“Everyday Americans” Are Increasingly Foreign Intelligence Now

Yesterday, the Guardian revealed that the NSA is storing online metadata (including browsing information) for up to a year.

The National Security Agency is storing the online metadata of millions of internet users for up to a year, regardless of whether or not they are persons of interest to the agency, top secret documents reveal.

[snip]

The guide goes on to explain Marina’s unique capability: “Of the more distinguishing features, Marina has the ability to look back on the last 365 days’ worth of [Digital Network Information] metadata seen by the Sigint collection system, regardless whether or not it was tasked for collection.” [Emphasis original.]

So in addition to our phone metadata, the government is keeping our browsing metadata in case it needs it.

Remember, over a fifth of the query violations recorded by the NSA in the first quarter of 2012 accessed this database.

As interesting as this disclosure is, I’m just as interested in the way NSA responded to Guardian’s request for a rationale for this practice and some sense of how much of it includes US person data.

The Guardian approached the NSA with four specific questions about the use of metadata, including a request for the rationale behind storing 365 days’ worth of untargeted data, and an estimate of the quantity of US citizens’ metadata stored in its repositories.

But the NSA did not address any of these questions in its response, providing instead a statement focusing on its foreign intelligence activities.

“NSA is a foreign intelligence agency,” the statement said. “NSA’s foreign intelligence activities are conducted pursuant to procedures approved by the US attorney general and the secretary of defense, and, where applicable, the foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court, to protect the privacy interests of Americans.

“These interests must be addressed in the collection, retention, and dissemination of any information. Moreover, all queries of lawfully collected data must be conducted for a foreign intelligence purpose.”

It continued: “We know there is a false perception out there that NSA listens to the phone calls and reads the email of everyday Americans, aiming to unlawfully monitor or profile US citizens. It’s just not the case.

“NSA’s activities are directed against foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements from US leaders in order to protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” [my emphasis]

This non-answer does three things.

  • As with Ron Wyden’s repeated requests for the number of Americans targeted through the back door loophole, the NSA refuses to quantify the scope of this collection
  • It names all the spying on US person data “foreign intelligence” as a means to legitimize it
  • It denies accessing the content of “everyday Americans” rather than denying it accesses the content of Americans, period

I’m beginning to realize why NSA keeps responding with that last bullet — we are not reading your content. More and more, it appears not to be a denial that they access US person content (once you get into Internet “metadata” you’re quickly getting into content in any case), but rather a denial that they access the US person content of “everyday Americans.” Which suggests they do access the content of certain Americans who, because their activities might fall under categories the NSA claims “US leaders” have deemed foreign intelligence, are no longer considered “everyday Americans.”

And once you get beyond the fearmongering excuse of terror terror terror, you realize this is not just Muslims and Arabs (not that that would make it right in any case).

We live in an increasingly globalized world in which “everyday Americans” have a wide range of entirely legitimate reasons to engage with people outside of this country. At the core of this dragnet, it appears, is the argument that such legitimate activities somehow exclude you from the designation of “everyday Americans.”

But it’s not going to disclose whether it considers you an “everyday American” exempt from all this domestic-as-foreign spying or not.

Update: Musical accompaniment suggested by billmon.

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.

6 replies
  1. William A. Hamilton says:

    If you are interested in investigating the slippery slope that led to the current surveillance of Americans, you may wish to investigate whether the NSA, which began its Follow the Money Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) surveillance of bank transactions in 1981 on order from the Reagan White House, dodged the legal requirement to minimize intercepts of the bank transactions of Americans before storing and/or disseminating them, by disseminating the bank transactions of Americans to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for storage in a Continuity of Government database system known as Main Core that FEMA had begun at the behest of the Reagan White House as a domestic spying database system. FEMA reportedly maintained the Main Core domestic spying database system under the Continuity of Government (COG) Program for hand-off to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the U.S. Army in the event of a national catastrophe and the imposition of martial law. The chances of forcing an end to NSA excesses may depend on first getting to the bottom of how the excesses began during the first year of the Reagan Administration.

  2. prostratedragon says:

    Sly&Family having to proclaim that they are everyday people could suggest that someone thinks (thought, still thinks) that they are not.

    Anyway, what did it mean that entire families in all different parts of the country once could sit down for Sunday evening with a rock & roll act on the tv?

  3. Betty says:

    As an American living outside the US, I guess this makes me and all my family and friends not “everyday Americans” as well. Sad.

  4. thatvisionthing says:

    I just left some comments in the Thanks for Keeping Us Independent post – fracking industry hires ex-military to run “counterinsurgency” psyops against local people (I call them “citizens”) (“everyday Americans”) who oppose fracking.

    http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/09/30/thanks-for-keeping-us-independent/#comment-635806

    http://web.archive.org/web/20111109205341/http://www.cnbc.com/id/45208498

    “Range employs dozens of veterans and active service men and women,” Pitzarella said. “One employee who works with municipal governments in Pennsylvania has a background in psychological operations in the Army. Since the majority of his work is spent in local hearings and developing local regulations for drilling, we’ve found that his service in the Middle East is a real asset.”

    Wait, active service men and women too? How does that constitutionally work?

  5. C says:

    @thatvisionthing:

    Wait, active service men and women too? How does that constitutionally work?

    It doesn’t. Under military regs anyone in uniform cannot have another job without the permission of their base commander. And that it only to be done in limited cases. If they are hiring or even consulting with active duty people then either those people are in serious trouble (dishonorable discharge or at least demotion) or their base commanders are up to something weird.

    Having said that I doubt he’s going to name names.

  6. C says:

    @Betty: Yes. It seems that the NSA still lives in a world where “normal people” don’t cross international borders or at least wants us to stick with a legal structure that believes that.

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