Federated Queries and EO 12333 FISC Workaround

Particularly given the evidence NSA started expanding its dragnet collection overseas as soon as the FISA Court discovered it had been breaking the law for years, I’ve been focusing closely on the relationship between the FISA Court-authorized dragnets (which NSA calls BR FISA — Business Records FISA — and PR/TT — Pen Register/Trap and Trace — after the authorities used to collect the data) and those authorized under Executive Order 12333.

This document — Module 4 of a training program storyboard that dates to late 2011 — provides some insight of how NSA trained its analysts to use international collections to be able to share data otherwise restricted by FISC.

The module lays out who has access to what data, then describes how analysts look up both the Reasonable Articulable Suspicion (RAS) determinations of identifiers they want to query on, as well as the BR and PR/TT credentials of those they might share query results with. It also describes how “EAR” prevents an analyst from querying BR or PR/TT data with any non-RAS approved identifier. So a chunk of the module shows how software checks should help to ensure the US-collected data is treated according to the controls imposed by FISC.

But the module also describes how a software interface (almost certainly MARINA, the metadata database) manages all the metadata collected from all over the world.

All of it, in one database.

So if you do what’s called a “federated” query with full BR and/or PR/TT credentials — meaning it searches on all collections the analyst has credentials for, with BR and PR/TT being the most restrictive — you may pull metadata collected via a range of different programs. Alternately, you can choose just to search some of the collections.

When launching analysts with [redacted] the appropriate BR or PR/TT credentials have the option to check a box if they wish to include BR or PR/TT metadata in their queries. If an analyst checks the “FISABR Mode” or “PENREGISTRY Mode” box when logging into [redacted] will perform a federated query. This means that in addition to either BR or PR/TT metadata, [redacted] will also query data collected under additional collection authorities, depending on the analyst’s credentials. Therefore, when performing a query of the BR or PR/TT metadata, analysts will potentially receive results from all of the above collection sources. Users of more recent versions of [redacted] do have the option, however, to “unfederate” the query, and pick and choose amongst the collection sources that they would like to query (10)

Back in 2009, when NSA was still working through disclosures of dragnet problems to FISC, analysts apparently had to guess where the data they were querying came from (which of course is an implicit admission that BR data had been improperly treated with weaker EO 12333 protections for years). But by 2011 they had worked it out so queries showed both what SIGAD (collection point) the metadata came from, as well as (using a classification mark) its highest classification.

It is possible to determine the collection source or sources of each result within the chain by examining the Producer Designator Digraph (PDDG)/SIGINT Activity Designator (SIGAD) and collection source(s) at the end of the line.

If at least one source of a result is BR or PR/TT metadata, the classification at the beginning of the line will contain the phrases FISABR or PR/TT, respectively. In addition, in the source information at the end of the line, the SIGAD [redacted] BR data can be recognized by SIGADs beginning with [redacted] For PR/TT, data collected after October 2010 is found [redacted] For a comprehensive listing of all the BR and PR/TT SIGADs as well as information on PR/TT data collected prior to November of 2009, contact your organization’s management or subject matter expert.

Since it is possible that one communication event will be collected under multiple collection authorities (and multiple collection sources), not all of the results will be unique to one collection authority (or collection source). Keep in mind that the classification at the beginning of each result only indicates the highest level classification of that result, and does not necessarily reflect whether a result was unique to one collection authority (or collection source). If a result was obtained under multiple authorities (or sources), you will see more [redacted] (15-16)

In other words, analysts will be able to see from their results where the results come from. If a query result includes data only from BR or PR/TT sources, then the analyst can’t share the result with anyone not cleared into those programs without jumping some hoops. But if a query result showed other means to come up with the same results from a BR or PR/TT search (that is, if EO 12333 data would return the same result), then the result would not be considered a BR- or PR/TT-unique result, meaning the result could be shared far more widely. (Note, this passage also provides more details about the timing of the Internet metadata shutdown, suggesting it may have lasted from November 2009 to October 2010.)

Sharing restrictions in the FISC Orders only apply to unique BR or PR/TT query results. If query results are derived from multiple sources and are not unique to BR and PR/TT alone, the rules governing the other collection authority would apply. (17)

After noting this, the training storyboard spends 5 pages describing the restrictions on dissemination or further data analysis of BR and PR/TT results, even summaries of those results.

Then it returns to the point that such restrictions only hold for BR- or PR/TT-unique results and encourages analysts to run queries under EO 12333 so as to be able to get a result that can be shared and further exploited.

 However, as we’ve discussed, not all BR or PR/TT results are unique. If a query result indicates it was derived from another collection source in addition to BR or PR/TT, the rules governing the other collection authority would apply to the handling an d sharing of that query result. For example, this result came from both BR and E.O. 12333 collection; therefore, because it is not unique to BR information, it would be ok to inform non- BR cleared individuals of the fact of this communication, as well as task, query, and report this information according to standard E.O. 12333 guidelines.

In summary, if a query result has multiple collection authorities, analysts should source and/or report the non-BR or PR/TT version of that query result according to the rules governing the other authority. But if it is unique to either the BR or PR/TT authority then it is a unique query result with all of the applicable BR and PR/TT restrictions placed on it. In both cases, however, analysts should not share the actual chain containing BR or PR/TT results with analysts who do not have the credentials to receive or view BR or PR/TT information. In such an instance, if it is necessary to share the chain, analysts should re-run the query in the non-BR or non-PR/TT areas of [redacted] and share that .cml. (22)

Let me be clear: none of this appears to be illegal (except insofar as it involves a recognition it is collecting US person data overseas, which may raise issues under a number of statutes). It’s just a kluge designed to use the US-based dragnet programs to pinpoint results, then use EO 12333 results to disseminate widely.

It does, obviously, raise big questions about whether the numbers reported to Congress on dragnet searches reflect the real number of searches and/or results, which will get more pressing if new information sharing laws get passed.

Mostly, though, it shows how NSA uses overseas collection to collect the same data on Americans without the restrictions on sharing it.

There are a lot of likely reasons to explain why the NSA stopped collecting Internet metadata in the US in 2011 (seemingly weeks after this version of the storyboard, though they would still be able to access the PR/TT metadata for 5 years Update 11/20/14: they destroyed the PRTT data in December 2011). But it is clear the overseas collection serves, in part, to get around FISC restrictions on dissemination and further analysis.

Updated: Added explanation for BR FISA and PR/TT abbreviations.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    @edge: Sorry: BR is “business record” and PR/TT is “pen register/trap and trace.” Both refer to the authority under PATRIOT Act used to collect the data.

    Usually I just refer to the programs as the phone and Internet dragnet (respectively), but since so much of what I quoted included those abbreviations, I used it this time.

    Thanks for asking.

  2. KellyCDenver says:

    That training module is really quite something, on a variety of levels. I’ll restrict myself for the moment to my main curiosity:

    I want to know how the “hop counter” works. Is it an algo that ALWAYS counts hops in EVERY database, even though a user might only select one database to query?

    Because what this training module is basically saying is “Look – run multiple queries until you can achieve the result you’re looking for in the EO module, ‘mkay?”

    And central to that would be the specific manner in which hops are counted.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @KellyCDenver: Not sure if you saw the convo I’ve been having w/ACLU’s Pat Toomey on twitter (who’s the one other person I know who’s been looking very closely at this). But he suggests that you could reset the counter by going through 12333. We don’t know of any limits there, right? So just find some interesting results in PR/TT, then go play in 12333 6 more layers deep. And then that gets put in the company store for other people to play with.

  4. KellyCDenver says:


    I think it’s the dissemination piece. According to this training module, as an analyst, you gotta use cml (secure file dissemination only among approved users) for the br/pr/tt (Henceforth known as BURPIT, heh.)

    But you don’t gotta use cml (share with more agency people more easily)for the EO12333s.

    I think this should be known as the “CML Toes” rule.

    “Don’t give us no camel toes, bitchez.”

  5. emptywheel says:

    @KellyCDenver: Is it possible ALL is .cml, tracking where ALL data came from, but they only care abt if it came from BuRPiT? I think that’s close to what they’ve described elsewhere.

  6. KellyCDenver says:


    You know I’d give my eye teeth to know that answer. Because what I think the results come in is XML; so you can see a parent/child relationship of markers in the “chain” they talk about.

    But that these results, when you want to show these chains, gotta be wrapped in cml when the are BURPIT. And the BURPIT list of who you get to share with is much smaller. And they go to great pains in the training module to say “Hey, nobody gets to change the BURPIT rules. Nobody. Except the answer is in that knowledge check piece of the module:

    11. (TS//SI//NF) Which one of the following NSA positions does not have the authority to approve the dissemination of BR- or PR/TT-derived unminimized U.S. person information?

    a) The SOOs in the NSOC
    b) The Director and Deputy Director of the Signals Intelligence Directorate
    c) The Director and Deputy Director of NSA
    d) The Office of General Counsel (OGC)
    e) The Chief and Deputy Chief of Information Sharing Services

    So I’m just guessing that cml wrap isn’t required in the EO12333 sharing and dissemination.

    I guess I’m saying I think BURPIT is uptight and cml wrapped; EO is EZ – from these agency analysts point of view.

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