DNI’s Latest “I Con” Speak: “Sift Through and Have Unfettered Access To”

The Director of National Intelligence, after having repeatedly refused to answer any questions about the WSJ’s big scoop in yesterday’s conference call, has released a new document pretending to debunk stories based on the WSJ (though not the WSJ itself). It reads, in part,

Press reports based on an article published in today’s Wall Street Journal mischaracterize aspects of NSA’s activities conducted under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The NSA does not sift through and have unfettered access to 75% of the United States’ online communications.

The following are the facts:

  • Media reports based upon the recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article regarding NSA’s foreign intelligence activities provide an inaccurate and misleading picture of NSA’s collection programs, but especially with respect to NSA’s use of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
  • The reports leave readers with the impression that NSA is sifting through as much as 75% of the United States’ online communications, which is simply not true.
  • In its foreign intelligence mission, and using all its authorities, NSA “touches” about 1.6%, and analysts only look at 0.00004%, of the world’s internet traffic.

Obviously, the government partly obscures its answer by presenting the global numbers when trying to debunk US numbers.

But more importantly, it builds a gigantic straw man with its “sift through and have unfettered access to” language. That’s not what the WSJ said (which is why DNI shifts its accusation).

The system has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence, including a wide array of communications by foreigners and Americans. In some cases, it retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic phone calls made with Internet technology, these people say.

[snip]

The surveillance system is built on relationships with telecommunications carriers that together cover about 75% of U.S. Internet communications.

The NSA doesn’t do all the sifting. The telecoms Americans are paying every month do the first sift (which means part of that 75% of US Internet traffic is inaccessible to the NSA).

But see what DNI doesn’t ever do? Refute the WSJ.

Which I assume means we can take as confirmation that the government and its pseudo-private partners the telecoms do, in fact, sift through 75% of US Internet traffic.

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.

4 replies
  1. Clark Hilldale says:

    I view the 75% capacity reach to be a limited hangout type of story. Remember, the WSJ piece was sourced to a bunch of intel folks who would have motive to obfuscate.

    The truth is almost certainly that NSA has access to nearly 100% of all US telecom traffic.

    The reason to put forward the seemingly outrageous 75% claim could be to soften any future Snowden revelations about NSA’s true capabilities.

    Also, the 75% claim leaves plenty of room (25% worth) for courts to doubt the standing of any litigious folks who may wish to pursue claims of unwarranted surveillance.

  2. Zac Morris says:

    OK, “content access” aside, if the number “analysts only look at 0.00004%, of the world’s internet traffic” is correct, does no one realize the environmental [power consumption, heavy metals in tech equipment, etc.] and monetary waste of SIFTING/STORING all this data; that only get’s looked at “0.00004%” of the time!?!?!

  3. edge says:

    “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 conducting their mission—that’s less than one part in a million”

    The math seems wrong. 1.6% of .025% is .0004%, not .00004%. They’re understating what they’re looking at by a factor of 10.

    (please correct me if it’s my math that’s wrong.)

  4. scribe says:

    Which I assume means we can take as confirmation that the government and its pseudo-private partners the telecoms do, in fact, sift through 75% of US Internet traffic.

    Or some number other than 75%. Like “all”, for instance.

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