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The NSA's Favorite Weasel Word To Pretend It's Claiming It Doesn't Spy On Americans

from the target-target-target dept

Well, well. In the aftermath of the revelations that the NSA is getting records of every phone call from Verizon, followed up by the news that most of the biggest tech companies are supposedly giving direct access to the NSA, the intelligence community is responding the same way it always does: with weasel words. First up, you can see Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s statement about the spying, which we’ll be discussing again in a bit.

But, a bunch of folks have been reasonably pointing out that Clapper appears to have lied to Congress. Of course, it’s not like this wasn’t easily called. Two years ago, we wrote about Clapper’s answers to Senators Wyden and Udall, which we pointed out was a ridiculous answer that was clearly sidestepping the real questions. However, looking over that letter again now, and having become a bit more familiar with the weasel words the NSA likes to use, it’s easy to look at Clapper’s statement and explain why he can “stand by it” while the clear implication of it was the opposite of what he meant.

You asked whether communications of Americans have been collected… Section 702 of the FAA [FISA Amendments Act] explicitly prohibits the intentional targeting of persons reasonably believed to be located in the United States or United States persons located abroad. The Intelligence Community has put in place a variety of procedures, which have been approved by the FISA Court as required by law, to ensure that only persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States are targeted and to prevent the intentional acquisition of any communications as to which the sender and all intended recipients are known to be located in the United States. Guidelines are also required by law to ensure compliance with other limitations on FAA collection, including the requirement that a U.S. person may not be intentionally targeted under section 702. If it is discovered that a target has entered the U.S. or is a U.S. person, he or she is promptly detargeted and reports are made as appropriate to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the FISA Court. Moreover, when communications from persons located in the United States are collected because they are communicating with a lawful target, the privacy and civil liberty rights of U.S. persons are protected through the careful implementation of the procedures required under the FAA to ’minimize the acquisition and retention, and prohibit the dissemination“ of information about U.S. persons.’”

Most people would read this to be him saying that they do not spy on Americans. And that’s obviously what he’s trying to imply. But that’s not what he’s actually saying. He’s using the NSA’s favorite weasel word: “target.” Now, most people assume that means one of the people on the call must be outside the US. But, you could — if you were devious intelligence official trying to mislead Congress and the American public (hypothetically) — interpret the word “target” to mean “if we, in general are ‘targeting’ foreign threats, no matter what they might be like, and this information we’re collecting might help in that process, then we can snarf up this data.”

In other words, most people think that “target” would mean one of the people on the phone. But, the NSA means “this overall investigation is about targeting foreign threats, so we can take whatever data we want because the goal is to stop foreign threats with it — and therefore our mandate not to spy on Americans doesn’t apply.”

So, it shouldn’t be particularly surprising to see that the administration’s “response” to this is to highlight, yet again, that this only “targets” non-US persons:

Information collected through a U.S. government surveillance program that taps into the servers of internet companies targets only non-U.S. persons living outside the United States, a senior administration official said on Thursday.

The U.S. law that allows the collection of data under this program does not allow the targeting of any U.S. citizen or of any person located in the United States, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Right, but whether or not they’re “targeting” a person, is separate from whether or not they’re spying on the data of Americans. As long as it’s all part of a process that “targets” non-US persons, they can claim that they’re playing by the rules.

Given that, however, I don’t see how Clapper can reasonably standby the following statements:

Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Clapper: No sir.

Wyden: It does not?

Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect—but not wittingly.

Clapper is insisting that he didn’t lie in his comments, but he then pretends that he was only talking about email:

What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails. I stand by that.

Except, that’s not what he was asked, nor was it what he said. He was specifically asked if the NSA collects any type of data at all, and he said no. Up above, he was using weasel words, but here it looks like he was flat out lying directly to Congress. Usually, Congress doesn’t like that.

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Comments on “The NSA's Favorite Weasel Word To Pretend It's Claiming It Doesn't Spy On Americans”

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art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Honest Answer

as this article makes the point, it can not be emphasized enough that our betters, our superiors, our masters of the universe use these transparent and utterly CHILDISH means of obfuscation ALL THE TIME…

The They are NOT super-smart brainiacs who simply can’t let us hoi polloi now the real score, The They are borderline sociopaths who LIE TO US ALL THE TIME…

the gummint’s denizens WILL engage in the most breath-taking sophistry imaginable to worm out of any and all, even tangentially embarrassing situations, much less actual corruption and perfidy…

you only have to read the his story of these situations to find out it is ultimately revealed that the secrecy, etc had NOTHING do do with protecting national security, etc, it was ALL ABOUT hiding corrupt or stupid shit…

as one example relevant: hoover would get called on the carpet by the kongresskritters for some overreach, and when he was in front of kongress, would say: ‘oh no, you stupid kongresskritter, we have ZERO illegal wiretaps, etc…’
then he would go back to feeb hq after done testilying, and have all the illegal wiretaps put back on after temporarily discontinuing them so he could ‘honestly’ say they didn’t have any illegal wiretaps…

THAT is EXACTLY the kind of technical dissembling, quasi-legal parsing, purposeful obfuscation, and secret definitions of words The They use ALL THE TIME to avoid the plainspoken truth of the evil they are doing…

the gummint LIES to us ALL THE TIME…
the sheeple are mostly good people, so they find it either difficult or painful to come to that conclusion…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

gojomo (profile) says:

They've also redefined 'collect'

The EFF notes the intelligence community also uses a peculiar definition of ‘collect’…


…such that it only applies to data that’s been processed into a reviewable form and delivered to an intelligence employee end-user.

I suppose if Google used the same definition, they could crawl web pages, use them to build indexes and train algorithms, but deny that any particular page has been ‘collected’ unless and until they show up in a user’s search results.

Note also that Wyden used the qualifying phrase “on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans”. Using this peculiar meaning of ‘collect’ Clapper could have given a fully-forthcoming, peculiar, but still self-consistent answer like: “No, even though we have received and indexed data records on hundreds of millions of Americans, each of our searches are configured to return only the top 10 results, thus our intelligence officers only ever ‘collect’ data on 10 people at a time. And we try really really hard to craft our queries so that most of those 10 results are foreigners, but you know how hard crafting precise queries can be!”

horse with no name says:


Another great weasel word is “troubled” as in “I am troubled by this”. It’s use is there specifically not to take a position, but to express concern while leading the reader to think that the writer is taking a side.

I wasn’t shocked to see Wyden’s name on this one. The man grandstands more than a rapper.

horse with no name says:

Re: Re: troubled

Grandstanders are like the boy who cried wolf. They do it so often, it’s hard to tell when things have any true meaning. Since Wyden seems to have clamped onto anything with “internet” or “security” in it, it’s pretty hard to tell when it’s important.

Further, let’s consider this: The internet is a large scale third party communication system. What exact privacy do you really think you would have? Even here, my message to you is passed in a public way – privacy is all relatve at that point, is it not?

horse with no name says:

Re: Re: Re:2 troubled



Kissing Mike’s ass is certainly proof of someone grandstanding and playing to a demographic. Typical political move, pick your areas, pick your groups, and yell loud and long about things and play to those who support you.

As soon as he posted here, it pretty much killed any chance that there will ever be anything negative about him here. Bought and paid, just not in cash, right?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 troubled

Senators kiss ass to Mike now?

I thought it was the other way around?

Oh you trolls, never keeping the story straight.

And why WOULDNT he talk to people who are knowledge about the areas presented and where the audience is large?

That’s only done in every single profession ever.

horse with no name says:

Re: Re: Re:4 troubled

I answered your question very directly. As Mike has allowed (invited) the fine Senator to post here on Techdirt, it’s hard for Mike to say anything bad.

As for grandstanding, he does it all the time. His being “right” or “wrong” is a political question based on how you feel about it. Yet many of the causes he has gotten up and grandstanded about have fallen to the side, unresolved. You need only to go back and use the convenient techdirt search at the top for posts about Wyden, and you can go and look to see which one of his many chest pounding a exercises have failed to pan out. You can use your own political stand to decide how you feel.

And why WOULDNT he talk to people who are knowledge about the areas presented and where the audience is large?

He’s doing what all politicians do, which is rather than dealing with the people he doesn’t agree with to try to find a solution, he is instead preaching to the choir and trying to win favor with people already eating out of his hand. You don’t get much done that way, except lots of noise and gladhanding. That’s politics, right?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: troubled

Troubled has a clear meaning, it means you don’t like what is troubling you. It explicitly takes the position that the thing you are troubled by is bad. What else could it possibly mean? It seems like you’re saying that they say troubled but are actually not troubled. That’s not a weasel word though that’s just lying.

out_of_the_blue says:

Google is WEASELING too.


“Google, like the other companies, denied that it permitted direct government access to its servers.

?Google cares deeply about the security of our users? data,? a company spokesman said. ?We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ?back door? into our systems, but Google does not have a ?back door? for the government to access private user data.?

Oh, yeah: soulless corporation Google cares deeply. All that is technically true yet BLATANT LYING: it’s not “direct” because they’ve built a query system front-end for use over the web rather than someone physically at a server, and then technically that’s a front door not a “back door”.

Now, there’s been ONE person on this site who has consistently labeled Google a “SPY AGENCY”, while called crazy and a “conspiracy theorist” by ankle-biters, yet whom it turns out is now proven more than right by the Washington Post, besides Mike running re-writes. — And that person is ME, I point out to the sheer contrary dolts here. — And so, HA, HA, the joke is on YOU, now we’re all in the grip of a surveillance state created while you played violent video games fantasizing that you’re murdering people, or watched mindless sports contest between millionaires, or watched infringed content stolen via The Pirate Bay, ANY diversion to not see reality. To you the character John Galt in Atlas Shrugged says: Brothers, you asked for it!

But it’s not too late if you’ll just wake up, admit to reality, and STOP going along with corporations.

Mike especially should be eating crow: his precious Google is revealed as a SPY AGENCY. — Eric Schmidt is at the Bilderberg conference right now, planning the next stage of global domination. — Mike should be covering that meeting of more than 150 techno-leaders.

You kids fell for the flashy gadgets and the lie that the internet was empowering you with information when actually it’s the ultimate police state tool. — You won’t like the future. There’s no John Galt who’s going to lead you back to freedom. This “leak” is not the beginning of revolt and roll-back, it’s just announcing to you dolts how wide and effective is the internet trap.

PS: No, VPNs and TOR won’t help, they’re almost certainly compromised. Many brilliant minds have devised this trap, working on more aspects of it than you even suspect exist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Google is WEASELING too.

PS: No, VPNs and TOR won’t help, they’re almost certainly compromised. Many brilliant minds have devised this trap, working on more aspects of it than you even suspect exist.

I’d guess that VPN’s and TOR are the “honey holes” for the spies. After all, they’d have to figure that those using anonymity tools are most in need of attention.

Mr. Applegate says:

Re: Re: Google is WEASELING too.

Certainly canned and closed source VPNs could be compromised. However, ones based on properly vetted Open Source Code almost certainly have not been compromised. That said, while they may not be able to read the data, they can still see the connection and if a system at either end of that connection has been compromised, then it is quite likely the entire connection is compromised.

TOR certainly could be compromised if the majority of the systems used are compromised. Given the fact that Microsoft has apparently agreed to work with the NSA, one should assume that every Microsoft system installed is compromised.

Well at least my home systems are probably safe – for now.

Anonymous Coward says:

A Republic? Shut your mouth

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper yesterday released a ?DNI Statement on Recent Unauthorized Disclosures of Classified Information?. Among other points, he wrote:

Discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions.

DNI Clapper’s statement carries the implication that the representatives of the American people ought to keep the public in the dark, ignorant. It further implies that the American public ought to keep their mouths shut.

Contrast that with the sentiments James Madison once expressed:

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

????? ?Letter to W.T. Barry, August 1822

If we are to have a republic, then it is essential that people must know what our government is up to. It is essential that we publicly discuss those government powers ostensibly organized to most likely effect our safety and happiness.

Anonymous Coward says:

A key point

Note that they provision is SUPPOSED to prohibit collection of information on people in the US AND US CITIZENS regardless of whether they are currently in the US or not. This is part of the concept of inalienable rights I was making in my comment in a previous article. You are not supposed to lose your rights as a citizen just because you leave the country.

Tubal (profile) says:

keep on the story

At first blush, the companies’ denials seem especially carefully worded. I hope folks who are more technologically knowledgeable than the general public parse the company’s words carefully. To my mind, Techdirt and its readers have a role to play in that regard.

Mike states: “here it looks like he was flat out lying directly to Congress. Usually, Congress doesn’t like that.”

Unfortunately, I have little faith that congress will express any unified (effective) sense of outrage at being lied to… evidence Eric Holder’s recent lies about abuses against institutions the public depends on. Even if partisanship leads some members to believe that a lie is legally a mere misleading statement, Congress needs to show more allegiance to their role as members of the legislative branch over their role as members of any party. As the people’s most direct representatives in Federal government, Congress deserves not to be lied to. More importantly the people deserve not to be lied to. I’ll allow that in some national security and defense matters, the public is not served by full truth being revealed at all times, but direct lies and misleading statements are out of line.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:


but here it looks like he was flat out lying directly to Congress. Usually, Congress doesn’t like that.

Really? By outside observation they actively encourage being lied to for stuff like this. It’s when it can be proved on prime time that it’s a lie that it becomes a problem.

Little regard though I have for the intellect of most politicians, they can’t really be dumb enough to swallow this garbage so the only possible conclusion is that the requirement is not truth but that the lie be plausible so that they (the politicians) are not responsible and can wring their hands dramatically at the appropriate juncture.

Anonymous Coward says:

I suspect that this is what Sen. Wyden has been trying to make public without saying it himself, since he is bound by security agreements not to actually reveal what he knows directly. Every time he or Udal do a double question on an answer dealing with this spying it’s a strong clue where the lies are.

The NSA is no different that the FBI when it comes to obeying the law. They’ll abuse what ever they can and if there is no fear of reprisal then there is nothing to prevent them from totally ignoring the law, which is what they have done. It’s been intentional, in scope, planning, and willful execution.

Jeffrey says:

Boston Bombers casually STROLLED along and set their bombs off right in the middle of an active bomb detection drill. They did not consider security cameras, and did not have an escape plan. So do you think they considered phone or internet security? Hell no. So all these $BILLIONS were a complete and absolute waste …… if they are looking for terrorists …

AJ says:

All these fools have to do is say the magic word —terror. Back years ago it was communism. But either way it has the same results— some misguided citizens willing to surrender their constitutional rights in the name of a false security. The Constitution of the United States is being used by our so-called leaders as a doormat and toilet paper

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