2013 Authority Expansion Means A Whole Lot Of People On Capitol Hill Can View Unminimized NSA Collections

from the little-bit-of-comms-dirt-on-everyone dept

The unmasking rules House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes has been (somewhat disingenuously) complaining about have been around for a few years now. Normally, US persons' identities are minimized before government officials can view intel gathered by the NSA. But in cases where it might be necessary to provide context, the White House can ask for the identities to be unmasked.

This has turned into a mini-firestorm on Capitol Hill, with Nunes striking most of the matches. The problem is Nunes should be aware of these rules, as he's in charge of the intelligence oversight committee. He apparently doesn't, or at least wasn't aware how many people can actually ask for US persons to be unmasked.

The loosening of these restrictions traces back to Obama's second term, as John Solomon of The Hill points out.

Procedures issued by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in March 2013 formally supplanted a 1992 set of rules that made the dissemination of names of intercepted lawmakers or congressional aides an act of last resort.

The new standard allowed for a lawmaker’s or staffer’s name to be unmasked if “an executive branch recipient of intelligence” believed that learning “the identity of the Member of Congress or the Congressional staff is necessary to understand and assess the associated intelligence and further a lawful activity of the recipient agency,” according to a memo released earlier this month by the DNI's office with little public fanfare.

The unmasking standard has become less of a "standard" as the years have passed, according to this report by The Hill. All the way back in the mid-90's, the rules allowed only one person to sign off on unmasking: the head of the CIA. And this could only be done as a last resort -- if context for the intercepted communications could not be "satisfied in any other fashion."

Since then, there's been nothing but slippage. Now it's not only legislators that can request unmasking, but also their staffers as well, meaning there are potentially hundreds of people with the power to view unminimized NSA intel. (This doesn't even include those on the downstream side of this surveillance: at least 16 federal agencies now have access to unminimized intel.)

Now that the Director of National Intelligence has replaced the CIA Director at the top of the unmasking organizational chart -- something that happened in 2005 -- the rules have been relaxing continuously. In fact, the latest version, which does away with the "as a last resort language," was written into force by James Clapper's office, which saw it as nothing more than a codification of practices the intel community was already engaged in.

(DNI Counsel Bob) Litt said by the time he drafted the 2013 rules, he did not believe he was changing policy, because the procedures had been evolving for years.

“We believed we were formalizing simply what we had inherited,” he explained.

It hasn't slid so far that the exception has become the rule, but unmaskings are becoming far more routine. What used to be limited to a handful of times a year has now become a monthly occurrence. Hence the outrage from members of Congress, which should be viewed a bit skeptically, given they also have the power to perform unmaskings and their outrage tends to adhere to party lines.

The Trump administration has signed off on the 2013 rule change, indicating it feels there's nothing wrong with the status quo. That makes Devin Nunes' demands for answers that much more suspect, as he seems to be motivated more by the fact the rule change resulted in the ousting of short-lived National Security Advisor Mike Flynn (and assisting with the ongoing investigations into the administration's ties to Russia) than any general sense of Constitutional wrongness.

This is a problem. Most requests for unmasking will eventually route through the Director of National Intelligence, but the bar has been lowered, both in terms of when requests can be made, but also by who. Most of the attention is being paid to the unmasking of communications between government officials, but it's also normal, everyday Americans who are being subjected to lower privacy expectations as time goes on. As we head towards the renewal process for Section 702 collections, this is one of the areas Congress should spend some time discussing seriously. If nothing else, it gives lawmakers an opportunity to roll back some of the mission creep.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Aug 2017 @ 12:49pm

    "intercepted lawmakers or congressional aides"

    How about a public dump of all intercepts of federal officials and their aides? What's good for the goose is good for the gander? I mean, if they're trawling through my communications, I'd like to trawl through theirs as well.

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

  • identicon
    stine, 2 Aug 2017 @ 12:49pm

    what are the chances....

    If they unmask enough of them that they'll come across a US-citizen-in-the-US-to-US-citizen-in-the-US communication so they can terminate the whole wretched program.

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

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 2 Aug 2017 @ 1:17pm

    Funny it is called 2013 authority

    It was in mid 2013 that the Snowden leaks occurred.

    At that point, what everyone suspected was confirmed to not only be true, but be far worse than we thought.

    The NSA defenders at the time argued that all this information would never be misused by the government. Nor would it be more widely disseminated within the government later.

    Some argued that maybe it won't be today, but one day, there could be an insane madman in power and then what are you gonna do. And now here we are today.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Aug 2017 @ 1:22pm

    Of course Rep Nunes was unaware

    Techdirt has repeatedly documented that the Intelligence Oversight Committee members go out of their way to make that oversight a joke, so the last person you'd expect to be aware of the rules is the chair of the committee that spends all its time ignoring violations.

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

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 2 Aug 2017 @ 4:09pm

      Re: Of course Rep Nunes was unaware

      Yeah, but one oughtn't run around announcing how unaware they are when it is both their privilege and job to be aware of such things. Not only does it reflect poorly on him, but the excuse is worse than not offering one at all.

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

  • identicon
    ya obama NOT trump did this, 2 Aug 2017 @ 2:43pm

    ya obama NOT trump did this

    ya obama NOT trump did this
    ya obama NOT trump did this
    ya obama NOT trump did this
    ya obama NOT trump did this
    ya obama NOT trump did this

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Aug 2017 @ 3:49am

    As usual, Cushing gets it wrong

    As quoted above:

    The new standard allowed for a lawmaker’s or staffer’s name to be unmasked if “an executive branch recipient of intelligence” believed [....]

    So it is flatly wrong to say, as Cushing does:

    Now it's not only legislators that can request unmasking, but also their staffers as well [....]

    Legislators and their staffers are part of the legislative branch. Only members of the executive branch can request unmasking under the new rules.

    Of course, there are probably a whole lot more "executive branch recipient[s] of intelligence" than there are members of Congress plus Congressional staff, so we should still be concerned about how many people can request unmasking under the laxer standard.

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

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 3 Aug 2017 @ 5:59am

    Next time a politician wants to put something in place that could be abused with the "you can trust us" bs we just have to point at Obama and then Trump. One laid the path to abuse and started the abuse, the other kept abusing and intensified it.

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


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