In Which the I Con Uses Top Secret Spy Weapon, the “Conjunction,” Against Journalists


Man, it looks Mike Rogers and Keith Alexander conducted one hell of an InfoOp against the nation’s NatSec journalists today. Congratulations, spooks, you’ve finally managed successful propaganda.

Before I explain what I understand to have happened, let me be clear: I don’t claim to know what the slides and Q&A from Boundless Informant mean. It may well be that the truth lies between what a bunch of reporters are now reporting and what a series of papers around the world have reported. What I am focusing on here is what the I Con has said as compared to how it has been reported.

As I noted last week, James Clapper used a poor translation of a French article which clearly talked about collecting metadata, denied that the NSA was collecting call content, and based on that gimmick claimed Le Monde had made an error.

Then, in remarkable timing that has been replicated several times during this scandal, the WSJ reported just before the hearing on a topic that both Mike Rogers and Keith Alexander had rehearsed answers for during the hearing. I believe the original lede of the WSJ story (it has been updated) read the same as the current article does,

Millions of phone records at the center of a firestorm in Europe over spying by the National Security Agency were secretly supplied to the U.S. by European intelligence services—not collected by the NSA, upending a furor that cast a pall over trans-Atlantic relations

I don’t think the story ever said all the records were collected by Europeans, just that millions were. But in any case, I have zero doubt that WSJ’s secret sources told them something like this, that Europeans gave us data, which got reported in a way to suggest the Europeans collected all of it.

At the end of a long sequence in the hearing itself, in a comment not read from prepared statement, Alexander said this (all transcriptions here my own — please let me know of any errors):

Those screen shots that show–or at least, lead people to believe that we, NSA, or the United States, collected that information is false. And it’s false that it was collected on European citizens. It was neither.

And that statement, which did not accord with what Alexander had just said (including a long passage read from a prepared statement), resulted in headlines like this:

NSA Chief Says Phone Records Given to Agency by Cooperating European Intelligence Services, Not Intercepted by NSA

Or, from the WSJ’s update, making this conclusion:

In a congressional hearing Tuesday, the National Security Agency director, Gen. Keith Alexander, confirmed the broad outlines of the Journal report, saying that the specific documents released by Mr. Snowden didn’t represent data collected by the NSA or any other U.S. agency and didn’t include records from calls within those countries.

I think one of the reasons this InfoOp worked so well is that reporters had almost no time between the hearing and their filing deadline to review what actually got said (I tweeted immediately that Alexander’s statement actually didn’t confirm the WSJ’s early report, but am only now getting this all down).

So let’s look carefully at what Alexander really said (this starts at 41:14).

Rogers starts by asking Alexander to elaborate, specifically with regards to the US and NSA (he may be invoking the WSJ story, but he doesn’t say so). 

Rogers: And to that end, if I can, Mr. Alexander, there was some reporting that the story about French citizens being spied on by a particular slide that was leaked on a slide deck concluded that French citizens were being spied on. Can you expound on that a little bit? By the United States, by the way, specifically the National Security Agency.

Reading from a document of some sort, Alexander repeats the gimmick Clapper used last week, suggesting that the reports said the NSA had collected phone calls (content), then “corrects” their report to say Boundless Informant actually tracks metadata (which is actually what the reports had said).

Alexander: Chairman, the assertions by reporters in France, Le Monde, Spain, El Mundo, and Italy, L’Espresso, that NSA collected tens of millions of phone calls are completely false. They cite as evidence screen shots of the results of a web tool used for data management purposes but both they and the person who stole the classified data did not understand what they were looking at. The web tool counts metadata records from around the world and displays the totals in several different formats. [my emphasis]

Alexander then adds to last week’s gimmick of claiming the Europeans reported these as calls, not metadata, by denying we, alone, collected this data.

The sources of the metadata include data legally collected by NSA under its various authorities as well as data provided to NSA by foreign partners. To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens. It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.

This is not information “we” collected (on European citizens, but I’ll come back to that), it’s data “collected by NSA … as well as data provided … by foreign partners.” It’s data “we and our NATO allies have collected.”

Those conjunctions — “as well as” … “and” — which in Alexander’s written statement make it clear that both the Europeans and US collect this intelligence, disappeared from much of the reporting on this.

Alexander also introduced that this information was collected “in defense of our countries and in support of military operations,” another conjunction that disappeared from much of the reporting, resulting in reports that this was exclusively about military intelligence.

Now Rogers introduces something that Alexander hadn’t said (though the WSJ had). This data was collected external to the country in question.

Rogers: So if I understand you correctly this information was likely collected external to the country of which it may have been reported in defense of operations ongoing in the world in which NATO participates.

Alexander: That is correct.

This could include a great many things, including cable landings that aren’t “in” the country in question but collect off a cable exiting the country in question, which is certainly how we do a lot of collection on other countries. But it doesn’t address the Boundless Informant claim, which is that this information is collected “on” these countries.

Rogers also sort of restates this muddied defense idea from Alexander, “in defense of operations ongoing in the world in which NATO participates.” Some journalists assumed that all NATO operations take place in Afghanistan so these must obviously be Afghan operations. But of course NATO is headquartered — and defensive operations take place in — Europe.

Now Rogers goes through a series that seems utterly incompatible with the claim that this data was collected external to Europe (or at least the countries in question). He gets Alexander to confirm that US targets — Chinese intelligence, Russian intelligence, and Al Qaeda — use European telecom networks.

Rogers: Hmm. And so, let me just ask you this. If, as you study the networks of the world, let’s just talk about the European Union for a second if I may. Is it possible for Chinese intelligence services, military or otherwise, to use networks that you would find in any nation-states of the European Union?

Alexander: Absolutely, Chairman.

Rogers: How about Russian intelligence services? Is it possible that they could use networks–communication networks, computer networks–inside the European Union for what they’re up to?

Alexander: Absolutely, Chairman.

Rogers: How about al Qaeda? Would they use, could they use, is it possible for them to use the networks found in the European Union to conduct planning, operations, or execution of operations?

Alexander: They could, absolutely, Chairman. [my emphasis]

“In nation-states of the European Union … inside the European Union … networks found in the European Union.” Having just established that targets (which if they were Russian or Chinese assets or European citizen al Qaeda associates might in fact be European citizens) use European telecom networks, Rogers asks Alexander whether it’s the NSA’s job to collect this intelligence.

Rogers: And would it be in the purview of the National Security Agency to try to prevent those activities, especially if it went through the European Union, maybe even targeted at the United States, or targeted at one of our allies?

Here, Alexander gives away the game. He admits to sharing this intelligence, which Rogers has just laid out consists of US targets using European networks, with Europeans. US sharing intelligence on people using European networks with Europeans, not vice versa.

Alexander: It is Chairman, and it’s something that we share with our allies.

Again, Rogers makes it clear that Alexander — “you” — would collect this.

Rogers: So you would collect information in those cases and share it with our allies in a way that was appropriate, is that correct?

Now Alexander and Rogers carry out a ploy that will be transparent to anyone who has looked at a cable map, but which apparently got a lot of journalists wide-eyed about this great big giant world again.

Alexander: That’s correct, and it may not be actually collected in Europe. Because it’s a global network.

Rogers: But it could be in Europe, it could be somewhere else. It could be in the Middle East, it could be in Asia, it could be in the United States, by a FISA warrant collected by the FBI, is that correct? Hmm. And so you share information with our European allies and they share sometimes information they have with us?

Alexander: They do, Chairman.

We collect information, including intelligence on targets using networks in the European Union, and share it with European allies and sometimes they do the same with us.

By now, anyone who has covered counterterrorism for a few years should recognize what Rogers has just done, which mimics what a lot of our legal excuses for wiretapping the US do. He has laid out targets that — he has made clear — use networks in the EU, but he has defined them as non-European, as Chinese or Russian or al Qaeda, even though all three might well be European citizens.

Having done that, he now gets Alexander to agree that collecting on US Chinese or Russian or al Qaeda targets (who might be European) in Europe is not collecting on the citizens of the respected nation-states.

Rogers: So the very certain accusation that the National Security Agency was collecting information on these citizens of the respected nation-states, I just want to get on the record again, is false, that did not happen. Is that correct?

Alexander: That’s correct. Those screen shots that show–or at least, lead people to believe that we, NSA, or the United States, collected that information is false. And it’s false that it was collected on European citizens. It was neither.

Rogers: Well, it certainly has created an international row, what I would argue is very poor inaccurate report.

Having just heard Alexander admit we collect intelligence on people using European networks and share it with Europe, I’m not sure why people took this last comment, which was not read from his prepared statement, as more truthful than the one he earlier read off something in front of him or his responses to Rogers, but that is what happened.

A superb info op, I Cons! We Americans are finally getting propaganda worth the money we’re paying for it.

One more comment about this. Given the tactics surrounding this info op, I’m not surprised it worked as well as it did.

But there is a reason it shouldn’t have. The story being told about Boundless Informant would suggest Boundless Informant consists primarily of intelligence collected by particular close allies off their shores having to do with NATO military operations. But we’ve already seen Boundless Informant in regards to the US, Brazil, and India, countries in which that narrative wouldn’t make any sense.

Apparently, however, Rogers and Alexander managed such a superb series of shiny objects that no one remembered we’ve been hearing about Boundless Informant for months.

Update: One other detail to keep in mind about Alexander’s prevarications. “We” collect most of this, per undenied reports elsewhere, via Tempora, cables off the British coast, which GCHQ shares with us. Thus, saying “The US, NSA” doesn’t collect this may well be correct. But if GCHQ does, it’s in our pocket with no limits anyway. And, too, it would make it easy to say the “Europeans” collect this. You know? The ones that are members of Five Eyes.

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.

26 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    When sharing intelligence with your allies, “you should always say Thank You or at least say Please!”

  2. Snoopdido says:

    It’s like watching a county fair magician make the rabbit disappear. Does that make these reporting national security journalists “rubes”?

    Like you, I’ll give them a smidgen of cover for their deadline rush, but also like you I consumed the very same news pieces and wondered how it was that I saw and heard something very different than what their headlines and pieces describe.

    For the record, HPSCI Chair Rogers is far slicker than SSCI Chair Feinstein.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @Snoopdido: I’m immune. Because on the same plane trip where he helped me put my (very large and heavy carry on) into the overhead, he spent the rest of the flight reading a folder of “Articles on Islamists,” which convinced me early he’s just a puppet too.

  4. orionATL says:

    i would not congratulate them for lying effectively; they did not. only the busy, not very bright press are fooled, and only temporarily.

    nor would i worry too much about whether there might be some aspect i had not understood that would change the “correct” interpretation of events in the direction alexander/ford suggest. they are both trained, and i do mean “trained” liars.

    the trajectory of this mammoth spying folly which alexander birthed in iraq is clear – anything, everything, all the time, everywhere.

    that alexander would claim reports from other than his minions, e.g., greenwald, are false should be received with guffaws of derisive laughter.

    there really can be no doubt that collecting ALL was his objective, given what has been revealed so far.

    i have to say that this conjunction of congressional and presidential/doj support for behavior that is profoundly at odds with american political values, the american constitution, and american law (prior to 2002),

    is the most serious deliberate breech of the american political contract between its citizens and its government that i have witnessed in my lifetime.

    i simply cannot explain, other than by means of

    – authoritarian leaders or

    – blackmail of american political leaders

    the failure of these leaders – obama,feinstein, ford, and ruppersberger – to challenge the cancer that is the nsa (and the doj and the fbi) together with the grotesquely named “patriot” act is a dertogation of responsibility and a mystery awaiting history.

  5. orionATL says:

    so now can we finally agree that the nsa is, and has been, conducting a p.r. campaign –

    just like a tobacco company, or any sleezy politician, evangelical minister gone “astray”, or big time general caught with his hand in the, um, pie pan?

  6. VAGreen says:

    So let me get this straight. Gathering metadata on every phone call made in the US is perfectly good and legal. It is absolutely vital to our national security. And we spy on the leaders of allied countries. But any suggestion that we’re collecting phone metadata on citizens of allied countries is ridiculous. But also, we refuse to stop spying on allied countries:

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/rosiegray/administration-official-rebuts-feinstein-claim-that-white-ho

  7. bmaz says:

    @Snoopdido: I’m not giving WSJ and Gorman too much latitude. Her two pieces yesterday on “Obama didn’t know” and “Senate review” were fairly credulous and steno like too. She is on a roll.

  8. C says:

    This may be a tactical gain that yields a strategic loss. The goal of the NSA is clearly to have their power remain that includes the power to spy overseas. When confronted with Europeans angry at the USA for their actions the NSA chose to cast blame on the same European politicians and spy agencies that they depend upon to enable their dragnet.

    In the short term this allows him to deflect some of the anger over the actions and is a local PR gain.

    In the long-term it: (1) Puts european spooks in the crosshairs of their smaller, affluent, angry over the economy, and politically motivated populations; (2) It tells said European spooks that the NSA will hang them out to dry; (3) It also tells them and the European politicans who thought they were “partners” with the NSA that they are, in fact just dupes; and (4) It puts more pressure on folks like Hollande and Merkel to take real steps to shut this down or at least to show that they can make progress against it. Before they could say that we were naughty but that they couldn’t do a lot. Now the NSA has highlighted their own governments’ cooperation, cooperation that they do have power over.

    If you’re tired of being hung out to dry, hanging your other friends out to dry won’t help.

  9. orionATL says:

    dd you notice the whiney, “i’ll sacrifice myself for my country” air in patriot keith’s commentary? that’s p.r. talking.

    “keith frietchie”, a mawkish pom

    by j. greenleaf whittier

    “fire if you must

    this addled head,

    but spare your country’s security

    he said.

    personally, i’ll promise it can never be said,

    the nsa failed to spy on one who wasn’t dead. “

  10. thatvisionthing says:

    See, the shiny object I’ve been hoping would turn up again was the header seal on the right side of an “Exploiting TOR” slide a ways back in the erroneousingenuity/egotisticalgoat days. I took a screenshot because I was gaping. (Did I have a slide set from the Onion?) Seal said “Data Network Techologies * Nothing But Net * ” Who are those guys? Logo is net with pinpoint lit-up nation-states, or maybe those are just continents, well actually you could call it the globe.

    Sadly, I see no seals on Boundless Informant pages. Though this looks pretty funny: “The team uses Flawmill to accept user requests for additional functionality…” Flawmill. Who names these things? Who named Curveball? I think they’re telling us something. Tell all the truth but tell it slant.

  11. Bill Michtom says:

    @orionATL: “profoundly at odds with american political values, the american constitution, and american law (prior to 2002).”

    Completely in concert with US politics in the almost 60 years I’ve been following them.

  12. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    In listening to Alexander’s opening comments I was puzzled by his use of the term ‘selectors’. Around min 21:18 here: http://www.c-span.org/Events/Intel-Officials-Discuss-Proposed-Changes-to-NSA-Spying-Programs/10737442346/

    He talks about billions of records and then says out of all that they only used 288 selectors implying that there were only 288 records out of the billions collected that were actually queried.

    As I understand it, a selector is an item that can be used as a search string; it is an index or key. So, 288 selectors would indicate that the billions of records are indexed by 288 unique fields, a person’s name might be one selector, a location another selector, a phrase a 3rd selector and so on for every possible identifier that might uniquely identify an individual including height, weight, color, hair color, sex, father’s name, birth date, or an activity like talked-to, or an interest like munitions, etc, etc. And each of these selectors could have many many values, for example, talked-to could include a list of everyone I spoke with in the last month.

    A query would then likely make use of a number of these selectors, plugging in one or more values for each, and would then run against the billion+ record database to find matches.

    If this is the case then plugging in ‘SMITH’ into the name selector would return millions of records from this billion record haystack.

    In short, having 288 selectors in no way gives an indication of the volume of results that would be returned from the billions of records and so 288 selectors is not related in the fashion, to billions of records, that Alexander seems to be implying.

    I don’t know if he is lying or really does not understand the difference between a selector (index), a selector value (ex. SMITH) and records (the billions in the haystack) that might contain that selector value, or is hoping the committee doesn’t understand the difference and playing them for idiots.

    The likely answer is he’s a lying dolt who doesn’t understand and thinks the committee members are equally as stupid.

  13. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    There is another worrying statement in Alexander’s opening that I find indicative of a really sick mind. At the 23:30 mark when talking about mass casualties as says as Marcy noted, that none have happened since 9/11, he then goes on to say, “not by luck, they didn’t stop hating us, they didn’t say they are just going to forgive this, they continue to try”.

    Someone should ask him who he thinks “hates us” and why and also what exactly he is referring to when he says “forgive this”.

    As I said last week, this fellow is one very sick man. See here: http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/10/23/under-keith-alexanders-guard-america-can-be-plundered-like-a-colony/#comment-646539

  14. emptywheel says:

    @VAGreen: Right. And the scale of our metadata collection on other countries is miniscule compared to what Boundless Informant says we do in Europe. We collect 20 times what we do in a month every day here.

  15. emptywheel says:

    @greenbird: I actually think Russia might be telling the truth. There were some, um, rather well-prepared comments from the Brits on this, and it would be easy peasy to put a thumb drive into a Swag Bag unnoticed. Not saying the Brits did it, but they sure seemed to know/be prepared for it.

  16. Peterr says:

    Marcy is the master of Interjections like Hey!, Ouch!, Yeah!, Well! and Oh!

    From Alexander, Clapper, & Co, she draws cries of “Aw!” and “Rats” and “Eeek!” and “Darn!”

    From me, however, I can’t help but add “Hooray!” and “Wow!”

    Also Hallelujah!

    As Brad DeLong might say, why can’t we have a better press corps?

  17. GKJames says:

    The circus is in town.

    First, the denial: “this is not information that we collected on European citizens.”

    Then the non sequitur contradicting the denial: “It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”

    (And “a story about French citizens being spied on by a particular slide”???)

  18. C says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): I think they are using “selectors” as a stand-in for “targets”. As you say he is trying to imply that the “amount of surveillance” is small because they only search for a few things. This is in contrast with the rest of the world who see the amount as large because of the total volume collected.

  19. gsgs says:

    but it looks to me that Spain,France didn’t check this very well
    before they complained and should comment now.
    The longer this doesn’t happen, the longer I would tend
    to assume Alexander is correct, despite the unlucky wording.
    Why should he be incorrect, when he knows that this can be
    easily checked

  20. Bob Swern says:

    NEWSFLASH: General Alexander Almost Tells The Truth About U.S. Call Content Surveillance!!!

    And, we’ve known this since 2001-2004 (see below, also refer to Bill Binney, Russ Tice, Mark Klein, Ed Snowden, James Risen, Glenn Greenwald, etc., etc., etc….and even Tim Clemente [speaking with Erin Burnett at CNN in early May], Declan McCulagh reporting at CNET on June 14th-15th, 2013 [Cong. Nadler’s questioning of outgoing FBI Director Mueller] and Ellen Nakashima’s article in the WaPo, as recently as September 7th, 2013 or thereabouts).

    Meanwhile, there are somewhere between 1,500-2,000 NSA employees (I’m sure they’re reclassified as “contractors” for 4th Amendment/legal reasons) at Menwith Hill and Bude, etc…

    http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/154/25675.html

    How Britain and the US Keep Watch on the World
    By Phillip Knightley
    Independent (via Global Policy Forum)
    February 27, 2004

    From the National Security Agency’s imposing headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, ringed by a double-chain fence topped by barbed wire with strands of electrified wire between them, America “bugs” the world. Nothing politically or militarily significant, whether mentioned in a telephone call, in a conversation in the office of the secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, or in a company fax or e-mail, escapes its attention.

    Its computers – measured in acres occupied by them rather than simple figures – “vacuum the entire electromagnetic spectrum”, homing in on “key words” which may suggest something of interest to NSA customers is being conveyed. The NSA costs at least $3.5bn (£1.9bn) a year to run. It employs at least 20,000 officers (not counting the 100,000 servicemen and civilians around the world over whom it has control). Its shredders process 40 tons of paper a day.

    Its junior partner is Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the eavesdropping organisation for which Katharine Gun worked. Like NSA, GCHQ is a highly secret operation. Until 1983, when one of its officers, Geoffrey Prime, was charged with spying for the Russians, the Government had refused to reveal what GCHQ’s real role was, no doubt because its operations in peacetime were without a legal basis. Its security is maintained by massive and deliberately intimidating security. Newspapers have been discouraged from mentioning it; a book by a former GCHQ officer, Jock Kane, was seized by Special Branch police officers and a still photograph of its headquarters was banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, leaving a blank screen during a World in Action programme. As with NSA, the size of GCHQ’s staff at Cheltenham, about 6,500, gives no real indication of its strength. It has monitoring stations in Cyprus, West Germany, and Australia and smaller ones elsewhere. Much of its overseas work is done by service personnel. Its budget is thought to be more than £300m a year. A large part of this is funded by the United States in return for the right to run NSA listening stations in Britain – Chicksands, Bedfordshire; Edzell, Scotland; Mentworth Hill, Harrogate; Brawdy, Wales – and on British territory around the world.

    The collaboration between the two agencies offers many advantages to both. Not only does it make monitoring the globe easier, it solves tricky legal problems and is the basis of the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday that all Britain’s bugging is lawful. The two agencies simply swap each other’s dirty work. GCHQ eavesdrops on calls made by American citizens and the NSA monitors calls made by British citizens, thus allowing each government plausibly to deny it has tapped its own citizens’ calls, as they do. The NSA station at Menwith Hill intercepts all international telephone calls made from Britain and GCHQ has a list of American citizens whose phone conversations interest the NSA…

    Question: If a shitstorm hits the fan in the woods, will we hear it?

  21. gsgs says:

    selectors :
    I think it’s possible to anonymize/encrypt the data and then only
    the results of the selectors search are decrypted
    or extracted for subsequent search – but still encrypted

    it would make sense that USA and France merge their data for common
    search while the detailed records are still not available to the
    other site ?!

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