Michael Chertoff, the former head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under the Bush administration, has been paid a "modest sum" by a Virginia-based company trying to retain a profitable government contract for routing millions of phone calls and texts in and out of the country, the New York Times reports on Monday.
According to the reporting, Chertoff wrote an extensive report on behalf of the Neustar corporation, arguing that a proposal to give its lucrative government contract to a foreign-owed telecom company would threaten national security by exposing sensitive information to “unwarranted, and potentially harmful” access by adversaries. The contracting decision is now before the FCC, with preliminary reports suggesting the contract could go to an American subsidiary of the Swedish-owned Ericsson company.
Especially in the wake of surveillance revelations made possible by NSA documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Times reports that the "battle over the little-known routing network reflects the central role that the phone companies play in the government’s surveillance and phone-tracing capabilities."
The role of Chertoff, however, also reflects the role of former high-level government officials who have gone on to play pivotal and very profitable roles when it comes to the business side of the national security state. In fact, without Chertoff playing his paid role as consultant and lobbyist, it's unlikely the story would ever have made it to the front page of the Times.
In essence, Chertoff is allowed to leverage his credentials as a former public servant alongside "insider" expertise as someone who once oversaw vast aspects of the government's foreign and domestic intelligence programs. Whether valid or not, those claims are inherently profitable to his employer — in this case, Neustar, who would make many millions of dollars if their contract is renewed.
In addition to making sure the widely read paper had an "advance copy of his report," Chertoff's former role at DHS makes his dire warnings about national security threats relevant to news editors.
The Times reports:
In a 45-page report that Neustar plans to send to the F.C.C. this week, Mr. Chertoff, now a private consultant, argues that national security concerns have been slighted in the contracting process. An advance copy of his report was provided to The New York Times.
Without a fuller assessment of the risks posed in switching the contract to a European-based outfit, “security would become obsolete in the face of constantly morphing threats,” Mr. Chertoff says in the report.
If a foreign intelligence service were to gain access to the phone-routing system and identify the targets of United States surveillance efforts, Mr. Chertoff said, “that would be a counterintelligence bonanza for adversaries of the nation and a security disaster for the United States.”
However, immediately following Monday's story in the Times, independent journalist Tim Shorrock took to Twitter to ask important questions raised by Chertoff's role in the Neustar case. Shorrock tweeted:
— Tim Shorrock (@TimothyS) September 29, 2014
— Tim Shorrock (@TimothyS) September 29, 2014
And another independent journalist, Kevin Gosztola, summarized his assessment of the story by tweeting:
Virginia company pays Chertoff to spread fear so Swedish-based company doesn't take its fed phone contract http://t.co/Sd6m9L5hjE
— Kevin Gosztola (@kgosztola) September 29, 2014
This isn't the first time Chertoff has given the appearance of playing national security fears towards his own benefit. In 2010, amidst elevated concerns surrounding airport security in the wake of a failed bombing of a commercial airliner over Detroit, Chertoff was noted for publicly pushing the need for more drastic airport security, including a massive rollout of full-body scanners. Filings revealed that Chertoff's consulting firm, the Chertoff Group, was paid by several companies that manufactured these scanners, though his ties to these firms were seldom pointed out or acknowdledged during his public appearances. Instead, he was often cited simply as "former Secretary of Homeland Security."
As the Huffington Post reported at the time:
Chertoff's role has been strongly criticized by passenger right advocate Kate Hanni, the founder of FlyersRights.org, who opposes the use of the scanners on privacy and health grounds, citing government studies about radiation exposure.
"They're trying to scare the pants off the American people that we need these things," Hanni told The Huffington Post. "When Chertoff goes on TV, he is basically promoting his clients and exploiting that fear to make money. Fear is a commodity and they're selling it. The more they can sell it, the more we buy into it. When American people are afraid, they will accept anything."