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The 24 Hour Rule: 1) A wild claim is made via a news article, most often The Guardian, about the U.S. government or related entities. 2) The article sparks wild fits of outrage. 3) Then, within 24 hours, a mitigating detail is added, undermining or totally debunking one or more of the central claims contained with the article. Related quote: “A lie can travel half-way around the world before the truth gets its pants on.
As everyone is probably aware by now, yesterday came the release of three FISC opinions from 2011.  The first of the rulings, dated October 3, 2011, indicated that in the course of a certain foreign surveillance program, the NSA had also been collecting approximately 56,000 domestic communications annually since 2008, when the program began under the Bush Administration.  As a result of the domestic communications implicated, the FISC ruled that the program, as then implemented, was impermissible and violative of the 4th Amendment.

The disclosure of this ruling set off the usual howls of "outrage" at "abuses," and as usual, resulted in several outraged diaries here at DK.

As ever, though, after the initial furor, a closer reading of what the opinions actually provide, as well as the genesis of the rulings, tells a very different story than the "outrage" they first spawned.

First, it is important to gain some perspective on the amount of communications at issue:

The NSA disclosed that it gathers some 250 million internet communications each year . . . of those, possibly as many as 56,000 Internet communications collected were sent by Americans or persons in the U.S. with no connection to terrorism.

So, that's 56,000 communications  that should not have been collected out of 250 MILLION annual communications gathered by the program.   That's an error rate of .0002, or .02% -- as in, two one-hundredths of one percent.  

In other words, even as conceived before the ruling, the program was 99.98% accurate, with an error rate of just .02%.   So, as always, before lighting one's hair on fire, some perspective is in order.

For even more perspective, consider the total number of emails in a year -- estimated at approximately 90 TRILLION per year.    Out of 90 trillion emails worldwide, this program accidently collected 56,000 domestic emails in error -- that's 56,000 out of 90 trillion, or 0.00000006%.

Second, it is important to remember how the ruling came to be; that is, how did the FISC come to learn of the annual collection of 56,000 domestic communications which caused it to invalidate the program as then constructed?

So, who discovered the issue and told the FISC about the extent of the problems?

The Obama Administration did:

As soon as the extent of the problem became clear . . . the Obama administration provided classified briefings to both Senate and House intelligence committees within days. At the same time, officials also informed the FISA court, which later issued the three 2011 rulings released Wednesday — with redactions — as part of the government's latest disclosure of documents.
So, contrary to screams of "abuse," it was the Obama Administration which uncovered the problem, self-reported it to the FISC, and the problem was stopped.  Hmmm . . . sounds like working, vigorous afeguards and oversight and an administration once again dedicated to making sure the programs comply with the law.

Third, the problems at issue were not "abuses" -- no one was spying on Americans or intentionally gathering domestic communications.  Instead, the problem arose from some domestic communications being "bundled" with foreign, targeted communications.  In other words, once again, far from being authorized or representing a policy of abuse, the issue was purely the result of technical system errors:

The problem . . . was that the top secret Internet-sweeping operation, which was targeting metadata contained in the emails of foreign users, was also amassing thousands of emails that were bundled up with the targeted materials. Because many web mail services use such bundled transmissions, the official said, it was impossible to collect the targeted materials without also sweeping up data from innocent domestic U.S. users.
So, far from being abuse, much less widespread abuse, the latest "revelation" like those before it, merely reflects errors -- an infinitesimally small amount of errors compared to the scale of the program, but errors which required fixing.  

Which brings us to point four:  The problematic program was fixed by the Obama Administration.  Lost in the outrage and hyperbole over the first ruling is the fact that one of the subsequent rulings found that the problems had been corrected, and the program was now compliant with the 4th Amendment.

The subsequent ruling, dated November 30, 2011, came in response to changes the administration had proposed to address the issues raised in the earlier ruling.  As a result of the changes proposed by the Obama Administration, the FISC now held that the proposed procedures "are consistent with the 4th amendment."  

Yes, that's right, thanks to the Obama Administration, which found, self-reported, and corrected the issues, a Bush-era NSA program was corrected to comply with the 4th Amendment fully.

So, as always, the initial release of the 2011 rulings resulted in wildly exaggerated stories and outrage.   But the reality, as always, is much less scary and much more mundane, even encouraging:  Even a program with an error rate of just .02%, caused by the inadvertent collection of unidentified "bundling" of communications, was deemed insufficient by the Obama Administration and the FISC.  The Obama Administration identified the errors, self-reported them to the FISC, and then fixed the problems, all in a concerted effort to comply with the 4th Amendment.  

So, once more, there is no evidence any abuses, much less a policy of abuse, and no evidence of any intentional collection of domestic communications -- just inadvertent errors, at an infinitesimally small rate under a Bush-era program, all self-reported by the Obama Administration to the FISC and fixed.  The system of safeguards and oversight worked.

Hardly the stuff of lighting one's hair on fire.


Speaking of things working perfectly, I would be remiss if I did not note my own prediction, from a mere three days ago, about the next exaggerated, over-hyped "outrage" that would be disclosed.  Here's what I posted:

MON AUG 19, 2013 AT 04:59 PM PDT

My prediction is that some of this "outrage" will have something to do with the 2011 FISC ruling, which by all accounts so far apparently found a particular new (at the time) NSA activity to be unConstitutional, and so the activity was stopped.  My prediction is that rather than reflect that the Obama administration took the program to the FISC, which found it impermissible, thereby demonstrating that the FISC is indeed a vigorous, effective safeguard the "outrage" report will instead be based on what the program could have hypothetically done, in the worst case scenario, if it had been abused and had all safeguards and oversight failed, and will conflate potential capabilities in a worst-case scenario, with all safeguards and oversight failing, with an actual authorized policy of abuse.

Now, keep in mind, while my track record for calling out gross exaggerations, wildly misleading claims, and utter nonsense remains unblemished on the NSA/Greenwald issues, this is only a prediction, and so while I have no doubt it will be the basis of some story soon, I am not specifically predicting that it will necessarily be the next "outrage" from Greenwald.  Whatever that story is, though, you can be sure it will be filled with a lot of scary language and, of course, a lot of outrage.

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