If Everything NSA Does is “Auditable,” Why Can’t NSA Tell Us How Many Americans They’ve Spied On?

NSA Director Keith Alexander just said this to the hackers at DefCon (while wearing an absolutely ridiculous hacker costume):

“We get oversight by Congress, both intel committees and their congressional members and their staffs,” he continued, “so everything we do is auditable by them, by the FISA court … and by the administration. And everything we do is accountable to them…. We are overseen by everybody. And I will tell you that those who would want to weave the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is absolutely false.”

But a month ago, Alexander’s Inspector General told Ron Wyden that an estimate of the number of people inside the United States who have had their communications collected or reviewed under the FISA Amendments Act “was beyond the capacity of his office.” Of note, the IG and NSA leadership–that is, presumably Alexander himself–claimed such a review would “violate the privacy of U.S. persons.”

I look forward to Ron Wyden’s response to Alexander’s seeming reversal on that earlier letter with claims of this unlimited auditability.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

10 replies
  1. Bustednuckles says:

    Plausible deniability or just plain fucking semantics.
    One million is not plural.

    His mouth moveth, thereby his falsehoods flow freely.

    In other words he is a lying sonofabitch.

  2. P J Evans says:

    And I will tell you that those who would want to weave the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is absolutely false.

    If they have more than one dossier, he’s lying. He’s certainly lying about the oversight he’s claiming they get.
    (Hi, Busted!)

  3. phred says:

    “We are overseen by everybody.”

    Cool! I’m everybody. And boy do I have a lot of questions that I want the NSA to answer. I need to pop Alexander an email to pencil him in for my next oversight hearing…

  4. lefty665 says:

    @P J Evans: They don’t call it ‘dossiers”. He’s not lying, he’s telling the “truth”. It just doesn’t have anything to do with what they’re actually doing.

    Go back a couple of days and look at the weasel words on collecting vs targeting etc. The language they are using has very precise meaning. You can reasonably expect a decent response to a correctly framed question. Otherwise misdirection and obfuscation rule.

    The answer is they collect every email, blog post and telecon for around 300m people in the US. That’s old news. What they’re doing with it is today’s question.

  5. 1970cs says:

    “The bills from six agencies, monsters in the intelligence world – the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence – are classified. The New York Times estimates that the real cost lies in the range of $13 billion, but who knows?

    To put things in perspective, the transmission letter from Director John P Fitzpatrick that came with the report makes it utterly clear why your taxpayer dollars, all $13 billion of them, are being spent this way: “Sustaining and increasing investment in classification and security measures is both necessary to maintaining the classification system and fundamental to the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration.” It’s all to ensure transparency. George Orwell take that! Pow!”
    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/NG26Dj03.html

  6. Bob Schacht says:

    @P J Evans: Good point. This is the well known but little appreciated tactic of appearing to respond to the question, while changing a few key words to make it appear that you were responding in one way to the question, but was actually saying something true, but irrelevant. press secretaries of various Federal offices (Presidential, Pentagon, Congressional, etc.) have to pass a graduate version of this course before they apply for the job.

    Bob in AZ

  7. Jessica says:

    “Of note, the IG and NSA leadership–that is, presumably Alexander himself–claimed such a review would “violate the privacy of U.S. persons.””

    Oh! So good to see they’re worried about issues of privacy. That’s some messed up logic of the most perverse kind.

  8. Peterr says:

    I look forward to Ron Wyden’s response to Alexander’s seeming reversal on that earlier letter with claims of this unlimited auditability.

    And a pony. Don’t forget to ask for a pony, Marcy.

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