Sunday, September 8, 2013

The fallacy of transparency in an era of media hyperbole and distortion

When it comes to the debate about NSA surveillance, one of the main issues involved is transparency. President Obama has said that when he took office, his goal was to ensure that there was proper oversight of these intelligence activities by Congress and the Courts. Historically, that had been sufficient given the sensitivity of the work involved.

But now even the President is committed to going beyond that and giving the public as much information as possible about NSA activities and procedures. That is the new standard for transparency being placed on this administration.

The problem, as I see it, is that the American public is pretty dependent on the media to inform them about what is put out there for public consumption. Whether its the hyperbole and lies of omission practiced by people like Glenn Greenwald or what might be understood as lazy journalism by others, its frustrating to watch the story be twisted over and over again - giving the public a distorted view of what is happening. Let me give you an example.

Early on when the NSA story broke this summer, there was lots of talk about a FISA court order ruling that certain elements of the NSA program violated the 4th Amendment. Advocates went to court to get it declassified. Last month it was released. How many people do you suppose actually read it? Yeah, I'm pretty committed to this story, but even I couldn't get through the whole thing. The gist of it was that the court ruled that the minimization procedures NSA was using to protect the privacy of US persons when they collected bulk data from the internet were not sufficient. Here's how Kurt Eichenwald describes minimization.
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.
What many in the media failed to report is that, along with releasing that particular FISA court ruling, the administration also released a ruling from the following month after they had gone back to the court with more stringent minimization procedures. The court ruled that those procedures met the standards of the 4th Amendment. The administration actually released the new minimization rules as well.

But then along comes the Washington Post with a misleading headline about all this: Obama administration had restrictions on NSA reversed in 2011. Here's how they describe the exact same story I just told.
The Obama administration secretly won permission from a surveillance court in 2011 to reverse restrictions on the National Security Agency’s use of intercepted phone calls and e-mails, permitting the agency to search deliberately for Americans’ communications in its massive databases, according to interviews with government officials and recently declassified material.
Nowhere in the entire article is the word "minimization" used nor is there any attempt to inform the reader that this was the very basis of the FISA rulings. We're once again fed lies ("permitting the agency to search deliberately for Americans' communications") and omissions that go to the heart of the issue involved. Notice also the hyperbole of talking about how the administration "secretly won permission." Of course they fail to note that ALL FISA court rulings are secret - by the design of the Church Committee. And the fact that they know about this one is only because the Obama administration voluntarily declassified it.

If you've gotten this far in reading what I have to say about this, you are probably more diligent than about 99% of the American public. And that's the problem with requires a media that tells the entire story accurately right up front. Its clear that we don't have that right now. Given that reality, the whole idea of transparency is nothing more than a fallacy.


  1. Except you know about it and you shared it with us. So that's an improvement over what we had before. Transparency isn't sexy, doesn't sell papers, doesn't provide good click bait. The best response to shady outfits like the Washington Post is what you're doing here. It's the volunteer media that isn't in it for profit that does the job the mainstream fails to do. There are people who seek out your kind of journalism. You are part of the solution. I'm glad you're here so I can link to you when discussing topics. You inform my world view so when I engage others, I can tell them they're not getting the big picture. People like you are changing media from the bottom up. That's a good thing. Al Giordano would be proud.

    1. Wow - thanks! That's exactly why I do this - although sometimes I must admit that it feels like pushing a gigantic bolder uphill. But then that's why my totem is the turtle...slow and steady wins the race ;-)

  2. It is beyond me how even the quest for profit such blatant distortion. I agree with Tien Le that selling papers may be a factor, but there is more at work than I think such things explain. I once guest taught a course on ethics for public relations people only to find that the vast majority of the students hated the idea that lying to the media was bad. Could NOT wrap their minds around discretion and outright distortion. Journalists are not that far from PR people on this issue - so much opinion masquerading as 'fact' and so much fact selectively chosen. So I do agree again with Tien Le that it is sources such as this that provide fact and detail and observable correction that help us sort out what is accurate and therefore helps us make far better decisions. This is very useful since the veracity of WaPo is taken itself for fact - and now we can see that it is not true.

  3. suppose i were a media boss who had actively participated in lying the country into a ruinous war, and wanted the public who gives me money to forget it. might i not do everything in my power to yell, scream, and squawk at someone ELSE for wrongs either real or imagined? like say Obama/NSA?

    suppose further that the public is so stupid and ashamed that after they went along with some other president lied them into a ruinous war, they are only mentally able to imagine ONE source of lying: the president. wouldn't the media as described above be perfectly situated to take advantage of a dumb and incurious public with lies aimed at making the public forget about the media's complicity?

    and it all gets marketed as "learning our lesson". which turns out to be about as accurate as "reality-based" - just marketing.

    similarly for syria.

  4. Here's ODNI special counsel Robert Litt quoted in the WaPo article:

    “If we’re validly targeting foreigners and we happen to collect communications of Americans, we don’t have to close our eyes to that,” Litt said. “I’m not aware of other situations where once we have lawfully collected information, we have to go back and get a warrant to look at the information we’ve already collected.”

    Litt is explicitly saying they can deliberately search incidentally collected US persons data without a warrant. WaPo is not spreading "lies".

    1. Did WaPo use the word "incidentally" when they talked about deliberately searching US persons data? No.

      That's probably because even their writers/editors would recognize that "deliberately searched" and "incidentally collected" are opposites.

      So get back to me when you've done your homework and found out which of them is actually the case in the court ruling focused on minimization procedures for collection data on US persons.

    2. Here's a fictionalized story to explain how this works:

      Lets say NSA has targeted a terrorist group in Chechnya when they come across an email from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (a US person) outlining his plans for the Boston Marathon bombing. Under those circumstances, the NSA is giving the authority to analyze that information.

      But if they were just talking about what happened at a soccer game, the NSA's minimization procedures would kick in and the email would never see the light of day.

    3. One final point: You can feel free to believe that the NSA shouldn't be doing any of this. My point here is that the WaPo article was terribly misleading about these FISA court orders and the procedures involved. That is simply an indisputable fact.

  5. Thank you. Please keep pushing that boulder up the hill. There are so few places one can go to read the facts behind the story the media wants to tell. There are always good comments here as well. Appreciate you all.

  6. SP, several other commenters here have eloquently expressed the reasons I'm grateful to you for persisting with that 'boulder', so I'll simply add my 'THANKS!'

  7. It might not seem like it but your work is worth the effort. Somebody has to have facts out here. I appreciate the smack downs to the shmuck types.


  8. Hi SP
    I delight in sending your "stuff" all over the net! I keep stuff to send later! Thanks for pushing the "boulder up"!I visit every day and sometime twice!!

  9. Kudos again. You're my favorite blogger and am always making sure others know.