The NSA's Mini-Coverups Are Out There

The NSA's Mini-Coverups Are Out There

When President Obama referred to Edward Snowden as a "hacker," it might have been meant as an insult, but it was accurate. While National Security Agency officials have been referring to Snowden as a "systems administrator" — which makes him sound like an unimportant office drone, an "IT guy," as many have called him — he was actually an "infrastructure analyst," he told The Guardian. That means he was a kind of hacker, but he wasn't hacking the NSA, The New York Times's Scott Shane and David E. Sanger explain. He was hacking the world for the NSA. It's one of the many ways NSA and Obama administration officials have shaded the truth in the wake of Snowden's revelations. Here are some other little untruths, and at least one whopper:

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What was Snowden's job?

Infrastructure analyst, the Times explains, "is a title that officials have carefully avoided mentioning, perhaps for fear of inviting questions about the agency's aggressive tactics: an infrastructure analyst at the N.S.A., like a burglar casing an apartment building, looks for new ways to break into Internet and telephone traffic around the world." 

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James Clapper's Senate testimony

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (pictured above) pretty clearly told a lie in March. In a hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, asked, "does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper said "No sir." Asked again, Clapper said, "Not wittingly." The documents leaked by Snowden prove that's not true. Clapper's explanation for why he said what he said keeps changing. 

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  • June 6: Clapper told National Journal what he said was true: "What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mails. I stand by that."

  • June 9: Clapper told NBC News' Andrea Mitchell that he thought the question was unfair, so his answer was "too cute by half."  Clapper said what he was thinking: "I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked-- "When are you going to start-- stop beating your wife" kind of question, which is meaning not-- answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no."

  • June 21: In a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee, unearthed by The Washington Post's Greg Miller, Clapper said he could no longer remember what he was thinking: "I have thought long and hard to re-create what went through my mind at the time... My response was clearly erroneous — for which I apologize."

NSA fact sheet

Referring to what he said were incorrect press reports about the NSA programs, Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in a speech last week, "A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on." The Post's Miller notes that on the very same day, "the NSA quietly removed from its Web site a fact sheet about its collection activities because it contained inaccuracies discovered by lawmakers." The four-page fact sheet described how Americans' information is protected from surveillance in the NSA program PRISM. It said PRISM "allows only the targeting... of communications of foreign persons who are located abroad." But that's not very exact. Analysts only have to be 51 percent sure the person is outside the U.S.

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How the NSA handles American emails

On June 17, Obama said, "What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails." No, the NSA can't target Americans. But! Lots of American emails are scooped up while the NSA is monitoring foreign people. "The law allows the NSA to examine such messages and share them with other agencies if it determines that the information contained is evidence of a crime, conveys a serious threat or is necessary to understand foreign intelligence," the Post says. 

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The documents Snowden leaked show that in 2009, the Obama administration got the FISA court to approve holding onto data for up to five years because it couldn't process all the informaiton it was vacuuming up. An anonymous expert who sometimes advises the NSA told the Times to think of the Internet as the ocean. "[I]f you can’t desalinate all the seawater at once, you get to hold on to the ocean until you figure it out."

Transparency and court oversight

President Obama describes the court process that oversees the NSA programs as "transparent," the Post notes, even though it's secret. Though the NSA's programs for collecting phone call and Internet metadata got major attention for the first time with Snowden's leak, they were reported before. One of the most fascinating things Snowden's leaks have revealed is the legal process that has been set up to approve the surveillance. Obama administration officials might claim the system was created to protect citizens. But it was also created to protect companies like Verizon and Google from lawsuits, and bureaucracies from outrage.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court only started overseeing the bulk collection of data in 2006. The PRISM slideshow Snowden gave to The Guardian and The Washington Post show, The New York Times explains, that as the years passed after 9/11, phone and Internet companies began "fearing that customers might be angry to find out their records were shared with the government." Increasingly, their lawyers "insisted on legal orders to compel them to comply." Two years ago, FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress that, "Beginning in late 2009, certain electronic communications service providers no longer honored [national security letters] to obtain" electronic communication transaction records. At the time, NBC News' Michael Isikoff explains, the telecoms were being sued for cooperating with government surveillance requests. So the government switched to requesting them under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. 

Over the weekend, The Washington Post released four more slides from the PRISM powerpoint. One slide (pictured above) indicates that the FBI "deploys government equipment on private company property to retrieve matching information from a participating company, such as Microsoft or Yahoo and pass it without further review to the NSA." Making the FBI the middleman, the Times says, "provides the N.S.A. with a defense, however nominal, against claims that it spies on United States soil."

False myths

NSA general counsel Rajesh De gave a speech in February in which he said he'd debunk "false myths." De listed these myths: that the NSA "is a vacuum that indiscriminately sweeps up and stores global communications"; that the NSA "is spying on Americans at home and abroad with questionable or no legal basis"; and that the NSA "operates in the shadows free from external scrutiny or any true accountability." Those myths are no longer myths.