things.” If Tau’s reporting does not set off serious alarm bells on Capitol Hill, its members are even more somnambulant than previously thought.
Tau describes how the little-known Air Force Research Laboratory recently contracted with an even lesser-known company – SignalFrame – to explore how millions of cellphones using the Android operating system (manufactured by Google) could be tracked simply by being near a SignalFrame device. Such surreptitious tracking, known in the tech world as “sniffing,” can be accomplished without the cellphone’s owner or user ever being aware that its geospatial position is being tracked, data-based, and analyzed.
Government agencies for several years have used “Stingray” devices that mimic commercial cellphone towers to surreptitiously gather geospatial information on cellphones that come within range. The new technology being developed by SignalFrame, which has piqued the attention of the Air Force (and almost certainly other federal agencies), appears to take the Stingray power to a whole new level.
Biden has been largely silent on matters relating to individual privacy. In this, he seems to be on the same wavelength as the Trump administration and recent congresses. Already troubling, however, are Biden’s announced plans to attack the COVID pandemic, which includes significant money for privacy-invasive “contact tracing,” enlisting an army of “U.S. Public Health Jobs Corps” members, a “Nationwide Pandemic Dashboard,” rejoining the World Health Organization and more.
Regardless of whether the Senate remains under Republican control come January 2021, congressional leaders should make safeguarding individual privacy against ever-expanding surreptitious surveillance technology by Uncle Sam, a far higher priority than in the recent past.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s.