Will Keith Alexander FINALLY Tell the Full Truth about the Section 215 Dragnet in Today’s Secret Emergency Hearing?

Since Edward Snowden made it clear the government has been collecting every American’s phone records in the name of terrorism (and Iran), the National Security establishment has made a great show of transparency.

Don’t worry it’s “just” metadata, they said. Only 300 queries, well, we really mean only 300 identifiers to query on, which works out to be more than 300 queries. Only those who talk to terrorists. Or talk to those who talk to terrorists. Or talk to those who talk to those who talk to those who talk to terrorists, they ultimately revealed.

But last Thursday, the government admitted, sort of, that they’re not being as transparent as they claim. In a letter submitted in an effort to stall for time in ACLU’s suit to stop the 215 collection, the government offered a 400+ word description of the program. But the description started by claiming the program is, “in may respects, still classified.”

This case concerns a highly sensitive and, in many respects, still classified intelligence-collection program that is designed to assist the U.S. Government in discovering whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, including persons and activities inside the United States. Under this program, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) obtains authorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (“FISA Court”) to collect telephony metadata from certain telecommunications service providers. The National Security Agency (NSA), in turn, archives this information; queries the data, when strict standards are met, to detect communications between foreign terrorist organizations and their potential operatives located in the United States; and provides leads to the FBI or others in the Intelligence Community for counterterrorism purposes. [my emphasis]

So what do the “many respects” of this program that remain classified do? And do those “many respects” describe why the government needs to create an associational database including every American to help in just 13 plots over 7 years?

Which is why I find it interesting that, as soon as it became clear the Amash-Conyers amendment to the Defense Appropriations — which would defund the dragnet collection — would get a vote, NSA Director Keith Alexander decided he needed to talk to Congress in secret.

NSA head General Keith Alexander scheduled a last-minute, members-only briefing in response to the amendment, according to an invitation distributed to members of Congress this morning and forwarded to HuffPost. “In advance of anticipated action on amendments to the DoD Appropriations bill, Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of the House Intelligence Committee invites your Member to attend a question and answer session with General Keith B. Alexander of the National Security Agency,” reads the invitation.

“The briefing will be held at the Top Secret/SCI level and will be strictly Members-Only,” the invitation read.

So it seems that Alexander has more to say about this program he has feigned transparency on for the last month and a half.

That said, Alexander has a serial history of misleading statements when he doesn’t have a public fact-checker. So while he may tell Congressmen and -women more details about how they’re really using this dragnet database and why making 13 investigations easier merits such overkill, it’s unlikely he’ll tell the compete truth. I’m not optimistic.

But he may finally reveal why the government chose this overkill method of surveillance.

While Alexander is conducting this top secret briefing, you can do your own lobbying[: call you member of Congress and tell them to support Amash-Conyers.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

18 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    the rapid collapse of american constitutionalism between 2001 and 2013, most particularly bill of rights guarantees, can be directly attributed to the unnecessary war in iraq started by pres bush and continued by pres obama.

    most specifically, it can be attributed to a false sense of severe threat and urgency fostered by deliberate government/military propaganda aimed at the american people.

    “… With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the surprisingly quick disintegration of postwar conditions there, the NSA began sending collectors with surveillance equipment to embed with Army brigades and Marine regimental combat teams to target insurgents and terrorists. The units were called tactical cryptologic support teams. The military commanders often had no prior understanding of what the NSA did. But they quickly demanded more of the agency once they learned what it could do.

    At the same time, the NSA supported a parallel effort by CIA paramilitary units and clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) teams tasked with capturing or killing al-Qaeda leaders, deemed “high-value targets.” NSA analysts and collectors moved into the JSOC commander’s new and growing operational headquarters in Balad, Iraq, which also serviced Afghanistan…

    A growing reach

    The battlefield technology overseas was matched by a demand back in the United States for larger amounts of data to mine using the NSA’s increasingly sophisticated computers. Financial and biometric data, the movement of money overseas, and pattern and link analysis became standard NSA tools. Another example, recently revealed by Snowden, is the bulk collection of telephone metadata — information about numbers dialed and the duration of the calls…”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-growth-fueled-by-need-to-target-terrorists/2013/07/21/24c93cf4-f0b1-11e2-bed3-b9b6fe264871_story_2.html

    and so we have, as the culmanation of 60 years of psuedo security threats and 60 years of secret government agencies designed and built out of “desperate need” to save the nation from those psuedo-threats,

    – the destruction of the first, fourth, fifth, and eighth amendments to the u.s. constitution.

    – the rise of a presidency that is far more like an emperor than the historical american presidency.

    the wars our political leaders have insisted on waging solely for their own political benefit have been slowly dissolving our unique form of government.

  2. P J Evans says:

    “Will Keith Alexander FINALLY Tell the Full Truth about the Section 215 Dragnet in Today’s Secret Emergency Hearing?”

    No. This has been another edition …

  3. What Constitution says:

    What Keith Alexander will say is “Americans will DIE TERRA TERRA TERRA trust me.” Then some congresscritters will parade in front of microphones to explain that nobody has attacked the World Trade Center since 2001 and it might be all due to electronic surveillance and General Alexander and his carefully circumscribed tools are the true patriots and Snowden should be shot for inconveniencing them.

    But any thinking American should demand an independent evaluation of the current state of the American surveillance apparatus in the post-9/11 age, with an eye toward assessing it’s legality and its cost-effectiveness. Interrupting the funding for this abomination is a sure way to facilitate undertaking that assessment — inviting Alexander to blow smoke is not the way to accomplish it.

  4. C says:

    A short press-release on the amendment itself can be found here:
    http://amash.house.gov/press-release/nsa-surveillance-amash-conyers-introduce-major-bill

    In brief it forces the FISA decisions to be public and includes a rather interesting list of cosponsors but misses some of the people who have made the loudest statements of complaint (e.g. Jim Sensenbrenner).

    Congress responds well to tractable things to do and polite but persuasive calls right now will matter.

  5. x174 says:

    Go Barbara Go!

    Good ol’ Barbara Starr, the CNN reporter/leaker/propagandist for CNN, who released what appears to have been classified information about the behavior of terrorists in their response to Ed Snowden’s releases, http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/25/terrorists-try-changes-after-snowden-leaks-official-says/ is now playing point person for the latest USG propaganda platform:

    Edward Snowden did not gain access to the “crown jewels” of NSA programs, http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/22/official-snowden-did-not-get-crown-jewels/. Her latest in PsyOps/Military Information Support Operations provides a damage control conduit of what the government “believes.”

    Earlier those wonderful workers in the domestic propaganda division were engaged in smearing reporters at USA Today who sought to inform the public about Pentagon’s propaganda for domestic consumption, http://gawker.com/5913166/propaganda-contractor-admits-to-running-smear-campaign-against-usa-today-reporters.

    From Barbara Starr’s latest “Official: Snowden did not get ‘crown jewels’”:

    “U.S. intelligence now believes Edward Snowden did not gain access to the “crown jewels” of National Security Agency programs that secretly intercept and monitor conversations around the world… The administration believes it knows the extent of the material that was downloaded… The government believes Snowden was aware that upgrades were being made to NSA systems tagging data and users so that downloads were recorded, but Snowden accessed portions where that work had not been completed.”

    Other than these faith-based statements from the intrepid Barbara Starr, some of my favorites from her most recent coup are:

    “CNN cannot independently verify the statements made either by the administration or Snowden.”

    ‘”But just because you have the blueprints doesn’t mean you have the manual,” the official said.’
    and,

    “A key question is whether Snowden, a former NSA contractor, really knows how the programs work at a detailed technical level.”

    Yeah, Barbara!

  6. orionATL says:

    @orionATL:

    to summarize:

    the demand for nsa data and reports was driven by the needs of the various u.s. security bureaucracies – the dod, the cia, the nsa, the fbi, the dept of homeland security.

    i see no reason to believe there has bern anything like a one-to-one correspondence between specific requests for nsa data from these congressionally mandated national security bureaucracies and specific, serious, identifiable terrorist threats to u.s. citizenry and infastructure.

    what has happened is that our military/paramilitary (dod, cia, nsa) security bureaucracies and our civilian security bureaucracies (fbi,dhs, nsa, local police) have become fused into one giant security bureaucracy that demands nsa data in order to conduct day-to-day business, irrespective of specific, legitimate security threats.

  7. lefty665 says:

    “But he may finally reveal why the government chose this overkill method of surveillance.”

    Because they could. As DIRNSA, after 911 Hayden rolled over and colluded with Duhbya to turn NSA’s focus inward. Among other things, they rejected Thin Thread that gave them what they needed while excluding domestic collection. See Drake, and read Bamford “Body of Secrets”. Gen Keith has upped the ante, doing more, faster and longer. BO has tried to dress it up as legal.

    The spooks have always wanted all the data they can get. Once they accepted that domestic collection was their mission, required rather than forbidden, gathering all the data was business as usual. The more the better.

    From NSA’s point of view, what could be better than to have it all and hang onto it? When a bad guy emerges in the future they can play back all his contacts over years to find links to other baddies. That’s 3 hops, and three dimensional over a decade or more.

    Senator Church’s observation that NSA enabled tyranny if it operated domestically was echoed by many NSA executives of that era. They are all gone, and we are left living in a world where all data is collected and stored. That leaves tyranny lurking just a policy change away.

  8. orionATL says:

    @orionATL:

    to understand bettter that the growth of the nsa was fueled by demand from other components of our national security bureaucracy without regard for any but their departmental needs and (possibly) short-run efficacy,

    compare the vignette from 2002 (the navy seal in a trailer) which dana priest used to illustrate the growth in the perceived “need” for nsa electronic spying

    with this 2013 nytimes story about the deteriorating security situation in iraq following ten f–kin’ years of nsa activity there:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/24/world/middleeast/al-qaeda-asserts-responsibility-for-iraqi-prison-breaks.html?hp&_r=0

    and compare also with recent columns here at emptywheel by jim white detailing the deteriorating security situation in afghanistan as the american military retreats in defeat.

    what do the american people have left after paying for our 13 year national security spending binge?

    – marginally greater security, if that,

    – a very much larger national debt,

    – a dangerously powerful presidency,

    – nsa spying on every communication of every american,

    – and severly straitened bill-of-rights freedoms.

    such a deal !!

  9. C says:

    @orionATL: Yes exactly as Obama himself said:

    “But at the margins we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs.”

    Massive spying for security gains “at the margins” this deal is too good to be true!

  10. Andre says:

    To get back to the point of the meeting,why is it secret? So Congress is going to have a discussion with the guy who did the raping, about the rape of our privacy, and we the victims are not included??????

  11. omphaloscepsis says:

    “The invitation warned members that they could not share what they learned with their constituents or others.”

    You have to hope that each Senator or Representative who has oversight responsibility and the security clearance can understand the material, and its implications, in the briefings they receiver.

    However, there are probably not half a dozen members in both houses of Congress who have an adequate technical background.

    So next you hope that each of them has at least one savvy staff member who can interpret the material for them.

    Except they can’t bring that staff member to the meeting, and they can’t tell them what they heard afterward.

    Which means that there is no oversight.

    They might as well be briefed by the late Don Adams — “Would you believe that we prevented 50 terrorist attacks? Would you believer 10? Would you believe we prevented one little old lady in Iowa from overdrawing her bank account?”

  12. thatvisionthing says:

    In a letter submitted in an effort to stall for time in ACLU’s suit to stop the 215 collection, the government offered a 400+ word description of the program.

    From the 7/17 House hearing:

    Zoe Lofgren: It’s been discussed that we get these ample reports, and I just want – I just recently reviewed the annual report on Section 215. Is it true, Mr. Cole, that the, or isn’t it true, that the annual 215 report to the committee is less than a single page and not more than eight sentences?

  13. thatvisionthing says:

    Other favorite moments from the 7/17 House hearing:

    Mr. Cole: Under 702, the government applies to the FISA court for an order allowing it to collect the communication of non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be overseas. This order lasts for one year. The statute does not allow us to collect communica– or, excuse me, does allow us to collect communications even if the person on the other end of that phone call or e-mail is in the United States or a U.S. person, but only if that is a result of a non-U.S. person outside the United States having initiated the call. Importantly, the statute explicitly prohibits us from what is known as reverse targeting. We can’t use Section 207 indirectly to obtain the communications of U.S. persons anywhere or any persons located in the United States by targeting a non-U.S. person overseas.

    He said Section 207. (Mirror leak? what / not what? can’t / not can’t?)

    Then

    Ms. Douglas: And I know that Mr. Inglis explained to you the reasonable, articulal– ar-tic-u-la-ble suspicion standard by which we have to actually search against those phone numbers.

  14. thatvisionthing says:

    Plus, re congressional (just committee) oversight, does this apply? From 2010:

    http://emptywheel.firedoglake.com/2010/09/29/the-compromise-intelligence-authorization/

    As DDay noted, it looks like we’ll finally have an intelligence authorization bill. The bill is a partial win for Speaker Pelosi, as it makes full briefing to the Intelligence Committees within six months of the start of a program the default (though the Administration can still avoid doing so if it provides written rationale).

    Six months after? Unless Admin writes excuse?

  15. Bill Michtom says:

    @lefty665: “That leaves tyranny lurking just a policy change away.”
    Tyranny does NOT include criminalizing the press and tracking the moves of all Muslims in the Northeast?

  16. lefty665 says:

    @Bill Michtom: Sure steppingstones on the path. But not yet targeting drones domestically or middle of the night knocks on the door and disappearings.

    As long as we can still talk about it we ain’t there yet. But if we don’t fix it, a decade and 3 hops down the road, who knows how these posts might be construed… Can you say “ex post facto”? It can become as quaint as “probable cause”.

    Wm. Odom, ex DIRNSA believed Hayden should have been court martialed and Duhbya impeached. Expect he’d feel even more so about Gen. Keith and BO.

    The opportunity to preserve our freedom still exits in the right to assemble (more or less) and the obligation of citizenship to petition Gov’t to help it see the error of its ways. Use it or lose it.

  17. thatvisionthing says:

    Don’t worry it’s “just” metadata, they said. Only 300 queries, well, we really mean only 300 identifiers to query on, which works out to be more than 300 queries. Only those who talk to terrorists. Or talk to those who talk to terrorists. Or talk to those who talk to those who talk to those who talk to terrorists, they ultimately revealed.

    Again, from the 7/17 House hearing:

    Mr. Jaffer: Even if you accept the government’s frame here and focus only on the uses, I don’t think anybody should be misled by this 300 number, which makes it sound like this is a very targeted program. But if you think about the 300 number in relation to what was said on the previous panel about three hops. You know, the first hop takes you to, say, 100 people whose communications are pulled up. The second one takes you to 10,000. And the third one takes you to a million. And you do that 300 times, I think it’s safe to say that every American’s communications have been pulled up at least once.

Comments are closed.