NSA Tries To Justify Its Surveillance Programs With Ridiculous Assertions

from the what-a-joke dept

As President Obama was laying out his “plan” in response to the public’s concerns over NSA spying, both the DOJ and the NSA released some documents defending the various programs. I would imagine it will surprise none of you that these documents are chock full of hilarious and misleading claims. Let’s highlight a few, starting with the NSA’s document, which is shorter, more general and covers all the various programs more broadly. It’s also a complete joke. We’ll get to the DOJ one in another post.

In his May 2013 address at the National Defense University, the President made clear that we, as a Government, need to review the surveillance authorities used by our law enforcement and intelligence community professionals so that we can collect information needed to keep us safe and ensure that we are undertaking the right kinds of privacy protections to prevent abuse.

Somehow, I think this document has a lot more to do with Ed Snowden’s leaks a month later than the speech Obama gave in May…

After the al-Qa’ida attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the 9/11 Commission found that the U.S. Government had failed to identify and connect the many “dots” of information that would have uncovered the planning and preparation for those attacks.

Actually, the Commission said that you had collected all that information, but you failed to connect the pieces. Collecting more data does not help with that problem. In fact, the very heads of the Commission that you’re citing in defense of these programs have come out publicly to say that the NSA has gone way too far with these programs. So, yeah, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

We strive to achieve this through a system that is carefully designed to be consistent with Authorities and Controls and enabled by capabilities that allow us to Collect, Analyze, and Report intelligence needed to protect national security.

As always, the NSA goes back to its authority rather than what it’s actually doing and what its abilities are.

This process will often involve the collection of communications metadata — data that helps NSA understand where to find valid foreign intelligence information needed to protect U.S. national security interests in a large and complicated global network. For instance, the collection of overseas communications metadata associated with telephone calls — such as the telephone numbers, and time and duration of calls — allows NSA to map communications between terrorists and their associates.

Well, yes, and also map out communications between everyone else. But, here’s where the NSA has some fun. They claim that collecting all that metadata is actually good for American’s privacy because by using it to map out networks among real terrorists it means they don’t actually go after your stuff:

This strategy helps ensure that NSA’s collection of communications content is more precisely focused on only those targets necessary to respond to identified foreign intelligence requirements.

Did you catch that? They only spy on all of us so they know how to avoid spying on all of us.

For a variety of reasons, including technical ones, the communications of U.S. persons are sometimes incidentally acquired in targeting the foreign entities. For example, a U.S. person might be courtesy copied on an e-mail to or from a legitimate foreign target, or a person in the U.S. might be in contact with a known terrorist target.

Or, for example, a US person might be using encryption which makes us think you’re a terrorist. Or, you might just be emailing anyone outside of the country. Or that.

In those cases, minimization procedures adopted by the Attorney General in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence and approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are used to protect the privacy of the U.S. person.

The same “minimization procedures” that say if you use encryption, you might be evil so they don’t have to protect your privacy any more. Very convincing.

FISA regulates certain types of foreign intelligence collection including certain collection that occurs with compelled assistance from U.S. telecommunications companies.

I just love the lyrical phrase “compelled assistance.” That’s called “we’re the government, we have guns and jails, and you have the info we want, fork it over.”

The Government cannot conduct substantive queries of the bulk records for any purpose other than counterterrorism.

Right, but don’t ask us about those time when we feed info to the DEA and IRS and then instruct them to launder it so they can pretend they didn’t get it from us. Because, you know… that’s getting a bit personal.

The BR FISA program is used in cases where there is believed to be a threat to the homeland. Of the 54 terrorism events recently discussed in public, 13 of them had a homeland nexus, and in 12 of those cases, BR FISA played a role.

“Played a role.” Except that multiple Senators have now said you’ve presented absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the BR FISA program (Section 215 of the Patriot Act) has “helped thwart or prevent” any terrorist plots.

Scope and Scale of NSA Collection

According to figures published by a major tech provider, the Internet carries 1,826 Petabytes of information per day. In its foreign intelligence mission, NSA touches about 1.6% of that. However, of the 1.6% of the data, only 0.025% is actually selected for review. The net effect is that NSA analysts look at 0.00004% of the world’s traffic in conducting their mission — that’s less than one part in a million. Put another way, if a standard basketball court represented the global communications environment, NSA’s total collection would be represented by an area smaller than a dime on that basketball court.

A dime on a basketball court? Huh? Also, almost nothing in the above statements is believable given earlier revelations. Also, what the hell do they mean by “touches”? Collected? Searched? Looked at closely? Fondled lovingly?

In addition to NSA’s compliance safeguards, NSA personnel are obligated to report when they believe NSA is not, or may not be, acting consistently with law, policy or procedure. This self-reporting is part of the culture and fabric of NSA. If NSA is not acting in accordance with law, policy or procedure, NSA will report through its internal and external intelligence oversight channels, conduct reviews to understand the root cause, and make appropriate adjustments to improve.

This is guffaw inducing. If you haven’t yet, now might be a good time to reread Jane Mayer’s 2011 article about what the federal government did to Thomas Drake, Bill Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe for doing exactly that. The idea that this is a part of the “culture and fabric of the NSA” is laughable. That article describes the insanity of former director Michael Hayden in absolutely flipping out when Binney and Wiebe went behind his back and through the “official” channels.

The NSA has absolutely no credibility on this subject, and the claims in this document are simply laughable.

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Comments on “NSA Tries To Justify Its Surveillance Programs With Ridiculous Assertions”

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kenichi tanaka (profile) says:

There is a problem with the way Washington is viewing the security and safety of the American People. I see it in the simplest of terms. Let me explain.

Whenever you have a democracy as important as the United States of America has and you justify abusing that democracy by passing laws that cancel out such protections as ‘privacy’ and ‘basic civil and human rights’ in favor of national security then you have already lost and that democracy is forever lost.

That is where dictatorship and communism begin because what good are constitutional rights, granted by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights if the government won;t let you exercise them.

Making excuses to justify why you are allowed to violate the privacy rights of the people who elected you into office means that it is more than likely illegal but also wrong. Democrats running our government have forgotten the basic principles as to why the United States was formed in the first place and those same Democrats forgot why we rebelled against the British Empire.

It’s sad that Democrats continue to justify why they think they are allowed to spy on the communications of the American People. Because of that, the Democratic Party is going to lose the elections in 2014 and in 2016.

teka (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yes, this is obviously an entirely partisan issue that can be blamed entirely on Fillintheblank. Fillintheblanks policy decisions are a radical departure from the American Values that OtherGuys stick to at all times.

There is no reason to push for reform in questionable or downright immoral government actions. Just vote for OtherGuys next time. We will get rid of all of those Fillintheblank policies and replace them with good ones that are full of patriotism and happiness. Don’t ask questions about unelected bureaucratic structures who have secret rules, Just trust that Otherguys will ‘make that better’ without committing to anything in particular.

Vote Otherguys! We are nothing like Fillintheblank, because of reasons! We use a different animal spirit icon from the 1800s so you know we are nothing like Them. Just Vote Otherguys, because any possible problems have nothing to do with us in the past, present or future.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Honestly, I can’t say this is Democrat vs. Republican. There is just too much blame to go around. Since 9/11, we have become a police state with abuse at the local and federal levels all in the name of security. I’m hopeful that the trend is slowing going away, but it’s peak it shrouded in this state’s secrets doctrine so the public is still left in the dark. While we know the chilling effects of stop and frisk, and the sudden increase in police brutality, what’s ahead is all still in a fog.

Dave Marney (profile) says:

Re: Constitutional grants

Just to be clear, the authority model of the US is that all rights are inherent in the people, no granting is required. The people, through their representatives, then authorize the government to exercise selected powers, in the people’s name.

Which makes your point even more important. It’s not merely that our government has “forgotten” our rights, they are illegally exceeding them. They have broken our agreement.

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Sure, they're obligated to report it

What they don’t say is that if you do report it, you’ll be ostracized by your peers and probably fired, if not worse.

And while Obama did actually say that the intelligence agencies should have a review about their collection practices, it sounds like it wasn’t about how they were possibly violating the Constitution with a broomstick and that it was a problem, but how to better to use that broomstick without getting caught.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Sure, they're obligated to report it

And while Obama did actually say that the intelligence agencies should have a review about their collection practices,…

No, he did not actually say that. He spoke about increasing the authority of law enforcement agencies to intercept “new types of communication”. The NSA is not law enforcement, and the review Obama proposed in that speech was about increasing the level of surveillance.

Here is a link to the complete speech, so you can decide for yourself what the context of his remarks covered.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The sigint guys at the nsa made a math error?

.0004% of 1826 pb is more than 7 Terabytes of data being looked at by analysts every day. I don’t think all the daily phone and email metadata in the world would add up to anywhere near that much (That’s a MB of daily data per man, woman , and child in the world). This is much, much more than metadata they’re selecting for review and looking at.

(And that’s not considering what they’re storing and not ‘looking at’).

Anonymous Coward says:

After the al-Qa’ida attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the 9/11 Commission found that the U.S. Government had failed to identify and connect the many “dots” of information that would have uncovered the planning and preparation for those attacks.

This has got to be the most ridiculous claim I have heard to justify what has been going on.

Problem: We did not connect the many dots we had.
Solution: Get more dots!

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Emailing outside the country?

Eee Gads! This is an international society. If you work for a major corporation, you email internationally all the time! I have family that is scattered all over the globe, and email many of them frequently – I suppose I am a “prime suspect”? So, I have two strikes: one is that I work for an international tier-one company with offices in most countries in the world, and since I am a senior engineer, I email many of them frequently. Two, I have family in Mexico, South America, Russia, Spain, and Australia… I guess I should just wait for the “knock on the door”. :rolleyes:

What used to be 7 degrees of separation should probably now be about 5 – everyone is connected. FWIW, I was only 1 degree separated from former/late President Nixon, and I am 0 degrees separated from many Nobel Prize winners, including Linus Pauling.

Anonymous Coward says:

If, as you claim, you have already decided you aren’t going to believe anything they say, why does it matter what they say?

You will not be satisfied with any change that isn’t disruptive, total, and instantaneous, so I have a feeling you’re in for a lot of disappointment in the next few weeks. You might (as you often suggest to others) adjust your expectations to closer match reality instead of complaining that reality does not match your expectations.

ss (profile) says:


Our papers and effects.

Tracking. Mapping. Tapping. Trapping.

These data that you collect for the good of your country is in direct opposition to said country’s principles.

For fuck’s sake, you’re attempting to justify the unjustifiable. Authorization based on fancy and power will devour the planet. Authorization based on true democracy will enable it.

Mr President, Congress, Justices, please reign in your machines of terror and brutality. Think of liberty for it is sweet. Our laws have roots and without those roots all law is suspect and subject to enforcement with clubs and bullets and white fire.

Anonymous Coward says:

After the al-Qa’ida attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the 9/11 Commission found that the U.S. Government had failed to identify and connect the many “dots” of information that would have uncovered the planning and preparation for those attacks.

Yes, the poop-slinging chimpanzees in the FBI failed to pay attention to field reports from one of the few (VERY few) competent agents they have, who noticed that a group of men were learning to fly planes BUT NOT TO LAND THEM. And in response, rather than publicly crucifying every single person in the chain of command responsible for that astonishing lapse of intelligence, and maybe considering hiring some people with functioning minds, they’ve spent the last dozen years making up fake terror plots so that they can bust them and engage in a celebratory circle-jerk of chest-beating, bible-thumping, flag-waving bullshit.

tony says:

thanks the information

Surely all this energy and endeavour currently directed at this could be more profitably employed providing healthcare, or repairing the shockingly poor infrastructure the US has? That’s not how it works. Internet traffic takes different routes. You may pass a surveylence point on the way to nextbuying.com‘s IP, but not on the way to Apple.com

Ronald Stepp says:

Self reporting versus testimony

“This self-reporting is part of the culture and fabric of NSA.”

Ah-Ha! So they self-report because that’s built into the fabric of the NSA, but when Clapper is asked point-blank by Congress if they collected data in any way, he looked them in the eye and lied, uh, responded, “No.”

So what gives anyone ANY reason to trust that the NSA is truthful in anything they say again, as the appropriate authorities?

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