Matt Connolly

DC Senior Editorial Fellow

Before joining Mother Jones, Matt was a local reporter for the dearly departed Washington Examiner. He has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Chicago Public Radio, and the Times of Trenton.

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When International Spying Fails, the CIA Turns to World of Warcraft

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 8:46 AM PST

After a string of failures in the real world, the Central Intelligence Agency is turning its attention to Azeroth.

ProPublica, the Guardian, and the New York Times reported jointly on Monday that the CIA, the NSA, and British intelligence agencies infiltrate online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, to seek out scientists, engineers, embassy workers, and other foreign operatives who could be recruited as spies .

The documents obtained by the three news organizations give no evidence that monitoring online games have led to the capture of any terrorists. But the CIA's real-world spying isn't going well either, a gaggle of former agency officials told the Los Angeles Times Monday.

The CIA's $3 billion overseas spying program depended heavily on operatives given "non-official cover," or NOCs, who typically pose as businesspeople and gather intelligence from foreign universities, businesses, and local hotspots, the paper reports. But NOCs and those recruiting them face a myriad of challenges. For starters, the CIA has trouble finding NOCs with language skills—and if you can't speak passable Pashto, you're probably not going to uncover much intelligence in Pashto-speaking parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In some cases, NOCs take advantage of their special status, billing the CIA for unjustified time and expenses, the former CIA officials told the paper. And NOCs, who have no diplomatic immunity, are often kept out of more dangerous locations by their handlers, limiting the amount of useful information they can obtain. "If you're a high-grade agency manager, are you going to sign off on a memo that puts Joe Schmuckatelli in Pyongyang?" one former case officer told the Times.

The CIA's reliance on NOCs has damaged its overseas spying efforts, the officials told the paper. In Iran, for instance, authorities exposed American operatives despite fake identities working for CIA-created front companies. And Iran wasn't an exception: One official told the paper he knew of only three successful NOCs in his 23 years as a case officer. Maybe focusing some more attention on World of Warcraft is a good idea after all.

Why America Isn't Ready for Amazon's Delivery Drones

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 2:55 PM PST

"It looks like science fiction, but it's real." That's how Amazon, the online retailing giant, describes its new plan to deliver blenders, spice racks, and sex toys in 30 minutes or less via drone. On Sunday, CEO Jeff Bezos announced that his company is in the process of testing these new delivery drones and aims to have them ready by the time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to open up US airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles in 2015. But after that date, Amazon's blender-delivering drones will still face big obstacles, such as the states and cities that are hostile towards drone use; potential accidents with passenger planes; GPS and privacy concerns; and roving bands of laser-wielding package bandits. 

While many states are vying for the right to be official FAA drone test sites, others are doing their best to make their skies unwelcome to drones. Both Idaho and Texas have passed laws that restrict private citizens from using drones to take photos—and it's likely that Amazon drones will need to be equipped with cameras, according to the Washington Post. Another seven states have jumped on the drone-banning bandwagon, by stopping law enforcement (but not private companies) from using them for surveillance. There are also a number of cities and counties that are considering making their air spaces "drone-free zones." Charlottesville, VirginiaIowa City, Iowa, and St. Bonifacius, Minnesota, have banned drones for at least two years. Syracuse, New York, considered a bill in October that would have banned drones but decided to hold it until the FAA regulations shake out. And a Colorado town even considered issuing drone-hunting licenses. 

Here's a map showing which states have passed legislation restricting drone use, put together with help from the National Conference of State Legislatures and the ACLU. Many other states have introduced bills that are still under consideration, so check your own state legislature for more information: 

Currently, FAA rules prohibit drones from carrying people or property for compensation and only allow them for "important missions in the public interest" like search and rescue, patrolling the border, and firefighting. Unmanned aircraft are also prohibited from airspace over major urban areas—because of a higher likelihood of accidents with traditional aircraft, and other obstacles, such as buildings and power lines. When the FAA lifts drone restrictions in 2015, Amazon drones would likely be traveling in urban areas, given that they can only fly within 10 miles of a distribution center, many of which are located in the suburbs of major cities. But cities aren't likely to be any less dense in two years, raising the possibility of collisions. The FAA is still working on how to safely implement drones in urban areas—particularly by employing sensor technology—but it's still a legitimate concern, given that drones have already crashed into a lake, a Navy ship, and Manhattan

If Amazon can find a way to make drones work while avoiding cities or airplane flight paths, the company would still need to implement very precise GPS directions to ensure each package goes to the right place. (In many places, a foot or two can mean the difference between your front door and the sidewalk.) The Washington Post points out that technology isn't precise enough yet to let drones fly themselves, so one option would be to have pilots fly drones via computer, to avoid GPS mishaps. But that would require them all to have cameras, creating a slew of new privacy concerns: "We need rules so that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without becoming closer to a surveillance state," says Allie Bohm, an advocacy and policy strategist for the ACLU.

Finally, there's also the prospect of thievery. All it could take is an effective drone-destroyer—a hunting rifle? laser weapon? laser pointer?—for a bandit to be watching your movies, wearing your slippers, and making smoothies in your blender. Amazon claims that by 2015, it "will be ready" to unleash delivery drones in US skies—but America probably won't be. 

Are Coke and FedEx Worried About Sponsoring the Redskins?

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 4:00 AM PST

As more and more people have called for Washington's pro football team to change its name, some folks have argued that the only way to get owner Dan Snyder to listen is to go after his wallet. That's right: Boycott the team or, failing that, target its corporate sponsors.

On its official website, the team displays five of its largest partners: Ticketmaster, FedEx Express, Bud Light, Ameritel Corporation, and Bank of America. Mother Jones reached out to each of these sponsors, as well as a few others, to see if they had any comment on the campaign to push Snyder to drop the R-word—and whether they had considered dropping their sponsorship because of the controversy. Here's what their spokespeople had to say:

Coca-Cola: "As sponsors, we do not play a role in decisions regarding NFL trademarks. Your questions can be better addressed by the team and the NFL."

 

FedEx: "We understand that there is a difference of opinion on this issue. Nevertheless, we believe that our sponsorship of FedEx Field continues to be in the best interests of FedEx and its stockholders."
 

 

New York Life: "The company has received no complaints. The company plans to assess the sponsorship at the conclusion of the season."

 


Virginia Lottery: "We have not received complaints regarding the Redskins sponsorship and we are not considering dropping it."

 

Ticketmaster: "We are declining to comment, but perhaps their sponsor StubHub would have something to say about this. StubHub is located right there in San Francisco."


Thanks for the suggestion, Ticketmaster PR! Unfortunately, StubHub—like Ameritel, Anheuser-Busch, and Bank of America—did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

This article has been updated.

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