NSA Boss & Defenders Insist NSA Can't Abuse Surveillance Systems; Forgets To Mention It Already Has

from the just-saying dept

As NSA boss Keith Alexander was in Vegas to present at the Black Hat conference this week, much of the attention has been paid to the fact that he was heckled by audience members, though others in attendance said that the audience was “mostly supportive” of Alexander’s statements. Either way, I’d like to focus in on a key point that he made, when he claimed that NSA analysts wouldn’t abuse their surveillance powers, because they’re audited and trained not to break the rules:

“The assumption is our people are just out there wheeling and dealing. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have tremendous oversight over these programmes. We can audit the actions of our people 100%, and we do that,” he said.

[….] Should anyone in the NSA try to circumvent that, in defiance of policy, they would be held accountable, he said: “There is 100% audibility.” Only 35 NSA analysts had the authority to query a database of US phone records, he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Rogers, who really doesn’t know when to give up, went out on Twitter to “defend” the leaks about XKeyscore, insisting that they’re magically immune from abuse because of “legal constraints, comprehensive training and layers of oversight built into all NSA programs.”

You see, that sounds great… except for the fact that we already know that they have abused those powers. Back in 2009, it was revealed that NSA analysts viewed former President Bill Clinton’s emails:

An anonymous former intelligence analyst tells reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau that during much of the Bush years, the NSA “tolerated significant collection and examination of domestic e-mail messages without warrants.” Reportedly, one of the accessed domestic e-mail accounts belonged to former President Bill Clinton.

This same report gets to the supposed “training” that Alexander insists helps to prevent abuse:

The former analyst added that his instructors had warned against committing any abuses, telling his class that another analyst had been investigated because he had improperly accessed the personal e-mail of former President Bill Clinton.

I can just imagine sitting in that “training” in which the NSA says don’t look at people’s emails, because someone once looked at Bill Clinton’s emails. That seems more like daring them to spy on emails. It’s telling them “holy shit, you can look at famous and powerful people’s emails.” And, of course, that’s not the only story of abuse. A year earlier, it was reported that NSA linguists listened in on phone sex calls between Americans living abroad.

Adrienne Kinne, a former U.S. Army Reserves Arab linguist, told ABC News the NSA was listening to the phone calls of U.S. military officers, journalists and aid workers overseas who were talking about “personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism.”

David Murfee Faulk, a former U.S. Navy Arab linguist, said in the news report that he and his colleagues were listening to the conversations of military officers in Iraq who were talking with their spouses or girlfriends in the United States.

According to Faulk, they would often share the contents of some of the more salacious calls stored on their computers, listening to what he called “phone sex” and “pillow talk.”

So, forgive us for being skeptical when Alexander and Rogers insist that abuse is basically impossible because of “oversight” and “training.” We’ve already seen that abuse occur. As far as I know, the NSA still hires analysts from the human race, and with that comes people who are given great responsibility — and the ability to give in to temptation, such as scouring a former President’s emails. To claim that there isn’t any abuse just isn’t credible.

Filed Under: , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “NSA Boss & Defenders Insist NSA Can't Abuse Surveillance Systems; Forgets To Mention It Already Has”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Rikuo (profile) says:

Really? Abuse is impossible? I’d love to know how they managed to do that, since at the end of the day, the NSA is staffed by people, human beings, who are flawed and imperfect. All it takes is one person, which is what Snowden taught us. Even with the new two person approach I’ve heard about recently, that doesn’t cover the possibility of abuse by both working in tandem.

Anonymous Coward says:

“We have tremendous oversight over these programmes. We can audit the actions of our people 100%, and we do that,? he said…. ?There is 100% audibility.? Only 35 NSA analysts had the authority to query a database of US phone records, he said.

Was Snowden the 36th? …and you claim to have 100% oversight? Uh-huh. How’s that working out for you?

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I am rather irritated you would ruin such a great song like that, BUT at the same time I have to admit that it’s slightly amusing.

Shame on Misrepresentative Mike Rogers for sharing the same name as Mister Rogers, the only famous person who really cared about “the children” 1000%.

Pity we don’t have any politicians like that.

Anonymous Coward says:

So who does Alexander want to point to showing that everyone is following the laws and that no abuse is possible? So far, every agency that has some sort of protection has abused this.

One recalls the FBI and their NSLs. Which has been shown over and over to have been abused. Alexander is not a creditable source, working inside the NSA and bound by the non-disclosure of confidentiality and security agreements. What I am hearing here is the same BS that comes out every time one of them opens their mouth to defend the current policies. Mainly it boils down to being too much trouble to have to go to a judge and get the necessary permissions to actually be legal in the sense of obeying the Constitution. The whole thing is a scam to get around the intent and purpose of the law.

Every time one of these court cases comes up against just what they are doing it is a mad scramble between the executive branch and security branches to claim either no standing or national security interests. It’s been done enough we all get the picture of why those excuses are being used. It’s purpose is to prevent anyone from knowing how bad they are breaking the law. Each revealing that comes out just makes them look worse because those revealings are cut from lies patched together to try and make it appear better than it is.

If there was ever a scandal, you are staring at it.

Lord Binky says:

There is no way they can honestly say that not ONE person have used the system to access information on an ex, family member, friend, or person of personal interest which was unrelated to any formal NSA investigation. That is an abuse of the system. Just because they haven’t been caught (not that we’d be allowed to know), which is easy when no one is looking anyways, does not mean it is not occuring, especially with no real barriers besides the individuals that have access to the system’s ethics.

Without proof, there is no way to accept their posit of NSA employee = infallible. This posit coming from a person already caught lieing is absurd. Training and oversight are NOT acceptable as a critical layer of defense against abuse either. He knows ‘defense in depth’ concepts, and it is mockery that he suggests oversight (and internal oversight at that!) is adequate. It is far to simple and a human tendancy to look away from what they consider minor wrongs because ‘we all do it’.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: And then there is this..

How did the “Joint Terrorism Task Force” (sic) get this data?

Via the Atlantic Wire article:

They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing. I don?t know what happens on the other 1% of visits and I?m not sure I want to know what my neighbors are up to.

If they were really doing this about 100 times a week, then wouldn’t we have heard about it before now?

I don’t think it’s worth placing too much stock in this story. There’s not a big downside to some healthy skepticism here: ? If they really are doing this about 100 times a week, then there will be more stories coming along to corroborate this one.

gorehound (profile) says:

These guys are such a bunch of lying scum.They would sell out their best friend for a dime if it advanced their power and political standing.
Bunch of POS’s who spy on us and want to turn our Nation into a Police State.No Respect at all for our Great Constitution.

Glad Russia took in Snowden as well.Hope that wipes some krap into your spying corrupt Arses.

Transmitte (profile) says:


Years ago when I was training to work as an AOL rep, we were warned not to access celebrities accounts, because they could and were monitoring us and the accts left digital footprints from those that did access them.

Within 30 days, half my training class had been fired for doing exactly what they were warned not to do.

So how exactly does this work for the NSA again?

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Re: Riiiiggghhhht...

I can’t believe I’m saying this about something related to AOHell, but the guys training your class to be AOL reps were brilliant. By telling your reps that it was possible to access celebrities accounts and then warning them not to do so, they deliberately left a forbidden fruit[the accounts] level of temptation[indirectly telling you it was possible to access said accounts] in front of you and the rest of your training class.

By doing this they were able to weed out all the “untrustworthy” employees [those who accessed the accounts] because they could potentially end up as a liability for AOL if they became full reps for the company, since the probability of them eventually stalking their favorite celebrities email account, or ending up as an inside source for all the gossip rags and paparazzi would be much higher because they accessed the accounts even after being explicitly warned not to do so.

Quite a creative way to evaluate the reliability of someone. Hung out the privacy of the celebrities through their email accounts as bait, but considering the chanc of a potentially company-destroying scandal if emails from private AOL accounts (celeb or otherwise) started getting leaked to the “press”, in theory the tradeoff was worth it.

Didn’t help AOHELL in the long run though, but there were other factors involved there…

art guerrilla (profile) says:

here is an immutable law of human nature:

ANY secret institution WILL BE CORRUPTED, PERIOD…

i don’t care where it is, i don’t care who it is, ANY secret institution WILL BE CORRUPTED, sooner or later, probably sooner…

that goes DOUBLE for agencies *intended* to be secret, and quadruple for gummint institutions NOT amenable to virtually ANY effective oversight…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Paul says:

If their lips are moving, they're LYING!

The subject line says it all.

They no longer have any credibility.
If their lips are moving, they’re LYING!

They have devastated our global image.
If their lips are moving, they’re LYING!

They have criminally destroyed our Democracy.
If their lips are moving, they’re LYING!

They have done enough damage to the United States and “We the People” need to restore our Constitution (and Privacy) by any & every means possible.

If their lips are moving, they’re LYING!

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...