Wall Street Journal Columnist Repeatedly Gets His Facts Wrong About NSA Surveillance

from the journalism! dept

Wall Street Journal columnist L. Gordon Crovitz wrote a misleading and error-filled column on NSA surveillance Monday based on documents obtained by EFF through our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Since we’ve been poring over the documents for the last week, we felt it was important we set the record straight about what they actually reveal.


Edward Snowden thought he was exposing the National Security Agency's lawless spying on Americans. But the more information emerges about how the NSA conducts surveillance, the clearer it becomes that this is an agency obsessed with complying with the complex rules limiting its authority.

That’s an interesting interpretation of the recently released documents, given that one of the two main FISA court opinions released says the NSA was engaged in “systemic overcollection” of American Internet data for years, as well as committed “longstanding and pervasive violations of the prior orders in this matter.” The court summarized what it called the government’s “frequent failures to comply with the [surveillance program’s] terms” and their “apparent widespread disregard of [FISA court imposed] restrictions.”


[The documents] portray an agency acting under the watchful eye of hundreds of lawyers and compliance officers.

Again, this is not what the actual FISA court opinions portray. “NSA’s record of compliance with these rules has been poor,” and “those responsible for conducting oversight failed to do so effectively,” FISA court Judge Bates wrote in the key opinion released last week. In another FISA court opinion from 2009, released two months ago, the NSA admitted that not a single person in the entire agency accurately understood or could describe the NSA’s whole surveillance system to the court.

It's true that the number of compliance officers at the NSA has increased in recent years, but as the Washington Post reported, so has the number of privacy violations.


These documents disprove one of Mr. Snowden's central claims: "I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president if I had a personal email," he told the Guardian, a British newspaper.

Here, Crovitz is setting up a strawman. Snowden wasn’t talking about the NSA’s legal authority, but their technical authority to conduct such searches. Snowden was likely referring to XKeyScore, which the Guardian reported allowed NSA analysts to “search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.”

We actually have a specific example that proves Snowden’s point. As the New York Times reported in 2009, an NSA analyst “improperly accessed” former President Bill Clinton’s personal email. More recently, we’ve learned that the NSA analysts abused the agency vast surveillance powers to spying on ex-spouses or former lovers.


The NSA also released the legal arguments the Justice Department used in 2006 to justify collection of phone metadata-the telephone number of the calling and called parties and the date, time and duration of the call.


Metadata collection is about connecting the dots linking potential terrorist accomplices. The Clinton administration created barriers to the use of metadata, which the 9/11 Commission concluded let the terrorists avoid detection. Since then, metadata has helped stop dozens of plots, including an Islamist plan to blow up the New York Stock Exchange in 2008.

Again, not true. As Intelligence Committee members Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall have continually emphasized, there is “no evidence” that the phone metadata program is effective at stopping terrorists. Independent analyses have come to the same conclusion. When called out on that number in a Congressional hearing, even NSA Director Keith Alexander admitted the number was exaggerated.

The only “disrupted plot” the NSA can point to that was solely the work of the phone metadata program was a case where a man from San Diego sent a few thousand dollars to the al-Shabaab organization in Africa in 2008. In other words, the metadata did not disrupt an active terrorist plot inside the US at all.


The declassified brief from 2006 made clear that such metadata "would never even be seen by any human being unless a terrorist connection were first established," estimating that "0.000025% or one in four million" of the call records "actually would be seen by a trained analyst."

The major 2009 FISA court opinion released in September, that apparently Mr. Crovitz either didn’t read or conveniently left out of his piece, showed that the NSA had been systematically querying part of this phone records database for years for numbers that the agency did not have a “reasonable articulable suspicion” were involved in terrorism—as they were required to have by the FISA court. Of the more than 17,000 numbers that the NSA was querying everyday, the NSA only had “reasonable articulable suspicion” for 1,800 of them.

The FISA court concluded, five years after the metadata program was brought under a legal framework, that it had been “so frequently and systematically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall…regime has never functioned effectively.”

These documents do not paint a picture of an agency with a clean privacy record and a reputation for following court rules, as Mr. Crovitz claims, and in fact, they show why it is vital Congress passes substantive NSA reform immediately. You can go here to take action.

Reposted from EFF

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Filed Under: ed snowden, gordon crovitz, nsa, oversight, surveillance

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  • icon
    Internet Zen Master (profile), 27 Nov 2013 @ 12:40pm

    Why is it that so many columnists

    Have no idea what the heck they're talking about these days? I mean, what the hell was mister Crovitz reading when he came to those conclusions, which are clearly the OPPOSITE of what the EFF found?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2013 @ 12:58pm

    When you keep hearing these sorts of misstatements along with the 'we're the good guys' messages, they get mixed into a blend of just plain out lies and misdirections.

    Just from what we've heard so far, it is plain beyond doubt the NSA has not only exceeded it's mandate but broken laws in the process of doing so.

    Worse the best they can come up with is 'We're authorized to do this and have abundant oversight'. Both of what have been proven at best to be sleights of hand as if it was a magic stage show event or at worst the exposure of intentionally ignoring and redefining what those authorizations are while very purposely defeating the oversight by denial of overseeing ability and lying about what has been done to keep them within the legal side of the framework. Both show a willingness to ignore the law and slip outside of that oversight.

    The question now is just how far have they gone? Todays' news shows they were set up to expose the porn viewing habits of those who were critical of the US and the NSA to discredit them. So how much farther have they gone inside the US and does that extend to those that would put pressure on the NSA to reign it in? It is very likely they have simply by the fact they are pretty much getting all they want from those politicians.

    If you are not questioning this, you should be.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Alan W., 27 Nov 2013 @ 1:05pm

    Is this some new form of satire? I don't get it...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2013 @ 1:12pm

    but be honest, who's opinion is going to be believed?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2013 @ 1:13pm

    the NSA admitted that not a single person in the entire agency accurately understood or could describe the NSA’s whole surveillance system to the court

    It seems to me like the court is asking the wrong people. Edward Snowden seems to have a pretty solid understanding of the whole surveillance system.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    NSA Control Room, 27 Nov 2013 @ 4:00pm

    Regarding L. Gordon Crovitz NSA Case #58133903034


    L. Gordon Crovitz NSA Case #58133903034 is now a controlled subject under the NSA media subversion team. He can be fed stories to support the NSA.

    Subjects browsing history and emails were analyzed by NSA INTELOP ASA. Subject is partial to midget porn, pictures of shaved goats, and melted cheese.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2013 @ 6:16pm

    you see your doing the exact same thing right ??

    your arguing or trying to just as strongly that your position is the correct one, using the same (other peoples) examples or "one offs".

    Don't you see that ??

    So its only your opinion that is right, or the opinions that agree with yours that are right and everyone else is an idiot ??

    your just as biased as they are, probably more so, and because of that bias you want accept any other opinion that goes against that bias.

    You wont even look at the facts anymore, and recall 'one-offs' such as Clinton's emails!!

    But you wont see that bias, biased people never do, no such thing as a BALANCED analysis allowed here on TD, and if your 'sources' (other news sources) don't agree with that bias you attack them, but only if they don't agree, if they do agree you rave about how good they are,, ITS THE SAME SOURCE..

    also, it appears he did not get his facts wrong at all, he is interpreting the available information just the same as you are, in fact you don't appear to interpret the data directly yourself, you simply web search for others analysis of it, then report on that.

    But only the ones that agree with your bias, then attack all those that don't agree with your bias.

    You don't get facts wrong, because you don't use facts for your bias, you use opinions of others for your facts, and again, attack any opinion that does not support your biases.

    I have looked at the documents as well, I can see this persons point, and I can see how the NSA DOES try to comply with the laws as stated, and do their job as effectively as possible as well.

    But I don't not expect TD or its fans to accept any opinion that goes against TD's bias.

    why would anyone believe your opinion over someone else's when you display such extreme bias and a clear unwillingness to look at the facts yourself?

    I do however understand how hard it would be for you to be balanced and impartial and address the actual facts, being as biased as you are it would be difficult to be objective, probably impossible.

    but saying "I am right, because I am biased" does not make anyone think (except yourself and fans) you are right or impartial, or actually willing to deal with the facts, as opposed to your extreme bias.

    (there is also a financial incentive for TD to 'keep the story alive', which is rather disturbing).

    The quality of TD has really declined recently, and it did not start from a very high place, but this really does speak to your credibility...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2013 @ 6:07pm

    paid off shill

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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