Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What you'll be reading about NSA surveillance tomorrow (updated)

Glenn Greenwald keeps promising more "bombshells" from the trove of classified documents Snowden leaked. But after today, he's going to run into some competition for the media's attention.
The Obama administration plans to release previously secret court orders that set out the rules and rationale for the bulk collection of U.S. phone records as officials seek to quell growing unrest in Congress over the government's massive information dragnet.

According to a senior U.S. official, the government has declassified the order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA court, that authorized the collection program, which began in 2007...

In addition to the court order from 2007, administration officials are also planning to release two white papers on the telephone-data program that were provided to Congress in 2009 and 2011 before the House and Senate voted to reauthorize the law behind it, the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted.
Lets first of all note that this release - set to happen sometime today - is the fulfillment of a promise President Obama made a few weeks ago when he spoke to Charlie Rose. At the time he promised to work with the intelligence community to release as much information on the surveillance programs as possible. He kept his word on that.

Secondly, the release of the 2 white papers on the metadata collection program is likely aimed at quelling the "Oh my, we didn't know!" coming from so many members of Congress lately. This article goes on to point out that the papers were given to the Intelligence Committees in both the House and Senate - who were then asked to provide them to all members of Congress in a classified setting. The message is that if they didn't know, they chose not to.

My advice to Greenwald - who said he plans to publish another "bombshell" this week - would be to hold off on that one. No one is going to be paying attention to what he has to say until they've fully digested this material...which is the point.

Then, after we've gotten this information, it will be interesting to see how much of Greenwald's sensationalist claims actually hold up. In other words...have a seat Glenn. Its time for the grown-ups to talk.

UPDATE: Oops, my advice came too late. Greenwald published his latest "bombshell" today. The jist of what he said involves a lot of technical information about how NSA collects data. Perhaps that's interesting information for the techies amongst us. But the bottom line is that the NSA exists to do this. Learning HOW they do it is no real bombshell. The overall fact - as even Greenwald has to admit - is that in order to review this kind of information about US persons, they need a warrant.
Under US law, the NSA is required to obtain an individualized Fisa warrant only if the target of their surveillance is a 'US person', though no such warrant is required for intercepting the communications of Americans with foreign targets. But XKeyscore provides the technological capability, if not the legal authority, to target even US persons for extensive electronic surveillance without a warrant provided that some identifying information, such as their email or IP address, is known to the analyst.
That last sentence is interesting..."the program he's discussing provides the technological capability, if not the legal authority to target even US persons." Yes Glenn, lets count the number of things in our lives that might be technologically possible, if not for the fact that they are illegal.

On the point about intercepting the communications of Americans with foreign targets, what Greenwald fails to mention is the process of "minimization" employed by NSA in which analysts immediately remove that material.
Now, anyone who discusses this process without also mentioning minimization procedures is also either very uninformed or intentionally hyping the story. Minimization is a term of art in the world of NSA intercepts which essentially means “stay out of American citizen’s business.” If information about specific Americans (or even foreigners inside the United States) is captured, those details must be removed from all records and cannot be shared with any other entity in the government unless it is necessary to understand and interpret related foreign intelligence or to protect lives from criminal threats.
So a really ginormous "ho-hum" on this latest from Greenwald.


  1. Glenn's "bombshells" are wet firecrackers. Seriously, only his groupies are "shocked, shocked!" that the NSA intercepts signal information. A quick look at such top-secret things as ... Wikipedia ... would have told anyone that. That's their job. The other "revelations" that we're spying on other countries, including allies? No kidding! Of course, all the handwaving and fanning themselves in "outrage" by other countries is mostly for show, because they're also spying on *us*. Yes, that includes our allies. That's the way the real world works.

    1. No, that is not the way the real world works. The UK does not spy on American citizens and the US does not spy on the UK (or so we thought). A major diplomatic incident occurs when that happens. Would you covertly look at your wife's diary or your daughter's text messages? There is trust between friendly nations which the suspicion of spying puts at risk. I live in the UK and I'm glad Snowden has told us what is going on. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an open society.

    2. You really think allies don't spy on each other, huh?

    3. "No, that is not the way the real world works. The UK does not spy on American citizens and the US does not spy on the UK (or so we thought)."
      It's so cute that you're so innocent. Of *course* they're spying on us, along with most of our allies. Our allies don't spy on us? Ever hear of "Jonathan Pollard?"

      What happens when they're caught is that there's a quiet suggestion that said person should be going home, or a not-in-the-news declaration that the person is "persona non grata." No need to make a big stink about it, just as there very often isn't much in the news about non-allied countries' spies being caught out.

  2. " So a really ginormous "ho-hum" on this latest from Greenwald."

    Surprise, surprise.

  3. I would just love to understand where this outrage was pre-2007 and court rulings stuffing Bush's warrantless and utterly unfettered spying back into the closet? My organization WAS spied upon since I got a phone call from a person who knew all the details of a totally internal email conversation we were having concerning FBI demands to see imams' sermons before they were delivered. (Note - they wanted them written in English though they could be delivered in Arabic which no FBI agent understood.) We were considering intervening on the grounds of religious freedom. This caller claimed to be a reporter but was NOT since I checked thoroughly, so how did said caller learn of this discussion since no one had talked to anyone outside the circle of people involved? The only "ask" from said caller was a list of the names and addresses of the people in the conversation which I refused to provide. From that point on I had a number of rather unsettling interactions with the FBI for a couple of years. I talked with a number of elected officials, with civil rights groups, activists etc. - and no one could have cared less. NO one.

    So why is there outrage NOW when the courts mandated warrants, protections on our privacy were created, and the focus of investigation is EXCLUSIVELY on links to ONLY known terrorist numbers and even then additional warrants must be obtained to actually get the content of calls, emails, etc. I am delighted these protections are in place, do not fear this administration's pursuit of information, and breathe much more easily than I did in 2003-2007. But the hype over this administration's use of surveillance is to me entirely misplaced when the serious abuses that I felt with only a glancing blow were the REAL abuses about which nobody cared at all. Especially not the EmoProgs and the Libertarians who have their hair on fire over NOTHING today.

    1. It is ironic that putting in controls on these programs actually makes the programs less popular. Perhaps this is because the controls are making us more aware of what the programs do whereas before they were much more secretive.

      What the people don't know won't piss them off.

    2. "What the people don't know won't piss them off."

      I think you are on to something.

  4. Anybody get the feeling that GiGi times these 'bombshells' to step on the President's message? Anytime PBO is going to announce something about foreign policy, or meet with a dignitary or deal with these Intelligence issues GiGi has a scoop to undermine or divert attention away from PBO.