Ignatius Has Become a “Choice between Security and Privacy” Stenographer

David Ignatius should be ashamed about this column. Even by his standards, it serves simply as stenography for the buzzwords top security officials have fed him, such that he repeats lines like this without any critical thinking.

Gen. Keith Alexander and other top NSA officials are considering ways they could reassure the public without damaging key programs, according to U.S. officials. They think that forcing Congress to decide between security and privacy is an unfair choice, since the country would lose either way. They’d like an agreement that protects both, but that’s a tall order. [my emphasis]

Remember: we’re talking about the Section 215 dragnet, not the (according to all players) far more valuable Section 702 collection. Even according to the government, it has only come into play in 13 terrorist cases. The only one the government can describe where it has been crucial involves indicting a man the FBI determined was not motivated by terrorism but rather tribal affiliation sending less than $10,000 to al-Shabaab three and a half years earlier.

And yet Ignatius uncritically repeats that requiring the government to use more specificity with its collections would present Congress the “unfair choice” of “deciding between security and privacy.”

So it should be no surprise that Ignatius uncritically repeats other details of the program. For example, Ignatius claims this involves only two-hop analysis, when we know it can go three hops (and therefore millions of people) deep.

When the agency identifies a suspicious number in, say, Pakistan, analysts want to see who that person called in the United States and who, in turn, might have been contacted by that second person.

Ignatius doesn’t note the descriptions — from both Edward Snowden and James Clapper — that they then use this metadata to index previously collected communications. That’s because he’s too busy repeating that we don’t “record” these collections, as if we’d have to.

Then finally there’s Ignatius’ claim that SWIFT (the record of international financial transfers) presents a viable alternative to the dragnet program. As I have reported, when the EU finally got to audit what the US had been doing with SWIFT, they discovered the real content of the queries was transmitted verbally, making it impossible to audit the use.

Thus far, no one has explained whether the queries and underlying articulable suspicion gets automatically recorded or — as happened with one of the precursors to this program — manually in hardcopy form. If it’s the latter (which I will assume until someone asserts differently) it is prone to the same kind of large scale documentation lapses that could hide a great deal of improper use of the dragnet. Which, given Ron Wyden and Mark Udall’s insistence that the problems have been more problematic than James Clapper lets on, could well be the case.

All of these are issues anyone with Ignatius’ access might want to answer.

Alternately, that access may now serve to do no more than produce “security or privacy” automatons, repeating the obviously false cant Ignatius has here.


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.

19 replies
  1. peasantparty says:

    Ignatius evidently failed to read the Aspen Institute reporting, or he is PART of the system that is attempting to Control him.

    My guess would be that he is too damn afraid to jump out of the fish bowl of DC, and miss out on the lavish cocktail wiener parties and access.

  2. peasantparty says:

    Actually, I have to give him a dime’s circumference worth of credit for even having the courage to report anything via MSM on Alexander and NSA.
    Although we know that every word of it was previously approved by the same.

    When even PBS refuses to discuss drones and NSA spying, anything that we can read between the lines is better than nothing. Just keep it in the news.

  3. newz4all says:

    William K. Black: One of the things I never expected to read was a promise by any United States official that a potential defendant in a criminal prosecution by our federal courts “will not be tortured.”

    The idea that the Attorney General of the United States of America would send such a letter to the representative of a foreign government, particularly Russia under the leadership of a former KGB official, was so preposterous that I thought the first news report I read about Attorney General Holder’s letter concerning Edward Snowden was satire. The joke, however, was on me. The Obama and Bush administrations have so disgraced the reputation of the United States’ criminal justice system that we are forced to promise KGB alums that we will not torture our own citizens if Russia extradites them for prosecution.


  4. JohnT says:


    Yea, they (USG) contend water boarding, sleep deprivation, public nudity and everything else is — what? — an Orwellian “coercive interrogation”?

    And they expect the Russians to take them seriously. This is the perfect opportunity for the Russians to embarrass the crap out of the Nobel Peace Laureate ™. lol

  5. Jeff Kaye says:

    OT, but speaking of embarrassments, how about Carol Rosenberg’s paean to the medical personnel who force-feed prisoners at Guantanamo. Published today, the article never even alludes that anyone other than the detainee attorneys criticize the practice of force-feeding prisoners.

    Several guards in Branson’s military police unit got nasogastric feedings out of curiosity since deploying here two months ago, the sergeant said, “and took it like a champ.”

    “It’s a life-saving tool if you ask me,” said Branson, whose troops deployed from Fort Bliss, Texas. “We see it every day and we know it’s not as bad as they make it out to be.”

    The captives’ lawyers say their clients consider it torture….

    Navy nurses and corpsmen interviewed said they’ve routinely trained by doing nasogastric feedings by inserting tubes up their own noses or in fellow sailors or soldiers — and universally shrugged off the tube feedings as painless….

    “It’s not that painful. It’s not that excruciating,” [a Navy nurse] said Thursday evening on his way to a night shift at the prison where, for Islam’s daylight fasting during Ramadan, the prison staff adopted an after-dark feeding routine.

    “They’re not begging for you to stop,” a 23-year-old corpsman named Hannah chimed in.

    To be sure, the troops say some of the hunger-striking prisoners become furious when women among the medical corps administer the so-called “e-feeds,” short for enteral feedings. In one often repeated account, a captive slipped out of his restraints and slugged a nurse. The nurse was not made available for an interview.

    A night shift nurse named Candice, a 32-year-old Navy lieutenant, said she has been spit on, cursed at and threatened with such angry prisoner glares that “I feel my soul is being sucked out” while working at the prison.

    But in her experience by the time the guards have the detainees settled in the restraint chair they cooperate and “guide,” as she put it, wriggling their heads to help the tube find its way to their stomach.

    “For the most part it’s good patient interaction,” she said.

    Nowhere in the article is it mentioned that every major medical association (World Medical Association, AMA, PHR, etc.) consider the practice medically unethical, or that it is condemned by the UN, members of the US Senate, etc.

    When it comes to stenography for the government, Rosenberg too often fits the bill.

  6. Dredd says:

    Good editorial eye.

    These types of dichotomies you point out are so prevalent in our culture that it seems that they are more than political, educational, or other areas of institutionalized secular dynamics.

    Perhaps it is a time that we should consider the psychological nature of our culture.

  7. TomVet says:

    @peasantparty: Here is some of that Aspen Institute reporting on the 2013 Aspen Security Forum from Max Blumenthal at AlterNet. Everyone should read about this to understand how out of control these folks really are and to see just how deeply entwined the MSM is with all of this.

  8. JThomason says:

    The corporate media is designed to impact Wernicke’s Area only. The remainder of the noise that passes for news is in place to disable the higher deliberative functions with persistent pressing irrelevancy.

  9. What Constitution? says:

    @TomVet: Thanks for posting that piece about the Aspen Security Forum. A tidbit of passing information reported there which I hadn’t heard: Former Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft is now on the board of Blackwater’s current iteration (called, euphemistically enough, “Academi”)? I guess this is news like leopards not changing their spots is news, huh?

  10. peasantparty says:

    @HotFlash: Yep, I guess I was overly giving on his behalf. Happy that we ran into each other virtually, HF. Miss your helpful and thought provoking comments.

  11. peasantparty says:

    @TomVet: Thanks for bringing the link in. I read it closely and tried to share it on twitter. The MIC is actively controlling our lives and economic activities.

    We are all connected across the globe and this war on the world/terror stuff is pure evil. Kind of reminds me of the movie, “Avatar” with all it’s deep held meanings.

  12. RexFlex says:

    How about we go 2 or 3 hops back on every member of Congress, their families and donors and look at all communications between any of them and take a peek at stock market transactions. Just thinking. Seems fair to me.

  13. Scotty_Mack says:

    I had no idea anyone read the Washington Post anymore. Aren’t they one of those papers that was all like “WMD’s! Lets nuke Arabs!” back in 2003? I quit reading the NYTimes and the Washington Post and a lot of other papers after all that. Let them die in obscurity.

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