NSA Defenders Insist Their Lawbreaking Should Be Ignored Because They 'Didn't Mean It'

from the let's-try-that-anywhere-else dept

We got a hint of what NSA defenders would say to try to respond to the latest revelations of thousands of abuses per year by NSA agents, but late Friday (the best place to try to hide from the news cycle) we saw the official response plan roll out and, my goodness, is it ridiculous. The NSA held a conference call, in which it said, sure, sure, agents had abused the system thousands of times, but it shouldn’t count, because they didn’t mean to:

“These are not willful violations, they are not malicious, these are not people trying to break the law,” John DeLong, NSA director of compliance, told reporters.

Except… the NSA also admitted separately:

Mr. DeLong reported, however, “a couple” of willful violations in the past decade. He didn’t provide details.

Wait, hadn’t Keith Alexander just told us that there had never been a willful violation?

Meanwhile, Senator Feinstein is trying a similar “but they didn’t mean it” argument with her statement:

The majority of these ‘compliance incidents’ are, therefore, unintentional and do not involve any inappropriate surveillance of Americans.

As I have said previously, the committee has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes.

Two points in response to this. First, John DeLong admitted during the call that there have been willful violations. Feinstein — the person in charge of oversight — is claiming that she’s never heard of an instance of intentional abuse. Either she’s really, really, really bad at her job and should be removed from the Intelligence Committee, or she’s lying (and should be removed from the Intelligence Committee).

Second, the next time someone is accused of a crime, can they just say they didn’t intend to violate the law and get away with it? Because that seems to be what the NSA and Feinstein are saying here. Good news for Ed Snowden and Bradley Manning, right? Both of them have made it abundantly clear that they didn’t “intend” any harm at all. In fact, they “intended” to help America. So, based on Feinstein and the NSA’s reasoning, they should be in the clear, right?

The other talking point, which we’d briefly discussed last week is this idea that because these abuses are such a small part of the NSA’s overall surveillance, this isn’t a problem. The NSA’s DeLong tried this line of reasoning as well:

The official, John DeLong, the N.S.A. director of compliance, said that the number of mistakes by the agency was extremely low compared with its overall activities. The report showed about 100 errors by analysts in making queries of databases of already-collected communications data; by comparison, he said, the agency performs about 20 million such queries each month.

Other defenders of stamping out the 4th Amendment, like commentator David Frum, bizarrely argued that as long as the NSA does more spying, that’s actually better because the ratio of abuse to spying is so low. Uh, that’s not how it works.

Again, going back to the Snowden and Manning examples, for the vast, vast majority of their lives, neither of them leaked a damn thing. It was really just one day in their life that they leaked something. So, according to the reasoning of the NSA and Frum, they couldn’t have broken the law, since it was such a tiny, tiny part of their lives, right?

Does anyone actually think these arguments make sense? Systematic abuses of the system are not okay just because they’re not “intentional,” and they’re not okay just because they’re a small percentage of all the spying the NSA does. This is still about the NSA breaking the law, and then failing to have any real oversight concerning its activities (not to mention lying about these abuses repeatedly).

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 Defenders Insist Their Lawbreaking Should Be Ignored Because They 'Didn't Mean It'”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:


“the agency performs about 20 million such queries each month.”

20… million… Wait. What?

Somehow this is supposed to make me feel better? This database is full of communication information of which >99% of is from perfectly innocent American citizens and foreigners who are absolutely no threat to the US. And yet that database is being queried 20 million times a month?

In what reality does this make even the tiniest bit of sense?

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: what?

I’m still trying to get my head around this number.

Mathematically, even if you have thousands of analysts performing queries nonstop, this number is unlikely.

So, either there’s tens or hundreds of thousands of analysts who have access to this data, or most of those queries are automated.

If that many people have access to it, then the low number of abuses is completely absurd and doesn’t pass the laugh test. If those queries are automated, then they are extremely inefficient, repetitive, and bloated that the output has got to be utterly useless and full of false positives and probably letting all those important needles slip through.

I suppose it’s also possible that the NSA has also redefined “query” to mean something that it doesn’t in the normal use of the word among people who work with databases. I don’t claim to be a DBA, but I did get stuck with maintaining a database with 150k records for a few months, and even I was only doing a dozen queries a day on it.

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Re: Re: what?

But unless I’m wrong, doesn’t the NSA collect 29.21 petabytes of data per day (or 1.6% of the entire internet)? So making 20 million queries to such a large amount of data kinda makes sense. That would be a lot data to sift through, theoretically speaking.
And when you consider that a lot of the NSA’s workers might be compartmentalized into small individual groups, it could be a massive case of everyone “on the ground” not knowing that someone else has queried the same thing they are, and the guys who are supposed to be in charge of oversight are the only ones who actually know how much of a mess this actually is.

But still, “we didn’t mean it”? Are you kidding me? That doesn’t fly with the kid who accidentally breaks the window with a baseball, and it sure doesn’t fly with a government organization full of supposedly competent adults.

Fucking hell NSA. You’re worse at damage control than Microsoft.

The Real Michael says:

Re: what?

The more pertinent question: just what exactly are they looking for? Can’t be terrorists because they haven’t found any.

Feinstein said, “The majority of these ?compliance incidents? are, therefore, unintentional and do not involve any inappropriate surveillance of Americans.”

Oh really? Harvesting data en masse on all Americans’ private communications is considered “appropriate surveillance” but those “compliance incidents” isn’t? Could she explain, if looking through our data is unintentional then why bother collecting it in the first place?

One big fat lie after another.

Adam (profile) says:

The NSA Defence

Anytime somebody commits a crime now but didn’t mean it they should be allowed to use “The NSA Defence”.

You weren’t trying to hit the other car in the parking garage. That’s OK, use the NSA Defence.

You didn’t mean to start a forest fire by not putting out your campfire. That’s OK, use the NSA Defence.

If the government can use it, why can’t everyone else?

Anonymous Coward says:

Ignorance of the law -- and lack of intent -- is no excuse

The funny thing about intent is you don’t have to have intent to violate federal law (“overcriminalized” covers this in depth) — intent must be explicitly written into the law to be a defense. These laws don’t require intent — and then they’ve freely confessed to violating them — and then they’ve additionally confessed to participating in a conspiracy to violate them, and a conspiracy to cover up violations of them. It’s hard to see how this isn’t RICO-worthy.

arkiel (profile) says:

If accidental actions violate the Constitution, that isn’t evidence that the system which enabled those violations should be retained; it is an argument that the system cannot be used without there being Constitutional violations.

The NSA had a chance to make this work and proved unequal to the task. It shouldn’t get a do-over because its sins have been brought to light.

Anonymous Coward says:

Had the American people faith and trust in their government that idea that it wasn’t meant could have had forgiveness in it. There is no chance in hell I believe anything coming from people supporting the spying by the government on it’s people. I’ve heard nothing but lies. I know I can believe that.

It’s time for a special investigator to go through and straighten out stuff. Nothing short of that will work. And the special investigator needs have no connections at all to those presently working for the NSA.

Anonymous Coward says:

“the agency performs about 20 million such queries each month.”

Even assuming that they only look at ONE record per query, that’s an awful lot of records they actually put eyes on. Do terrorists communicate electronically 20 million times per month?

“The report showed about 100 errors by analysts in making queries of databases of already-collected communications data”

But with 20 million queries per month, exactly how closely do they look at individual ones to determine that they are NOT abusive? You’d practically need a separate supervisor for every employee.

Dan (profile) says:

Never told ???

“Feinstein — the person in charge of oversight — is claiming that she’s never heard of an instance of intentional abuse. Either she’s really, really, really bad at her job and should be removed from the Intelligence Committee, or she’s lying (and should be removed from the Intelligence Committee). “

Not arguing that Feinstein isn’t bad at her job but…

Or option three, she was never told. Do you honestly believe that people who spy for a living are going to out one of their own to Congress?! Even cops aren’t that stupid.

Lurker Keith says:

the let's-try-that-anywhere-else dept

Let me see how many I can come up with…

Uh, so… casual pirates should be ignored because they often aren’t aware the copying is illegal… & they aren’t causing any real harm, on their own, to the rights holders anyway.

ALL accidents that lead to death or serious injury can be ignored. They’re all unintentional (definition of accident), after all.

Involuntary manslaughter, for which there is a specific law, apparently should also slide.

Most murderers can be ignored because they kill so rarely.

Insider Trading probably would count too, since doing too many trades gets you caught. Mathematically, they do a statistically small number. Oh, wait, they already ignore this.

Really, wouldn’t the first few thousand offenses of any Law fall into this thinking.

Lurker Keith says:

Re: Re: the let's-try-that-anywhere-else dept

Part of why I didn’t list any Constitutional violations was because those tend to be willful violations. Coming up w/ one that is plausibly accidental would’ve taken me too long. They also tend to occur in groups.

Also, I considered mentioning Obama’s violations of the Constitution, but he appears to have committed too many to qualify.

Granted, I could’ve made a similar joke like I did w/ insider trading, but couldn’t think of anything.

open2discussion (profile) says:

Sorry officer - I didn't mean to

I didn’t mean to break the speed-limit, plus I accidentally closed my eyes (blinked) and missed the “Speed Limit 35” sign while this car going 110 mph back there. That means I shouldn’t be responsible for the ticket or reckless driving charges because I was paying attention to the road and not the car’s speedometer.

Why didn’t my car know the speed limit and make sure I didn’t exceed it? It was the one going that fast not me, I was just behind the steering wheel. I’m a race-car driver by trade, so I was just doing my job.

Engineer_in_IN says:

The magnitude of ridiculousness is proportional to the amount of times people defend it.

The amount of ridiculousness in their “defenses” (can they even be called such anymore?) is not only pathetic, but an insult to the American people. I won’t deny that many (majority?) people in this country have probably become complacent and resigned to accept their government approved information pellet fed to them by the mass media, but these are just borderline saying “We think you’re retarded, America, and you’ll forget and stop caring about this whole thing by the time the next American Idol/Survivor/Kardashian is talked about”.

As a side note: Mike M., I appreciate your time and diligence looking into and reporting these topics in a way that an ignoramus like myself can understand and get involved in. I basically browse Techdirt at least 3 times a day now.

noyards says:

Low oversight equals low number of violations

Didn’t Snowden already leak that the auditing, as poor as it is, only looks at a small percentage of the queries?

So a small percentage of queries turns up thousands of violations, not sure how that would automatically mean this was a ‘good indication’ of oversight.

if they audit say 1% of the queries every month (that’s 20,000 queries) and they find a reported 7 or 8 violations per day, then one must assume they only find 1% of the violations .. so there should be logically 700 or 800 violations per day, should there not?

DannyB (profile) says:

Maybe the terrorists didn't mean it either?

Can we please get the “Didn’t mean it” defense codified into law as quickly as possible?

Maybe the “Didn’t mean it” defense works both ways? Maybe it works for the terrorists too?

Oh, and Snowden and Manning didn’t mean it either.

“Didn’t mean it” could be an affirmative shield against the DMCA. Also as an affirmative defense against any claims of copyright infringement.

Oh, wait. Nevermind. I didn’t mean it. Or maybe I did. Depending on whether I meant it or not.

Wally (profile) says:

The NSA contributed that specific collection to the wrong phone area code being used. The national area code 202 is Washington DC, and International Area code 02 is Egypt. The problem with that defense is that section 215 was supposed to be a sunset clause full of public debate…which of course was never publicly debated by the Obama Administration for renewal in 2009, 2010, and 2012….in stead, more civil rights violating policies were violated.

Nastybutler77 (profile) says:

What I haven’t seen pointed out so far is the fact that the NSA defenders keep painting themselves into a smaller and smaller corner as their lies keep getting exposed.

First it was, “We don’t keep any info on Americans.” Then proof of that lie surfaces. Then it’s “We don’t intentionally keep any info on Americans.” More proof that they’re lying comes out, so then it’s “But we don’t abuse the info we keep on Americans.” Now evidence of abuse shows up, so now it’s, “It’s ‘inadvertant’ and ‘accidental’ abuse, not malicious.”

So how are we supposed to believe anything they say? And who want’s to bet that there’s no evidence of intentional and malicious abuse about to surface? I wouldn’t take that bet no matter what odds I’m offered.

GoldHoarder (profile) says:

“As I have said previously, the committee has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes.”

Isn’t this what Barret Brown was doing before the feds jailed his mother and then jailed him for threatening the FBI agent that jailed his mother (among other dubious charges)? Digging through the Stratfor email leaks and cataloging them to put together a story of private intelligence companies, corporations, and government agencies spying and running counter intelligence operations against protestors and activists running campaigns against their interests? Isn’t that what Michael Hastings was looking into when his vehicle blew up? How the hell did Diane Feinstein amass a wealth of $100 million(not including her investment banker husband’s assets)?

In 1980, Feinstein married Richard C. Blum, an investment banker. In 2003, Feinstein was ranked the fifth-wealthiest senator, with an estimated net worth of $26 million.[10] By 2005 her net worth had increased to between $43 million and $99 million.[11] Her 347-page financial-disclosure statement[12] ? characterized by the San Francisco Chronicle as “nearly the size of a phone book” ? draws clear lines between her assets and those of her husband, with many of her assets in blind trusts.[13]

John85851 (profile) says:

I think "1984" is coming 30 years later.

First we had big-brother surveillance and now we have double-speak:
The government says: We didn’t mean to break the law, so it’s okay. But if you didn’t mean to break the law, you still go to jail.

The government says: If you don’t have anything to hide, then you won’t mind if we search your e-mail and phone and stop & frisk you on the street. But you can’t search our files because “Terrorism. National security. That’s why”.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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...