James “Too Cute By Half” Clapper’s Denial

James Clapper made a somewhat unprecedented denial of Le Monde’s report (French, English) about the NSA’s dragnet, denying the eye-popping numbers on the volume of French spying (70.3 million in a month) we do.

October 22, 2013

Recent articles published in the French newspaper Le Monde contain inaccurate and misleading information regarding U.S. foreign intelligence activities.  The allegation that the National Security Agency collected more than 70 million “recordings of French citizens’ telephone data” is false.

While we are not going to discuss the details of our activities, we have repeatedly made it clear that the United States gathers intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.  The U.S. collects intelligence to protect the nation, its interests, and its allies from, among other things, threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The United States values our longstanding friendship and alliance with France and we will continue to cooperate on security and intelligence matters going forward.

Now, for what it’s worth, this seems the product of somewhat bad translation of the English for the Le Monde article, which started as this,

Parmi les milliers de documents soustraits à la NSA par son ex-employé figure un graphique qui décrit l’ampleur des surveillances téléphoniques réalisées en France. On constate que sur une période de trente jours, du 10 décembre 2012 au 8 janvier 2013, 70,3 millions d’enregistrements de données téléphoniques des Français ont été effectués par la NSA.

And then a worse translation back into English, which produced this,

Amongst the thousands of documents extracted from the NSA by its ex-employee there is a graph which describes the extent of telephone monitoring and tapping (DNR – Dial Number Recognition) carried out in France. It can be seen that over a period of thirty days – from 10 December 2012 to 8 January 2013, 70,3 million recordings of French citizens’ telephone data were made by the NSA.

I’m not going to explain this perfectly, but effectively it took a verbal that could mean the tape recording or the data notation of calls and turned it into a gerund that has the connotation in English of a discrete tape recording (note also the really cloddish use of the passive in a situation where you wouldn’t use it in English).

And from that, Clapper pounced on the “recordings” and presented them — in a quotation taken out of context — as discrete phone calls recorded individually. NSA’s not doing that, he says.

But we knew that. What they’re doing is intercepting call data in bulk and then sorting through what they want to keep.

It’s worth noting that the comment on the Boundless Informant screen Le Monde gets this from, however, refers to a more accurate calls “interceptées.” None of that excuses Le Monde’s presentation of it as such, particularly not its weak English translation which Clapper exploited (which isn’t, however, the actual language that has given François Hollande an opportunity to pretend to be shocked, and his English-only gotcha would be useful in refuting this for actual French readers). But that’s one source of the gotcha.

Now, as I said, this is relatively unprecedented. In the recent “interview” with Keith Alexander, NSA issued non-denial denials about info sharing with Israel. But there have been few very specific denials like this one.

And why would there be? Should we now assume all the other facts that have come out, anywhere in the world, are true? That Clapper has gone out of his way to do so, it seems, suggests the IC doesn’t dispute any other facts, which is almost certainly not the case, but nevertheless a fair assumption given their attention to this discrete point.

The one exception to this general rule, though, suggests why Clapper may have used this bad translation to claim gotcha! It just so happens to pertain to the WSJ story on upstream Internet collection, which offers this description of how the collection works (note, this would differ from the upstream collection in France in communication type — phone versus Internet — and presumably the degree of filtering going on).

The systems operate like this: The NSA asks telecom companies to send it various streams of Internet traffic it believes most likely to contain foreign intelligence. This is the first cut of the data.

These requests don’t ask for all Internet traffic. Rather, they focus on certain areas of interest, according to a person familiar with the legal process. “It’s still a large amount of data, but not everything in the world,” this person says.

The second cut is done by NSA. It briefly copies the traffic and decides which communications to keep based on what it calls “strong selectors”—say, an email address, or a large block of computer addresses that correspond to an organization it is interested in. In making these decisions, the NSA can look at content of communications as well as information about who is sending the data.

The big takeaway from that article was that the initial run on this data at the telecoms have the ability to get 75% of the Internet content in the US, a number just as impressive as the 70.3 million calls in a month.

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.

To deny that claim, ODNI issued an even more misleading denial (and one that ultimately presented no complaint about the WSJ reporting).

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.

That is, as with Le Monde’s admittedly misleading bad translations, Clapper denied something other than what the article in chief claimed (though again, I do think Le Monde got legitimately gotchaed here).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is the recurrent efforts to use gimmicks to deny misrepresentations but not the underlying discussion that NSA is getting access to (whether an analyst touches it or not) unbelievable volumes of communications.

In other situations, both Clapper, very aggressively and dishonestly, and Dianne Feinstein, via misinformation, have tried to obscure how much volume NSA accesses with its backbone collection.

It’s becoming the one thing they try to deny, over and over, via whatever means no matter how dishonest. And yet thus far, this linguistic gotcha is the closest they’ve ever come to ever issuing a factually honest denial to the otherwise confirmed fact that they are collecting vast amount of data directly off telecom backbones.

15 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    you know what, though.

    at this point clapper is spitting in the wind.

    when you fool people and keep folling them, and then again,

    at some point – like now for example with nsa’s french data thefts – nobody in all of france is going to believe that it wasn’t 70 mill documents/calls/emails.

    clapper’s is a “gotcha” with no steel spring, no pointed teeth, no vice-like clamp, no chain, no cage.

    i can’t bring myself to feel sorry for clapper, the ic, the admin, or the prez. for +-12 years they played a game of hide-and-deceit and finally lost – bigtime – to a brilliant young gambler – edward snowden.

    so, bad translation or no,

    70 million frenchmen it was, and 70 million it will remain.

  2. Adam Colligan says:

    First, thanks for posting this: as soon as I saw the story come out on it, I thought it was weird to hear such a strong denial.

    On the para under the third block quote, I’m wondering what “a verbal” [verb?] is referencing: “enregistrements” or “données”.

    I think that you’re saying here that the NSA collected 70m+ of the noun objects called “enregistrements” (ehn-reh-zjhee-steh-mawnz, if I remember right. My French instruction was some years ago and not super high-level). My impression is that you are correct that that could translate as either record (English REH-curd) or recording, which in English connote two different things. Note that it’s clearly a cognate of the English word “to register” as well, and I believe that in the verb form it’s also used where we might choose between “register” and “enroll”, which are activities that are more indicative of metadata.

    The enregistrements were of “données”, which I think may be the gerund you were talking about. Now, this is the more interesting part, since “enregistrement” may be ambiguous. I think the usual noun for a phone call itself is an “appel”: literally a “call”, though you could also call it a “coup de téléphone”. And the act of making a call tends to be written with the verb “donner”, which is “to give”, or “passer”, (or maybe even “faire”, to make). “Il a donné un coup de téléphone”, then, should translate as “he made a phone call.”

    So, provided that it’s worth reading a lot into Le Monde’s construction, it may be significant that that what is being registered/recorded were “données” — that is, acts of placing a call — and not “appels”, which I would have read as being more suggestive that the actual audio content was being captured. This would lend credence to the theory that (1) Le Monde was claiming metadata was captured, and then (2) either deliberately or carelessly, Clapper translated that into a strawman claim that call audio was captured, then denied the strawman.

  3. liberalrob says:


    at some point – like now for example with nsa’s french data thefts – nobody in all of france is going to believe that it wasn’t 70 mill documents/calls/emails.

    Pretty sure we’ve reached and passed that point. As long as the program’s operations remain shrouded in complete secrecy, no one anywhere is going to believe anything they claim (of course excepting those who are willfully ignorant or have an agenda). This ship has sailed and sunk.

  4. Adam Colligan says:

    Also, it may well be worth going back to the mess that already exists about when the NSA will claim that something was “collected” or “intercepted”. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the NSA surveillance program in France had within its scope both metadata and actual audio for all those calls. That is to say: the system either routed the audio through NSA/GCHQ-controlled hardware or diverted a duplicate stream though such hardware in real time. There are lots of possibilities for how such a system could function; for example:

    – Call audio could be passed through real-time filters on the way to its destination, with key words or sounds tripping an alarm that starts a recording of the rest of the audio stream.

    – Call audio could be passed through real-time filters on the way to its destination, with the initial call metadata tripping an audio recording of the whole call if the caller or recipient is on a list.

    – Call audio could be diverted to a secondary location where it is buffered for a certain period and then deleted if none of the contents are requested by other automated filters or human resources based solely on interest generated by the metadata.

    – Call audio could be diverted and stored en masse and subjected to a number of different indexing and prodding procedures, then included as a potential source of search material when an analyst wanted to query a term and include a call audio database in the scope of the search.

    The key is that it is not at all clear to me even now which of those systems Clapper would say are “recording” or “making a recording” or “intercepting” or “collecting” audio content and which are not. So while I think the evidence supports that this is mostly a metadata claim, I don’t think even the “strong denial” is a real denial when it comes to audio.

    This is because the key distortion of the *English* language that Clapper holds onto is messing with the *verb* — claiming that lots of things aren’t acts of recording — rather than just the noun — the “data” or the “call” that is being filtered/intercepted/stored/whatever. Clapper may issue a strong denial on grounds as weak as the claim that the NSA didn’t “make” a recording if it simply copied a block of data that was buffered in the RAM of some machine in a French telecom’s switching room. I’m less familiar with the French verb “effectuer”, but if you look at this list of possible translations, it seems to provide even more wiggle room than Clapper thought he needed when he earlier claimed that the NSA wasn’t “collecting” tons of shit that it was diverting, storing, indexing, and making available for search query: http://translate.google.com/#auto/fr/effectuer .

  5. emptywheel says:

    @Adam Colligan: Oh, I was talking only about enregistrement to recording. Frankly, they’re both verbals, nouns formed by a verb. And I probably should have just focused on how record has that dual function in English.

    But yes, I think Le Monde was slightly less clear than it needed to be, but it seems like it got the story substantially correct (where I have more gripes, and I’m not sure if they’re valid or this is new collection or it’s talking about something else) is its description of HOW this happens in the following paragraph.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @Adam Colligan: Yes, all around. My suspicion is that most of this backbone collection is via buffer, though it may very in how well protected the location is. (You gotta wonder whether Hollande made Obama tell him where this collection site was, or just share it.)

    But otherwise, I agree, a lot of this is still Clapper’s old language games.

  7. Adam Colligan says:

    @emptywheel: Right; to boil down what I ended up thinking in that comment:

    The dual function of “record” in English is probably less important than the ambiguity of “donnée” in the French-to-English translation process. Whether you are (a) “recording” or (b) “making a record” of an object may be the less important thing to distinguish. The more important thing to distinguish may be whether that object itself is (1) “a call” or (2) “the act of placing a call.”

  8. Simon says:

    @Adam Colligan: enrigistrement means recording, and données means data. But the use of the word “effectué” is wrong in French itself, since the whole sentence, as in English means that the NSA actively recorded French telephonic data (so in fact the translation is not that bad, the french sentence is misleading in itself). The word “intercepté” (intercepted) would have been more accurate.

  9. orionATL says:

    with the release of data on nsa’s french data theft, the snowden leaks have now entered wikileaks territory. soon it will be time for the u.s. doj to file espionage charges against greenwald and poitras.


    because the great sin of manning/assange (charged as a crime because the sin wasn’t chargeable) was that they embarrassed american public officials and led to distrust of american officials, diplomatic efforts, and military aid.

    now we have had 5 months of snowden supplied public info embarrassing the u.s. in hong kong, china, brazil, south american diplomatic conferences, european diplomatic conferences, germany, mexico, and france (so far). (have i left any out?)

    soon we may be forced to watch another charade of american justice like that performed against manning; this time performed against greenwald and poitras.

  10. GKJames says:

    And the Commander in Chief for all this buffoonery? Nowhere to be found, suggesting (a) his underlings are doing what he wants; or (b) the national security apparatus controls the C-in-C, not the other way around.

  11. emptywheel says:

    @Simon: Thanks for that clarification. I know it’s funny into French, and funny into English. By my French is getting awfully rusty.

  12. bloodypitchfork says:

    Clapper- Oh, don’t mind us while we ruffle through your papers..we’re looking for fire making stuff.

    Citizen–but..but..your going through my “effects”!

    Clapper–ummm, effects what?

    Citizen–er..you are ruffling through my belongings.

    Clapper..Belongings? No, we are looking for fire making stuff. Your belongings just happen to be where we are looking.

    Citizen…Fire making stuff? You’re still stepping on my 4th Amendment rights.

    Clapper- No, we are protecting your 4th Amendment rights by looking for fire making stuff.

    Citizen-What is this so called fire you speak of?

    Clapper- It’s classified.

    Citizen- huh? A fire is classified?

    Clapper-Well, I’ve leaked enough. There is no fire.

    Citizen- Wait..wait..you’ve already ruffled through my papers looking for something that is classified. Ummm…I smell a rat.

    Clapper-Careful…rats are classified too. We might arrest you for haveing a rat and charge you with espionage.

    Citizen-Arrest? Charge me? But..but..YOU are the one breaking the law!

    Clapper-Law? We don break no stinkin law! Ask FISA. And Fienstein

    Citizen- But wait. I have rights.

    Clapper-Sure you do. That’s what we’re trying to protect.

    Citzen- ummm…looking through my effects for fire making stuff protects my right to keep you from looking through my effects???

    Clapper–Ahhh..NOW your getting it. Isn’t it marvelous how the Constitution works?

    Citizen- Hey…somethings not right about this..

    Clapper- Oh, really? Well, this is entirely legal. Now, please get out of the way so we can finish going through your belongings.

    Citizen-Well then. As long as it’s legal and you say so..by all means..be my guest.

    Clapper-Thank you. I knew you’d see it our way…sooner or later. By the way, you are under arrest.

    Citizen- UNDER ARREST????????? For what?

    Clapper-It’s classified.

    Citizen- CLASSIFIED? Arresting me???

    Clapper- I’m sorry. I guess you didn’t get the memo about the NDAA?


    Clapper- Please turn around and put your hands behind your back.

    Citizen…but…but..I’ve done nothing wrong.

    Clapper..Ahhhh.. now your getting it.

    Citizen..Getting what?

    Clapper- Rats are classified. You have no authorization to smell a classified rat.

    Citizen-Oh. Oh. ..I see now.

    Clapper- I thought you would. Now go along peacefully or we will charge you with using free speech without a license.

    Citizen.- ……….

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