By now, we are all familiar with the big splash which resulted and continues to ripple from the fantastical claims made by Edward Snowden and his mouthpiece, Glenn Greenwald, about the ease with which the NSA's surveillance programs can be and are abused in order to eavesdrop on all of us, all the time, without a warrant, without authorization, and without consequence.
“I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the President, if I had a personal e-mail.”
“All they have to do is enter an e-mail address or an IP address, and it does two things, searches the database and lets them listen to the calls or read the e-mails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories and Google search terms.”
“It’s done with no need to go to court, no need to get approval . . . But it allows them to listen to whatever e-mails they want, telephone calls, browsing history, Microsoft Word documents.”
Despite these astonishing claims, Snowden and Greenwald have yet to provide any evidence of any actual, current abuses or illegalities, much less any abuses that are as easy and common as they suggested.
Now, a new report on the NSA programs casts doubt on the entire premise of Snowden and Greenwald's claims. Indeed, the report suggests that their claims are completely false -- that in fact, Snowden did not ever and would not ever have had either the authority for or access to the NSA database at all, much less to eavesdrop, as Snowden and Greenwald claimed.
In a report addressing the NSA’s surveillance programs, Dana Priest of the Washington Post tries to cut through the confusion, conflation, and hyperbole surrounding the programs, and in so doing, ends up piercing the central claim made by Geenwald and Snowden. [emphasis mine]:
[T]o begin a particular search, analysts must submit a request to their superiors showing why there is a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the number belongs to a member of a recognized terrorist organization.
The analysts’ [Section] 215 requests go to one of the 22 people at the NSA who are permitted to approve them — the chief or the deputy chief of the Homeland Security Analysis Center or one of 20 authorized Homeland Security mission coordinators within the Signals Intelligence directorate’s analysis and production directorate.
Once a request is approved, it is given to one of the Signal Intelligence directorate’s 33 counterterrorism analysts who are authorized to access the U.S. phone metadata collection.
When one of the analysts attempts to log into the database, the computer verifies whether the analyst has permission to do so. Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked details of the program, would not have had such authority.
Each NSA database search is audited afterward by compliance officials at the agency. How many phone numbers are searched is reported every 30 days to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Every 90 days, a small team from the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence spends a day at NSA looking over [Section] 215 documents and questioning analysts.
So, contrary to the entire premise of Snowden and Greenwald's central claims, Snowden was not authorized to do what he claimed, and never would have been.
Further, even if he had been eligible for such authorization, he still could not have accessed the database without:
(a) demonstrating a specific “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the
target of the inquiry belongs to a member of a recognized terrorist
(b) submitting a specific request to his superiors based on that demonstration;
(c) getting the specific approval of one of just 22 persons at NSA;
(d) being recognized and verified by the system as having such approval at the
time of logging in; and
(e) being subjected to numerous, repeated audits and reviews of his activity
by NSA compliance officers, by the DOJ, by the DNI, and by the FISC.
Note also, from the report, that in ALL OF 2012, there were a TOTAL of only 300 such database queries -- LESS THAN ONE PER DAY.
It is no wonder, then, that Snowden and Greenwald have never been able simply to provide any evidence that Snowden actually did, or could actually do, what they claimed he could, much less to provide any evidence of current wrongdoing/illegalities that are as easy, common, and sanctioned as they claimed. Based on the foregoing, it is now apparent that they have not been able to provide any such evidence of their central claims, because their central claims -- the claims that started and still spur this whole debacle -- are complete, total bullshit. Snowden never could do what he and Greenwald claimed, and would have been caught if he tried.
Coupled with all of the other hyperbole, conflation, gross exaggeration, and outright dishonesty through omission of critical, material facts and context in his reports and comments on these programs and the administration's conduct, it has now become apparent, based on the actual procedure for obtaining authority to access the NSA's databases, that Greenwald's reporting is not only completely slanted and unreliable, it is also based on an entirely false premise. Based on the foregoing report, the fantastical claims of Snowden and Greenwald are simply not possible. In other words, the entire basis of this story -- hell, the only reason there ever WAS a story in the first place -- just blew up their faces. Sadly, their bullshit-based claims have already caused overwrought rhetoric and over-reaction in almost all corners. But that's what happens when hysteria-and-agenda-driven narrative trumps completeness and accuracy.
* UPDATE #1 *
But wait! It turns out there's even MORE bullshit about abuses from the agenda-driven Greenwald (special thanks to one of the Greenwald supporters below for causing me to look this up). And this time, his bullshit about abuse under the NSA programs is countered by info from his own archives.
So, unable to provide any concrete examples of any actual abuse occurring under Obama, Greenwald has now been suggesting some wide-ranging abuses that were caught and stopped in 2011. Well, just as predicted, guess when the underlying NSA conduct at issue began? And guess who initiated the review that led to the END of the program? From Greenwald's own archives:
The documents indicate that under the program, launched in 2001, a federal judge sitting on the secret surveillance panel called the Fisa court would approve a bulk collection order for internet metadata "every 90 days". A senior administration official confirmed the program, stating that it ended in 2011.
Eventually, the NSA gained authority to "analyze communications metadata associated with United States persons and persons believed to be in the United States", according to a 2007 Justice Department memo, which is marked secret.
"The internet metadata collection program authorized by the Fisa court was discontinued in 2011 for operational and resource reasons and has not been restarted," Shawn Turner, the Obama administration's director of communications for National Intelligence, said in a statement to the Guardian.
"The program was discontinued by the executive branch as the result of an interagency review," Turner continued.
So, once again, we see that as usual, just as he has done with examples of abuses where analysts were eavesdropping on Americans, Greenwald is taking a Bush-era abuse and trying to lay it at Obama's feet. The Bush Administration ran this program for 7-8 years, Obama takes office, begins a full review of the NSA, and upon completion of that review, shuts down the program within 2 years of taking office. So, who does Greenwald blame for the program? The Obama Administration, of course: "NSA collected US email records in bulk for more than two years under Obama" Good grief. Greenwald's bullshit never ends.
* UPDATE #2 *
To those GG supporters desperately spinning the claim that only the phone call programs have safeguards, not the XKeyscore programs, not only is such a claim absurdly illogical on its face, but it is factually wrong. As to calls and XKeyscore alike, Snowden and Greenwald's claims are BULLSHIT.
First, GG himself admits that Snowden had NO legal authority to eavesdrop without a warrant.
Second, even the "simple form" GG claims Snowden could use to gain access requires AUTHORIZATION INFORMATION. Authorization that Snowden did not have.
Third, buried among the mountains of slanted bullshit from Greenwald is confirmation of the same safeguards regarding the XKeyscore programs:
U.S. officials vehemently denied this specific claim. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said of Snowden's assertion: "He's lying. It's impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do."
From the NSA, buried among more mountains of bullshit, in the same XKeyscore article:
"Allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are simply not true. Access to XKeyscore, as well as all of NSA's analytic tools, is limited to only those personnel who require access for their assigned tasks … In addition, there are multiple technical, manual and supervisory checks and balances within the system to prevent deliberate misuse from occurring."
"Every search by an NSA analyst is fully auditable, to ensure that they are proper and within the law.
The NSA's official response to Snowden and Greenwald's wild exaggerations about XKeyscore:
Allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are simply not true. Access to XKEYSCORE, as well as all of NSA's analytic tools, is limited to only those personnel who require access for their assigned tasks. Those personnel must complete appropriate training prior to being granted such access - training which must be repeated on a regular basis. This training not only covers the mechanics of the tool but also each analyst's ethical and legal obligations. In addition, there are multiple technical, manual and supervisory checks and balances within the system to prevent deliberate misuse from occurring.
Our tools have stringent oversight and compliance mechanisms built in at several levels. One feature is the system's ability to limit what an analyst can do with a tool, based on the source of the collection and each analyst's defined responsibilities. Not every analyst can perform every function, and no analyst can operate freely. Every search by an NSA analyst is fully auditable, to ensure that they are proper and within the law.
In other words, contrary to the spin from the GG fans, it's exactly the same kind of procedural, system, and audit safeguards for XKeyscore programs as it is for the phone call programs.
Now, throw in the fact that neither Snowden nor Greenwald have been able to show ANY actual evidence of the kind of unfettered access they claimed, and the conclusion is obvious: They are wildly exaggerating, as usual. In other words, bullshitting. Statements from NSA and the Chairman of the Intelligence Committee confirm that procedural, technical, supervisory, and audit safeguards exist for BOTH programs.