Keith Alexander’s Ignorance By Design

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One of the most publicized lines from yesterday’s FOIA disclosures comes from Keith Alexander’s declaration to Reggie Walton on how the Section 215 dragnet went so horribly awry. He claims — without explaining the basis for his knowledge — that no one knew how all this worked.

Furthermore, from a technical standpoint, there was no single person who had a complete technical understanding of the BR FISA system architecture. (Alexander 19)

The comment comes amidst a section that discusses not system architecture, but simple legal compliance, in which Alexander describes how,

  • NSA’s lawyers consistently gave incorrect data to FISC over 3 years time
  • NSA’s lawyers exempted a whole class of data — that not yet “archived” — from the plain meaning of the law

At the beginning of this particular section, he says his knowledge comes from,

Reviews of NSA records and discussions with relevant NSA personnel (Alexander 16)

But at the beginning of Alexander’s declaration, he states his statements,

are based on my personal knowledge, information provided to me by my subordinates in the course of my official duties, advice of counsel, and conclusions reached in accordance therewith. (Alexander 2)

That is, for the declaration overall, Alexander says he only spoke to “counsel” and other NSA people in “the course of [his] official duties,” and there only with subordinates. Admittedly, all NSA personnel should be his subordinates, but it is curious he doesn’t describe the NSA personnel he spoke with as such.

That’s important, because throughout this section, Alexander’s statements are caveated with “it appears” introductions.

… the inaccurate description of the BR FISA alert list initially appears to have occurred to a mistaken belief …(Alexander 17)

… Therefore, it appears there was never a complete understanding among the key personnel who reviewed the report … (Alexander 18)

… Nevertheless, it appears clear in hindsight from discussions with the relevant personnel as well as reviews of NSA’s internal records that the focus was almost always on whether analysts were contact chaining the Agency’s repository of BR FISA data in compliance … (Alexander 18)

Now perhaps Alexander spoke to the people who actually knew what went on. It turns out they would, in significant part, be lawyers. Counsel.

Though that’s rarely reflected in his descriptions. In perhaps just one sentence, he makes an assertion about what the SIGINT Directorate and the OGC [counsel] “realized,” though note he doesn’t specify a single human subject for that realization.

Or perhaps he spoke only to “relevant personnel” who provided him information in the course of his normal duties.

But one thing is clear: he either doesn’t claim actual knowledge about the subject he is addressing beyond what actually got documented, the most important topic in his declaration. Or he does, but for some reason he was, in this matter alone, uncomfortable asserting that as a clear fact.

Yet somehow, having spoken to remarkably few people, he somehow feels confident claiming no one knew about the entire architecture (an irrelevant issue to the legal and management problem at hand)?

I would suggest Alexander’s lawyers [counsel!] — the very people who provided false information to the court and false advice to NSA personnel — might have a good deal more certainty about what happened than Alexander. But somehow they managed to avoid making sworn declarations to the court about those subjects.

Update: The list of people who knew about this stuff on Alexander 25-26 is of particular interest. Two OGC lawyers and 3 program managers had access to both what was allowed to analysts and what was reported to the court (though Alexander helpfully notes, “[t]his does not mean that an individual who was on distribution for the reports was actually familiar with the contents of the reports.”

Alexander also says he had conversations with the people on distribution of the original email drafting language for the court.

Alexander goes on to note there were a lot of people that knew of how the alerts worked but, “[b]ased on information available to me, I conclude it is unlikely that this category of personnel knew how the Agency had described the alert process to the Court.”


8 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    “Furthermore, from a technical standpoint, there was no single person who had a complete technical understanding of the BR FISA system architecture. … ”

    “It appears there was never a complete understanding among the key personnel . regarding what each individual meant by the terminology…”

    What bullshit.

    A lone, lowly contract employee with administrative access understood how it all fit together and has punctuated the government’s equilibrium by slowly, carefully disclosing the truth with discrete releases of information from inside the NSA’s knowledge set.

    The same knowledge set they trained contractors with, I should point out.

    Lies, fibs, half-truths, prevarications, bullshit that no single person understood the system. I’m betting hundreds, perhaps thousands have and do.

  2. Peterr says:

    From your earlier post comes this — the first paragraph of Clapper’s announcement of the declassification of these documents:

    The compliance incidents discussed in these documents stemmed in large part from the complexity of the technology employed in connection with the bulk telephony metadata collection program, interaction of that technology with other NSA systems, and a lack of a shared understanding among various NSA components about how certain aspects of the complex architecture supporting the program functioned. These gaps in understanding led, in turn, to unintentional misrepresentations in the way the collection was described to the FISC.

    Emphasis added.

    The folks who make representations to the FISC are the lawyers. They do it on behalf of Clapper and everyone else, but they are the ones doing the representing, accurately or otherwise.

    I take that sentence to be something the lawyers crafted, to get Clapper on the record telling the world that the lawyers aren’t at fault for what they told Reggie Walton.

    It also suggests to me that they know a helluva lot more now than the did when they made those representations. At a minimum, they have learned that they were wrong.

    The key question before the court is this: were they willfully lying, or incompetently asserting things they didn’t understand?

    Occam’s Razor and the patterns of past “assurances” that later turned out to be wrong point rather strongly toward the former. If the lawyers were not willfully lying, they were passing on the lies they were fed.

  3. GulfCoastPirate says:

    Well, well, well … isn’t this interesting.

    ‘The National Security Agency routinely shares raw intelligence data with Israel without first sifting it to remove information about US citizens, a top-secret document provided to the Guardian by whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals.

    Details of the intelligence-sharing agreement are laid out in a memorandum of understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart that shows the US government handed over intercepted communications likely to contain phone calls and emails of American citizens. The agreement places no legally binding limits on the use of the data by the Israelis.

    The disclosure that the NSA agreed to provide raw intelligence data to a foreign country contrasts with assurances from the Obama administration that there are rigorous safeguards to protect the privacy of US citizens caught in the dragnet. The intelligence community calls this process “minimization”, but the memorandum makes clear that the information shared with the Israelis would be in its pre-minimized state.’

  4. Orestes Ippeau says:

    Talk to attorney’s who actually defend against criminal indictments in the area of The Wire-type narcotics investigations, and, if they’ll talk to you, in the area of public corruption investigations.

    They will tell of a phenomenon that amounts to almost a free-standing legal regime on the very odd area of “RELIANCE”; that is, testifying, most often in written form, AS IF the officer is swearing the oath has PERSONAL knowledge, when in reality the officer is swearing to HEARSAY.

    This website has a working attorney among the regular contributors, presumably others among its faithful readership who comment regularly or lurk, and connections with others at other blogs, such as Talk Left.

    Among other things with which law enforcement officials active in this area of SWEARING TO HEARSAY become intimately familiar are techniques that resemble nothing more than the sort of bending of reality in which this website’s owner is acutely expert: statements by public officials with or without cover of confidentiality granted by the press.

    And among the most popular and common of techniques, as I think is being deliberately implied in this post by emptywheel, is the INSULATION of the oath-swearing official by one or more layers of attorneys, for the magical protection of client-attorney privilege.

    It’s such a rich vein, it would take up months and months of posts.

  5. JTMinIA says:

    @Rayne: I want to go a step farther. If we take Alexander at his word – even if that’s naive – then Snowden knew things that Alexander didn’t. But Alexander is the head of it all. So when Obama says that Snowden didn’t need to go whistleblower because all of this was already being taken care of internally, that’s clearly BS.

    Make up your effing minds. Are you incompetent and, therefore, not culpable, or are you capable of dealing with this without help, even if that means you’ve been breaking the law until recently. But don’t keep switching back and forth between “I’m an idiot, not a criminal” and “I’ve got this, no need to help me” because you cannot have it both ways.

  6. Rayne says:

    @JTMinIA: The following is Keith B. Alexander’s “resume,” excerpted from Wikipedia (which of course will be discredited as somehow less than accurate or truthful):

    Alexander’s assignments include the Deputy Chief of Staff (DCS, G-2), Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C. from 2003 to 2005; Commanding General of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, Virginia from 2001 to 2003; Director of Intelligence (J-2), United States Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida from 1998 to 2001; and Deputy Director for Intelligence (J-2) for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 1998. Alexander served in a variety of command assignments in Germany and the United States. These include tours as Commander of Border Field Office, 511th MI Battalion, 66th MI Group; 336th Army Security Agency Company, 525th MI Group; 204th MI Battalion; and 525th Military Intelligence Brigade.
    Additionally, Alexander held key staff assignments as Deputy Director and Operations Officer, Army Intelligence Master Plan, for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence; S-3 and Executive Officer, 522nd MI Battalion, 2nd Armored Division; G-2 for the 1st Armored Division both in Germany and during the Persian Gulf War, in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, in Saudi Arabia.
    As a one-star general, Alexander headed the Army Intelligence and Security Command, where in 2001 he was in charge of 10,700 spies and eavesdroppers worldwide. In the words of James Bamford who wrote his biography for Wired, “Alexander and the rest of the American intelligence community suffered a devastating defeat when they were surprised by the attacks on 9/11.” Alexander’s reaction was to order his intercept operators to begin to monitor the email and phone calls of American citizens who were unrelated to terrorist threats, including the personal calls of journalists.[1]
    In 2003, he was named deputy chief of staff for intelligence for the U.S. Army. Under his command were the units responsible for Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse in Baghdad, Iraq. Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Alexander called the abuse “totally reprehensible” and described the perpetrators as a “group of undisciplined MP soldiers”.[8] Mary Louise Kelly, who interviewed him later for NPR, said that because he was “outside the chain of command that oversaw interrogations in Iraq”, Alexander was able to survive with his “reputation intact”.[5]

    There’s no fucking way this guy — someone with this amount of experience — should know less than a lone, lowly, 26-year-old contract employee with admin privileges.

    That, or our entire military and intelligence community leadership are riddled with idiots because they promote morons to the top.

    What is it, people, a rogue contractor with omniscience, or systemic lying from the top down?

  7. qweryous says:

    @Rayne: What is it, people, a rogue contractor with omniscience, or systemic lying from the top down?

    Both? Because I doubt they want to admit that there could be more than one Snowden…

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