Intel Officials' Claims That NSA Couldn't Access Majority Of Cellphone Records Apparently Bogus

from the misrepresenting-the-haul dept

The recent Snowden documents published by the New York Times and ProPublica confirm the close relationship between AT&T and the NSA, which would explain the deafening silence the company issued in response to the first few months of leaks. (Such "partnerships" likely exist with Verizon and other providers, although nothing has been directly confirmed by leaked documents, and such partnerships may have done a bit of "dissolving" shortly after the leaks began.)

But the documents also highlighted the difference between what NSA officials claimed they were getting and what they were actually getting from telcos. In early 2014, officials claimed they were only obtaining between 20-30% of domestic call records. According to unnamed "current and former officials," the explosion of cellphone use was leaving the NSA's bulk collection programs in the dust.

These documents show there's a huge discrepancy between the unofficial "official" statements and the NSA's actual capabilities, as the ACLU's Kade Crockford points out.

The New York Times reports on documents disclosed by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden:

"In 2011, AT&T began handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the N.S.A. after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” according to an internal agency newsletter. This revelation is striking because after Mr. Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans’ phone calls, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records."

I must quibble a bit with the New York Times excellent reporting here, only to suggest that what's "striking" about the discrepancy between what journalists reported and the truth isn't the fact that the NSA would lie to journalists. What's striking is that journalists continue to print official, often anonymous claims about government surveillance programs without a shred of evidence that those claims are true.
This has long been the problem with journalists' reliance on "unnamed government sources." Without a name to attach the statement to, no one can be held accountable for lying to the American public. While many sources would not comment at all without the protection of anonymity, the statements issued are seldom questioned by entities with an obligation to challenge anonymous assertions.

On the other hand, emptywheel's Marcy Wheeler points out these claims may have an element of truth, but only because Snowden's leaks and problematic cell location data (which isn't specifically covered by Section 215) was preventing the agency from collecting all it wanted to, or perhaps all it used to.
We know from the Congressional notice AT&T was willing to strip [location data]. For a lot of reasons, it’s likely Verizon was unwilling to strip it.

This is one of the possible explanations I’ve posited for why NSA wasn’t getting cell data from Verizon, because any provider is only obliged to give business records they already have on hand, and it would be fairly easy to claim stripping the cell location data made it a new business record.

Which is another important piece of evidence for the case made against AT&T in the story. They were willing to play with records they were handing over to the government in ways not required by the law.

Though who knows if that remain(ed) the case? To get to the 30% figure quoted in all the pieces claiming NSA wasn’t getting cell data, you’d probably have to have AT&T excluded as well. So maybe after the Snowden releases, they, too, refused to do things they weren’t required to do by law...
So, it could very well be that the NSA wasn't getting all the cell records it wanted to, making these claims mostly factual. But the Wall Street Journal and New York Times both attribute quotes to "former officials" as well, which would include officials in place prior to the Snowden leaks. If the leaks resulted in a sudden reluctance to provide these records, it would only have occurred after June 2013. The questionable statements were made in the first few months of 2014. That's not much of a gap, especially if former officials are speaking from their personal experience.

Maybe the NSA was only getting 20-30% of what it was seeking. Or maybe it only wanted to give that impression. Nothing about the statements reflect a sudden downturn in collections. Instead, they portray it as an ongoing problem. The underlying issue is the secrecy of surveillance programs, which leads to statements that can't be confirmed (or refuted) until evidence is provided. And these officials aren't going to hand out this info. It has to come from whistleblowers and leakers. The government can skate by on lies and misperceptions, especially when national security is involved.


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