As WaPo Was Letting Pincus Transcribe, They Were Fighting Administration on Gellman Story

On Friday, the President promised us more transparency on NSA issues.

Meanwhile, the WaPo was preparing this story on NSA issues from Barton Gellman.

Along the way, the Administration gave Gellman a 90-minute interview of unspecified date (it may have been Saturday, the day after Obama’s promise to be more transparent) with NSA’s Director of Compliance John DeLong only to, after the fact, ask for quote approval.

The Obama administration referred all questions for this article to John DeLong, the NSA’s director of compliance, who answered questions freely in a 90-minute interview. DeLong and members of the NSA communications staff said he could be quoted “by name and title” on some of his answers after an unspecified internal review. The Post said it would not permit the editing of quotes. Two days later, White House and NSA spokesmen said that none of DeLong’s comments could be quoted on the record and sent instead a prepared statement in his name. The Post declines to accept the substitute language as quotations from DeLong.

On August 12, the government refused to answer specific questions about compliance issues, even though Gellman had a report on them in hand.

The NSA communications office, in coordination with the White House and Director of National Intelligence, declined to answer questions about the number of violations of the rules, regulations and court-imposed standards for protecting the privacy of Americans, including whether the trends are up or down. Spokesmen provided the following prepared statement.

Then, on August 14, it offered this statement in response to specific questions about the FISA Court finding NSA to have violated the Fourth Amendment in October 2011.

In July 2012, Director of National Intelligence [James R.] Clapper declassified certain statements about the government’s implementation of Section 702 in order to inform the public and congressional debate relating to reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA). Those statements acknowledged that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) had determined that “some collection carried out pursuant to the Section 702 minimization procedures used by the government was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

The FISC’s finding was with respect to a very specific and highly technical aspect of the National Security Agency’s 702 collection. Once the issue was identified and fully understood, it was reported immediately to the FISC and Congress. In consultation with the FISC, the Department of Justice, NSA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence worked to address the concerns identified by the FISC by strengthening the NSA minimization procedures, thereby enhancing privacy protections for U.S. persons. The FISC has continued to approve the collection as consistent with the statute and reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

I’m so old I remember when President Obama promised us more transparency.

But even as the WaPo was having these ridiculous conversations with the IC about data that Gellman had in hand, Walter Pincus was writing this story.

It’s time for the intelligence community to have its side of the debate over the National Security Agency’s collection programs explained.


Such transparency is useless if the news media do not pass it on to the public. Few, if any, major news outlets carried any of the details from the Justice and NSA papers.


Intelligence officials say that if the U.S. media do not provide what the government claims are the facts underlying what critics and supporters say, the public cannot understand the issue.


There are two more issues intelligence officials want noted.

That is, even while IC officials were whining to Pincus that no one was spewing their propaganda, they were playing games with Gellman to try to influence his piece while not admitting he had a handful of documents on violations that proved them wrong.

Though none of that explains what this is, from Gellman’s story.

a senior NSA official said in an interview, speaking with White House permission on the condition of anonymity.

I’m going to guess that’s DeLong. But still: why give the government their shot at rebuttal if they refuse to let their officials be accountable for their comments?

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.

11 replies
  1. peasantparty says:

    Truth is always better than Fiction.

    You just can’t make this kinda shit up! It gets wilder as the story unfolds.

  2. Mellvis says:

    “On August 12, the government refused to answer specific questions about compliance issues, even though Gellman had a report on them in hand.”

    Some transparency. Unbelievable.

  3. Peterr says:

    NSA supervisor: What’s with all this unapproved surveillance?

    NSA flunky: Sorry about that. I hit “surveill all” instead of simply “surveill”. My bad.

  4. Peterr says:

    From Gellman: “In another case, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has authority over some NSA operations, did not learn about a new collection method until it had been in operation for many months. The court ruled it unconstitutional.”

    And the sanction for (a) illegally operating and (b) not informing the court? Following in the fine tradition of the SEC and DOJs handling of Wall Street, I’m guessing that sternly worded memos were written, important fingers were wagged (maybe even *vigorously* wagged), and hands were slapped.

    Then everyone went back to business as usual.

  5. Snoopdido says:

    In Gellman’s piece, John DeLong, the NSA’s director of compliance…excuse me, an anonymous senior NSA official said:

    “We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” a senior NSA official said in an interview, speaking with White House permission on the condition of anonymity.

    “You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day,” he said. “You look at a number in absolute terms that looks big, and when you look at it in relative terms, it looks a little different.”

    This is the same type of deliberately disingenuous language that the NSA used in their recently released “NSA: Missions, Authorities, Oversight and Partnerships” document ( For example:

    “Scope and Scale of NSA Collection

    According to figures published by a major tech provider, the Internet carries 1,826 Petabytes of information per day. In its foreign intelligence mission, NSA touches about 1.6% of that. However, of the 1.6% of the data, only 0.025% is actually selected for review. The net effect is that NSA analysts look at 0.00004% of the world’s traffic in conducing their mission – that’s less than one part in a million.”

    In both instances, that’s like saying “there are over 10 million banks in the United States and we only rob 1000 of them”.

    I don’t know of any US court (maybe the FISC) that would accept NSA’s excuse that they only violate the US Constitution less than one percent of the time, so please don’t find us guilty of breaking the law.

  6. C says:

    a senior NSA official said in an interview, speaking with White House permission on the condition of anonymity.

    WTF? That is beyond newspeak. Now we’ve moved into a world where “anonymous” conversations are approved and actual quoted are rewritten, or in the case of the DOJ “scrubbed” years after the fact. This isn’t journalism, this isn’t even stenography this is asinine.

    Cue the officially endorsed crowds thanking Big Brother for raising the meat ration to half of what we had before.

  7. Mark Erickson says:

    @Phil Perspective: Phil, that is Gellman’s public encryption key, to be used by NSA staffers wanting to send him an encrypted message. Only Gellman’s private key can unencrypt messages encrypted with Gellman’s public key.

  8. Mark Erickson says:

    @C: I think it’s great that Gellman gave the qualifier that the anon commenter was approved by the WH. The common practice alternative (at least the realistic one) is to print the anon comments without the permission qualifier. This way, the WH is accountable. Meaning Obama. A press conference reporter could ask Obama, “Your administration said (fill in the blank from the anon comments)”.

    In no way does this apply to quote approval or the other shenanigans discussed in this post. Just the WH approval qualifier the Post used.

Comments are closed.