2014 Federal Spending Bill Contains Demands For Transparency On NSA Surveillance Programs

from the in-search-of-actual-oversight dept

Hidden in the 1,500+ pages of the $1.1 trillion federal funding bill is a stipulation aimed at giving the NSA's much-heralded oversight some actual oversight. The wording specifically targets the NSA's bulk collection programs, and if passed along with the rest of the bill (which is expected to pass shortly), will be the first Congressional action taken against the agency. (There are many, many more in the pipeline.)

Here's how the accompanying "explanatory statement" breaks it down:

The Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) is directed to provide the following to the congressional intelligence committees, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and the House Committee on the Judiciary, not later than 90 days after the enactment of this Act:

1) A report, unclassified to the greatest extent possible, which sets forth for the last five years, on an annual basis, the number of records acquired by the NSA as part of the bulk telephone metadata program authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, pursuant to section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, and the number of such records that have been reviewed by NSA personnel in response to a query of such records. Additionally, this report shall provide, to the greatest extent possible, an estimate of the number of records of United States citizens that have been acquired by NSA as part of the bulk telephone metadata program and the number of such records that have been reviewed by NSA personnel in response to a query.

2) A report, unclassified to the greatest extent possible and with a classified annex if necessary, describing all NSA bulk collection activities, including when such activities began, the cost of such activities, the types of records that have been collected in the past, the types of records that are currently being collected, and any plans for future bulk collection.

3) A report, unclassified to the greatest extent possible and with a classified annex if necessary, listing terrorist activities that were disrupted, in whole or in part, with the aid of information obtained through NSA's telephone metadata program and whether this information could have been promptly obtained by other means.
The agency has been extremely resistant to the notion of quantifying its bulk collection efforts. The "incidental" collection of American data and communications has been discussed at length, but so far, the agency has refused to offer even an estimate at how much "incidental collection" actually occurs. While it has noted how many RAS-approved numbers it actually searches in its Section 215 database, it has not specified how many of those intersect with wholly domestic communications.

This stipulation goes further than the 215 program, which would add to the body of knowledge needed for Congressional overseers to provide something closer to actual oversight. Much of what's being collected under other authorities (Section 702, Executive Order 12333) remains somewhat of a mystery. Obviously, the NSA would like it to remain this way, hence its oft-used tactic of purposefully reframing questions about these collections as questions about Section 215.

It's a small push but it does ask for a level of transparency and accountability the NSA hasn't experienced to date. The usual "national security" dodge has lost a lot of its effectiveness over the past several months as it's been repeatedly shown that vast, untargeted metadata collections are next to useless when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks. The other claims that exposing the inner workings will allow the nation's enemies to route around surveillance are equally weak considering the vast amount of documents Ed Snowden has released to journalists. Chances are, the inner workings will be exposed sooner or later. It would be better to get out ahead of the leaks and allow the Congressional oversight to do its job for a change.

The leaks have exposed the NSA's true motivations. It doesn't fear exposure nearly as much as it fears losing any of its surveillance programs, no matter how ineffective they are and how much they add to the problem of too much data.



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  1.  
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    Internet Zen Master (profile), Jan 15th, 2014 @ 3:15pm

    Congress doing something good for once?

    I must admit, this is a rather pleasant surprise.

    Now the only question remains is whether or not it'll get past both houses of Congress.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 15th, 2014 @ 3:44pm

    i wouldn't mind betting that any terrorist organisation in existence would be aware of just about every way that they can be tracked and traced, so whatever any security agency does has already been planned for. i find it difficult to understand why it is that the NSA etc, etc, seem to think that they and similar agencies are the only ones that know about surveillance? any organisation that has charged itself with doing harm to others, for whatever reason, is surely going to ensure it protects itself as much as possible, while being as big a bastard as possible to everyone else.
    i also wouldn't mind betting that the 'back doors' that the NSA have colluded with companies to have included in software etc have been exploited against them as much, if not more, than for them.
    you then have the little thing that if everyone involved from keen eyed citizens right through to the FISC judges, did their job correctly, without being complete arse holes to those who do not and should not be intimidated, just to get a result, only half of what is being done atm would need to be done!

     

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  3.  
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    Zakida Paul (profile), Jan 15th, 2014 @ 4:00pm

    Re: Congress doing something good for once?

    Demands for transparency is probably just a move to stop it from passing.

     

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  4.  
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    AricTheRed (profile), Jan 15th, 2014 @ 4:34pm

    Yeah, and...

    Imagine a world where this bill pases both houses with this provision intact...

    So let's just say then that James "The Clap" Clapper decides to tell the legislative branch to, as I learned to say in the Marine Corps, "Go take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut!" and declines to publish a report as requested.

    So what then? He already lied to their faces, (if they were there)what are they gonna be able to do about it?

    Honest question here, plus the rolling doughnut visual is kinda funny too.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 15th, 2014 @ 4:52pm

    What does it matter it's obvious the NSA does not care what congress or the people think.

    Add some jail time and arrest their asses for anyone trying to cover it up.

     

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

  6.  
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    Pixelation, Jan 15th, 2014 @ 6:55pm

    ..."unclassified to the greatest extent possible."

    I read that and laughed.

    "Our report contains, REDACTED."

     

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  7.  
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    That One Guy (profile), Jan 15th, 2014 @ 7:26pm

    Re: Yeah, and...

    That's pretty much exactly what I would expect to happen, and they even left him a massive loophole to do so with their wording of 'unclassified to the greatest extent possible'.

    I imagine he'll pretty much ignore it, then if they show that they're actually willing to press the issue, he'll respond with a mixture of 'we don't track that information' and 'making public that information would put other classified cases and information at risk', leading to a page 80% black ink, 19% blank sections, and 1% text.

     

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  8.  
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    That One Guy (profile), Jan 15th, 2014 @ 7:31pm

    A nice gesture, but an empty one

    As has been made abundantly clear by now, the NSA doesn't believe it has to answer to anyone, so the idea of forcing a report like this, especially with the loophole words of 'unclassified to the greatest extent possible' is likely to just get the same response the NSA and it's cheerleaders have been handing out this whole time.

    What they should have done, though it would certainly take guts, would be to make it so funding to the NSA was tied to the report, so if they try their usual smoke and mirror games, they'd find themselves without any money to continue their programs.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 15th, 2014 @ 9:49pm

    ..."unclassified to the greatest extent possible."


    ____ ___________ ____ the _______ of ________ ______ _ ______ _____ an ______ but not _________.

     

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  10.  
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    Sunhawk (profile), Jan 15th, 2014 @ 10:26pm

    Re: Yeah, and...

    Impeachment is the not uncommon course in such events.

    And, hell, the Republicans would *love* to have Clapper outright defy Congress.

     

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  11.  
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    Private Frazer, Jan 16th, 2014 @ 12:14am

    The Problem with numbers

    is that if the NSA produce any, the Snowden papers can then show the real numbers - proving the NSA are lying. So they are going to be very worried by this - they MAY have to tell the truth!!

     

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  12.  
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    Pragmatic, Jan 16th, 2014 @ 3:42am

    Re: Congress doing something good for once?

    If you want this bill to pass, get on the phone to your congresscritters now!

     

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  13.  
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    Pragmatic, Jan 16th, 2014 @ 3:46am

    Re: Re: Yeah, and...

    Which Republicans? Too few of them are outright opposing mass surveillance in either House. And the Dems are no better.

    Get on the phone to your congresscritter and tell him or her to pass that bill!

     

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

  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 16th, 2014 @ 4:23am

    How so typically targeted to one thing, full transparency is just that, FULL transparency, and in this case, something that was forced out of the dungeons of secrecy, how do we know our governments are'nt into things that are just as worse or more, hence the demand for FULL transparency, in ALL things.
    My take is, if their dealing in something that they feel needs secrecy, then they have no business in involving themselves in it, no DAMN exceptions, unless you want to have these damn same issues for generations to come, like a damn cycle

     

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  15.  
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    signer, Jan 16th, 2014 @ 7:40am

    What prevents Congress from denying funding for this crap?

    Snowden got pay cut to $120k at Booz, so after overhead it did cost us $200k+ to have him on payroll. That is not much of actual manhour of work a week. Multiply that by number of secret clearance holders, and you got an idea. While most of bridgers and watermains are crumbling throughout whole country.

    And yes, that designer of Alexander's vibrating chair had secret clearance too.

     

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  16.  
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    Sunhawk (profile), Jan 20th, 2014 @ 10:56am

    Re: Re: Re: Yeah, and...

    I guess I'm gambling on "anything to put mud in Obama's eye" winning out over "NSA rah-rah-rah!"

     

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


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