Friday, August 16, 2013
Just because they lie constantly doesn't mean we can't trust them
Not quite "comfortable" yet with "trusting the professionals" to ensure there are "checks and balances" that make these secret surveillance programs no big deal? This won't help:
The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents.
Mistakes do happen. What's important here is the fact that apparently they routinely do not report these mistakes to the higher authorities such as the DNI and the FISA court in anything resembling a timely fashion. And there were deliberate violations that were withheld from the overseers. That's a problem.
Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order. They range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls.
The documents, provided earlier this summer to The Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, include a level of detail and analysis that is not routinely shared with Congress or the special court that oversees surveillance. In one of the documents, agency personnel are instructed to remove details and substitute more generic language in reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
In one instance, the NSA decided that it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans. A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a “large number” of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt, according to a “quality assurance” review that was not distributed to the NSA’s oversight staff.
In another case, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has authority over some NSA operations, did not learn about a new collection method until it had been in operation for many months. The court ruled it unconstitutional.
The Obama administration has provided almost no public information about the NSA’s compliance record. In June, after promising to explain the NSA’s record in “as transparent a way as we possibly can,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole described extensive safeguards and oversight that keep the agency in check. “Every now and then, there may be a mistake,” Cole said in congressional testimony.
The NSA audit obtained by The Post, dated May 2012, counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. Most were unintended. Many involved failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure. The most serious incidents included a violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data about more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders.
Also too, this:
In dozens of cases, NSA personnel made careless use of the agency’s extraordinary powers, according to individual auditing reports. One team of analysts in Hawaii, for example, asked a system called DISHFIRE to find any communications that mentioned both the Swedish manufacturer Ericsson and “radio” or “radar” — a query that could just as easily have collected on people in the United States as on their Pakistani military target.
Sure, that makes sense. If someone gives you a recipe that says flour, salt and water are used to make bread, there's really no need for them to mention the yeast. It's not their fault if the bread doesn't rise. It's your fault for failing to research if it required any other ingredients.
The NSA uses the term “incidental” when it sweeps up the records of an American while targeting a foreigner or a U.S. person who is believed to be involved in terrorism. Official guidelines for NSA personnel say that kind of incident, pervasive under current practices, “does not constitute a . . . violation” and “does not have to be reported” to the NSA inspector general for inclusion in quarterly reports to Congress. Once added to its databases, absent other restrictions, the communications of Americans may be searched freely.
In one required tutorial, NSA collectors and analysts are taught to fill out oversight forms without giving “extraneous information” to “our FAA overseers.” FAA is a reference to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which granted broad new authorities to the NSA in exchange for regular audits from the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and periodic reports to Congress and the surveillance court.
Using real-world examples, the “Target Analyst Rationale Instructions” explain how NSA employees should strip out details and substitute generic descriptions of the evidence and analysis behind their targeting choices.
“I realize you can read those words a certain way,” said the high-ranking NSA official who spoke with White House authority, but the instructions were not intended to withhold information from auditors. “Think of a book of individual recipes,” he said. Each target “has a short, concise description,” but that is “not a substitute for the full recipe that follows, which our overseers also have access to.”
Oh, and by the way:
The May 2012 audit, intended for the agency’s top leaders, counts only incidents at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other facilities in the Washington area. Three government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters, said the number would be substantially higher if it included other NSA operating units and regional collection centers.
Somehow, that doesn't make me feel all that "comfortable."
Meanwhile, if anyone thinks the FISA Court is, as President Obama described it, "empowered to look over our shoulder at the executive branch to make sure that these programs aren’t being abused,” think again:
The leader of the secret court that is supposed to provide critical oversight of the government’s vast spying programs said that its ability do so is limited and that it must trust the government to report when it improperly spies on Americans.
Hey, we've got to trust these professionals. And the fact that they lie repeatedly and without any compunction should make us trust them more, I guess.
The chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said the court lacks the tools to independently verify how often the government’s surveillance breaks the court’s rules that aim to protect Americans’ privacy. Without taking drastic steps, it also cannot check the veracity of the government’s assertions that the violations its staff members report are unintentional mistakes.
Honestly, humans do make errors. That's frankly one of the reasons the government should not be empowered to do this kind of dragnet surveillance. But it's more than that. These documents show quite clearly that they deliberately evade the oversight that's in place and are using Orwellian language to obfuscate their true intentions. If that doesn't make people skeptical of their integrity then obviously they can do no wrong and we should just redact the 4th Amendment from the Constitution because it's no longer necessary.
This was what President Obama said when this story first broke:
We have a system in which some information is classified, and we have a system of checks and balances to make sure that it’s not abused. And if, in fact, this information ends up just being dumped out willy-nilly without regard to risks to the program, risks to the people involved, in some cases on other leaks, risks to personnel in very dangerous situations, then it’s very hard for us to be as effective in — in protecting the American people.
We're looking at new details all the time. And they are not reassuring. This program is clearly dangerous and it certainly violates the spirit, and probably the letter, of the 4th Amendment.
That’s not to suggest that, you know, you just say, trust me, we’re doing the right thing, we know who the bad guys are. And the reason that’s not how it works is because we’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight. And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.
But my observation is, is that the people who are involved in America’s national security, they take this work very seriously. They cherish our Constitution. The last thing they’d be doing is taking programs like this to listen to somebody’s phone calls.
And by the way, with respect to my concerns about privacy issues, I will leave this office at some point, sometime in the last — next 3 1/2 years, and after that, I will be a private citizen. And I suspect that, you know, on — on a list of people who might be targeted, you know, so that somebody could read their emails or — or listen to their phone calls, I’d probably be pretty high on that list. So it’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected.
But I know that the people who are involved in these programs — they operate like professionals. And these things are very narrowly circumscribed. They’re very focused. And in the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential, you know — you know, program run amok. But when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.
And I have yet to see one person make a reasonable case as to why all this could possibly be necessary. It's ridiculous on its face.
Update: Difi, our fearless overseer:
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who did not receive a copy of the 2012 audit [showing thousands of violations] until The Post asked her staff about it, said in a statement late Thursday that the committee “can and should do more to independently verify that NSA’s operations are appropriate, and its reports of compliance incidents are accurate.”
digby 8/16/2013 05:30:00 AM