Since I last poked my head out of the cave, Barack Obama went on Charlie Rose to claim the NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden were ‘transparent’ and pushed back hard against the notion that anyone was listening to Americans’ phone calls sans warrant. (I should note that the claim at the previous link has been walked back significantly.)Meanwhile, it turns out that the FISA court allows the NSA to keep data on Americans collected without a warrant under certain circumstances.
The new documents, published by the two newspapers, indicate the NSA collects, processes, retains and disseminates the contents of Americans’ phone calls and emails under a wide range of circumstances.
The documents — both dated July 29, 2009, with one classified “Top Secret,” the other labeled “Secret” and both signed by Attorney General Eric Holder – detail the circumstances in which data collected on “U.S. persons” under the foreign intelligence authority must be destroyed.
They outline policies approved by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that let the NSA — while monitoring the phone or email of a foreign diplomat or a suspected terrorist — keep an intercept if it contains information deemed to be a “threat of serious harm to life or property” or if it sheds light on technical issues like encryption or vulnerability to cyberattacks.
The policies also let the NSA keep “foreign intelligence information” contained within attorney-client communications, one documents says.
It seems to me there are three issues here.
- The metadata issue, where all the records of our calls and emails – sans content – is vacuumed up by the NSA;
- The privacy of Americans’ communications, which is certainly compromised when they can get easily swept up when they intermingle with furriners;
- The controls/transparency that protect us from abuses in (2).
I think #1 above has already been lost, and it concerns me less than #2.
I think #2 is very problematic, and not just because I have a sister in Paris, although the full content of our phone calls is usually “can you turn on your computer so we can Skype?”.
To call this program “transparent” is a stretch, and I don’t think anyone in their right mind trusts the controls that are in place.
Edward Snowden (more on him later) claimed he listened to some celebrity communications to prove he could, and he didn’t even work for the U.S. Government. And while I’d like to believe he’s lying, what seems far more likely is that the capability to actually spy on Americans exists at the workstations of far too many NSA contractors, much less employees, and the “control” is that they will, theoretically, get an extended paid vacation in Leavenworth if they get caught.
However, much as I think that the ‘legal’ part of #2 is, at the very least, unconstitutional, most of this country clearly bought this burglar alarm after the house was robbed September 11th, 2001, and is only now noticing that the fine print says you can’t ever get out of the contract.
Never mind that quite a few of us wanted to opt out but couldn’t.
In short, what Obama says is technically true, but not terribly reassuring.
The good that can come of this is more stuff gets declassified, because, as I have said, the notion that terrorists and foreign actors don’t already know that the U.S. (and, for that matter, virtually every first world country) can listen in on your phone calls is ludicrous.
As for Mr. Snowden, I mentioned before that he lost a lot of my sympathy when he started talking about operations of the NSA that were directed at foreign governments, revelations that come closer to treason than whistle-blowing.
The only thing that would make him less sympathetic would be if he were to alight to a country that has been a traditional geopolitical foe of the United States, perhaps one with an almost cartoonishly anti-democratic leader.
As if on cue:
Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency charged with espionage, was allowed to leave Hong Kong on Sunday because the U.S. extradition request did not comply with the law, the Hong Kong government said.
“Mr Edward Snowden left Hong Kong today (June 23) on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel,” the government said in a statement.
A statement did not identify the country, but the South China Morning Post newspaper earlier reported that Snowden had left on a flight for Moscow.
Well, sure, because Vladimir Putin is such a defender of free expression. Just ask Pussy Riot.