Knowing Things

The scandals were getting old anyway. Benghazi is over. The Republicans can’t seem to find that one Obama memo that says let the ambassador die and don’t defend the place, because I agree with the terrorists, and all terrorists – and now he’s just named Susan Rice, our UN ambassador who deceived the American public by relaying a quite careful update on something she had nothing to do with, as his new national security advisor. Yeah, they forced her to take her name out of consideration to replace Hilary Clinton as secretary of state, but this new position is even more powerful, and this one doesn’t require Senate confirmation. They can’t do a damned thing about it. Obama slammed the door on them, and no one other than the usual sputtering angry old white guys see what happened in Benghazi as anything more than a tragic botched mess anyway, where the CIA and the State Department were having a turf war and stepping on each other’s toes – and that’s being fixed.

The IRS scandal is running out of steam too. Darrell Issa’s committee is now raging on about how much the IRS spent on offsite conferences over the years. The whole notion that the IRS targeted those Tea Party “social welfare” groups seeking tax-exempt status seems kind of silly as it became clear most of them got that tax-exempt status anyway, even if they clearly were political outfits. Far more of those Tea Party groups were approved than any on the left too. What’s the scandal? They didn’t get their tax-exempt status fast enough? They thought they should be exempt from doing the paperwork? See GOP to Darrell Issa: Cool it – they sense that he’s making them look like jerks.

That one’s a dry hole, and there’s always been a problem with that AP and Fox News scandal – checking reporters’ phone records to find the asshole in the government who was leaking classified information that could get our guys killed. That’s seems reasonable and responsible, in a way, but it sure screws up the process of reporting anything. If the government is tracking reporters’ phone records then sources dry up, out of fear. That sort of thing spooks them. They shut up and then the press cannot do its job. It’s just that when the shoe was on the other foot – with the Pentagon Papers and a few years ago with the revelation of our “black sites” and all the “rendition for torture” stuff – Republicans were saying there should be no limits to what should be done to find the leakers and lock them up, and they certainly wanted to punish the press for publishing such things. They have to be careful now. There are too many clips of them saying how irresponsible the press always is, and maybe they’re traitors, really. That could be embarrassing. It’s best not to come off like Dick Nixon either, frothing at the mouth with a paranoid enemies list in the desk drawer. There’s no position they can take now. Let it lie. Not one of them is pushing that whole thing back into the news cycle.

Obama weathered the storm. Sooner or later even Rush Limbaugh and Fox News will give it up – maybe. They’ll probably give up, sooner or later, on these three scandals that didn’t quite pan out, but that only means finding new raw material. There’s always something, and now there’s this:

The Obama administration is secretly carrying out a domestic surveillance program under which it is collecting business communications records involving Americans under a hotly debated section of the Patriot Act, according to a highly classified court order disclosed on Wednesday night.

The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in April, directs a Verizon Communications subsidiary, Verizon Business Network Services, to turn over “on an ongoing daily basis” to the National Security Agency all call logs “between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”

The order does not apply to the content of the communications.

They want the metadata – phone numbers and time and duration – but it’s a worry:

Verizon Business Network Services is one of the nation’s largest telecommunications and Internet providers for corporations. It is not clear whether similar orders have gone to other parts of Verizon, like its residential or cellphone services, or to other telecommunications carriers. The order prohibits its recipient from discussing its existence, and representatives of both Verizon and AT&T declined to comment Wednesday evening.

This could be all phone records. No one knows. The four-page order was disclosed by Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian (UK) and the background is this:

The order was sought by the Federal Bureau of Investigation under a section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 1978 law that regulates domestic surveillance for national security purposes that allows the government to secretly obtain “tangible things” like a business’s customer records. The provision was expanded by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which Congress enacted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The order was marked “TOP SECRET//SI//NOFORN,” referring to communications-related intelligence information that may not be released to noncitizens. That would make it among the most closely held secrets in the federal government, and its disclosure comes amid a furor over the Obama administration’s aggressive tactics in its investigations of leaks.

The collection of call logs is set to expire in July unless the court extends it.

This seems to be one of the many ninety-day orders that are approved year in and year out. Greenwald just got his hands on one of them. This goes way back:

For several years, two Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, have been cryptically warning that the government was interpreting its surveillance powers under that section of the Patriot Act in a way that would be alarming to the public if it knew about it.

Yeah, well, now they know, and the issue is out in the open:

The senators were angry because the Obama administration described Section 215 orders as being similar to a grand jury subpoena for obtaining business records, like a suspect’s hotel or credit card records, in the course of an ordinary criminal investigation. The senators said the secret interpretation of the law was nothing like that.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act made it easier to get an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain business records so long as they were merely deemed “relevant” to a national-security investigation.

The Justice Department has denied being misleading about the Patriot Act. Department officials have acknowledged since 2009 that a secret, sensitive intelligence program is based on the law and have insisted that their statements about the matter have been accurate.

Actually, this has been in place since 2006:

“As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday. The surveillance “is lawful” and Congress has been fully briefed on the practice, she added.

Her Republican counterpart, Saxby Chambliss, concurred: “This is nothing new. This has been going on for seven years,” he said. “Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this. To my knowledge there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint. It has proved meritorious because we have collected significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.”

Kevin Drum comments on that:

Neither Feinstein nor Chambliss said this, but the obvious inference from their statements is that this program isn’t limited to Verizon. It’s almost certainly a universal dragnet that applies to every phone service provider in the country. What’s more, we’ve known since 2005 that a similar program was put in place by President Bush in 2002. Basically, then, NSA has been hoovering up all the telephone metadata in the United States for the past 11 years.

Is this a scandal Republicans can run with? Drum thinks not:

Republicans loved this program back when Bush approved it. Congress basically gave it its official blessing in 2007. President Obama thinks it’s a great idea. And congressional leaders, who have known about this for a long time, mostly seem to be fine with it. I don’t know what the public thinks, but we’ll probably find out soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if public support is up around 70 percent or higher once everyone figures out what this program really does.

Still, Drum is not happy:

It’s disheartening as hell that we’ve come to this. But the problem is that, like it or not, it probably works. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) certainly thinks so – telling reporters today that the surveillance program helped thwart a “significant” case of domestic terrorism “within the last few years.” That’s going to be hard to fight. The vast majority of the American public seems to think that this is a fair tradeoff, and aren’t really concerned with spy agencies having access to their phone records. (If it were the contents of their calls that would probably be a different story.)

What we really need to know is whether there’s any evidence that NSA has abused the program. I’m not even sure what “abuse” would mean in this context, since they seem to have free rein in what they do with the data, but more information on that score could – maybe – turn public opinion around.

In short, there’s no scandal yet, but why the NSA wants records of every phone call made in the United States is puzzling, and Tim Lee provides the nerd answer:

Since the program is secret, it’s hard to say for sure. But the NSA is probably using a software technique called data mining to look for patterns that could be a sign of terrorist activity. The idea is that NSA researchers can build a profile of “typical” terrorist activity and then use calling records – and other data such as financial transactions and travel records – to look for individuals or groups of people who fit the pattern. Many businesses use similar techniques, building profiles of their customers to help decide who is most likely to respond to targeting advertising.

Some critics question the effectiveness of these techniques. For example, in a 2006 Cato study, an IBM computer scientist argued that we simply don’t have enough examples of real terrorists to build a profile of the “typical” terrorist.

This sort of data mining only works when the supermarket swipes your preferred-customer card and you’re handed a few coupons for what you’re likely to buy, and even then they get it wrong, and Drum adds this:

The idea that data mining is used solely to build profiles of “average” terrorists is fairly widespread, and there are lots of reasons to think that such profiling isn’t especially effective. Just for starters, the sheer number of false positives it generates is probably immense. But that’s not the only way this data can be used. There are other, more concrete ways to use it too, and probably plenty of other data it can be linked up to. It would be a mistake to assume that crude profiling is the only possible use of data mining and then go from there.

No one knows, and Marc Ambinder suggests this isn’t what it seems:

My own understanding is that the NSA routinely collects millions of domestic-to-domestic phone records. It does not do anything with them unless there is a need to search through them for lawful purposes. That is, an analyst at the NSA cannot legally simply perform random searches through the stored data. He or she needs to have a reason, usually some intelligence tip. That would allow him or her to segregate the part of the data that’s necessary to analyze, and proceed from there.

In a way, it makes sense for the NSA to collect all telephone records because it can’t know in advance what sections or slices it might need in the future. It does not follow that simply because the NSA collects data that it is legal for the NSA to use the data for foreign intelligence or counter-terrorism analysis.

Unfortunately, we don’t know precisely what the NSA can do because its rules are highly classified. This disclosure will hopefully force the government to clarify the rules it uses to actually analyze the data it collects.

It’s a massive passive database, and, one presumes, they need a warrant detailing a reason to search it, which Gregory Ferenstein doesn’t find that comforting:

The revelation dovetails similar exposes on massive government spying projects, including one project to combine federal datasets and look for patterns on anything which could be related to terrorism.

Late last year, I wrote about a few actual harms that citizens should be worried about from these types of big-data spying programs. Blackmailing citizens critical of the government seemed like a distant hypothetical, until we learned that the IRS was auditing Tea Party groups and journalists were being wiretapped. Nefarious actors inside the government like to abuse national security programs for political ends, and that should make us all (even more) suspect of government spying.

Even further right, Ed Morrissey is oddly less upset:

Hypocrisy is an unfortunately ubiquitous condition in politics, but in the case of NSA seizing Verizon’s phone records, it’s particularly widespread. Some of the people expressing outrage for the Obama administration’s efforts at data mining had a different attitude toward it when Bush was in office. Conversely, we’ll see some people defending Obama who considered Bush evil incarnate for the same thing.

This is not useful to the right, and Andrew Sullivan adds this:

On that front, this kind of meta-data gathering hasn’t outraged me too much under either administration. This kind of technology is one of the US’ only competitive advantages against Jihadists. Yes, its abuses could be terrible. But so could the consequences of its absence. Maybe the record shows my passionate denunciation of this by Bush. I don’t remember it. If someone finds me in a double-standard here, let me know.

There you have it. As an Obama scandal, this one may be too ambiguous to be useful. Nixon directed his people to commit actual crimes, Reagan sold arms to our sworn enemy, to fund a bunch of thugs and rapists trying to overthrow a government in Central America he didn’t like, which was specifically forbidden by a specific law, and of course Clinton’s big scandal was about hot and heavy illicit sex with a sweet young thing. This is another thing entirely. It’s a scandal for nerds.

Ah, but there’s more. There’s always more. Greenwald, in the Guardian, had another bomb to drop:

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian… The document claims “collection directly from the servers” of major US service providers. …

Companies are legally obliged to comply with requests for users’ communications under US law, but the PRISM program allows the intelligence services direct access to the companies’ servers. The NSA document notes the operations have “assistance of communications providers in the US”… With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.

Here, Kevin Drum, whose first career was in systems, is a bit puzzled:

How is it possible to reach “directly into the servers” of these companies? And what does that even mean? That NSA can copy anything it wants off the storage systems of these companies? That seems wildly unlikely. That NSA has tapped into incoming and outgoing communications links? That’s more plausible… I guess. I’m not sure.

For what it’s worth, Google flatly denies being a part of this. Or at least, it seems to flatly deny it:

In a statement, Google said: “Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data.”

It’s unclear what’s going on here, but this does not seem to be about metadata. This seems to be about the actual content of communications, which is what the Washington Post was reporting:

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time. …

The PRISM program is not a dragnet, exactly. From inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes, but under current rules the agency does not try to collect it all.

That’s cold comfort:

Analysts who use the system from a Web portal at Fort Meade key in “selectors,” or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness.” That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by the Post instruct new analysts to submit accidentally collected U.S. content for a quarterly report, “but it’s nothing to worry about.”

Even when the system works just as advertised, with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content. That is described as “incidental,” and it is inherent in contact chaining, one of the basic tools of the trade. To collect on a suspected spy or foreign terrorist means, at minimum, that everyone in the suspect’s inbox or outbox is swept in. Intelligence analysts are typically taught to chain through contacts two “hops” out from their target, which increases “incidental collection” exponentially.

Hell, they were given the PowerPoint training presentation, and it’s scary:

According to a separate “User’s Guide for PRISM Skype Collection,” that service can be monitored for audio when one end of the call is a conventional telephone and for any combination of “audio, video, chat, and file transfers” when Skype users connect by computer alone. Google’s offerings include Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms.

Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.

On the assumption that ideas actually do form as you type, which a decade of teaching English and a glance at the inbox and a scan of the Facebook scroll makes seem unlikely, this really is frightening – but then this only becomes a scandal if Fox News says it’s a scandal, and they must be a bit wary now. Benghazi didn’t work out. The IRS scandal is running on empty. They can’t touch the AP-Fox reporters-scandal, because of what they used to say about the traitors at the New York Times and whatnot. And then this one will only outrage the left – this is Bush’s fourth term and all that – Obama betrayed us all. Republicans can’t work with that. They used to like this sort of thing.

That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to like this. We’ll run with this one.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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