Jim Comey: For FBI, Section 215 Only Provides Agility

In yesterday’s Threat Hearing, James Clapper and John Brennan provided so much news early, I suspect many didn’t stick around to hear the question Angus King posed to Jim Comey. He asked about the significance of the phone dragnet.

SEN. KING: Director Comey, do you have views on the significance of 215? You understand this is not easy for this committee. The public is very skeptical and in order for us to continue to maintain it, we have to be convinced that it is in fact effective and not just something that the intelligence community thinks is something nice to have in their toolkit.

DIR. COMEY: Yeah, I totally understand people’s concerns and questions about them. They’re reasonable questions. I believe it’s a useful tool. For the FBI, its primary value is agility. That is, it allows us to do in minutes what would otherwise take us in hours. And I’ll explain what I mean by that. If a terrorist is identified in the United States or something blows up in the United States, we want to understand, OK, is there a network that we’re facing here?

And we take any telephone numbers connected to that terrorist, to that attack. And what I would do in the absence of 215 is use the legal process that we use every day, either grand jury subpoenas or national security letters, and by subpoenaing each of the telephone companies I would assemble a picture of whether there’s a network connected to that terrorist. That would take hours.

What this tool allows us to do is do that in minutes. Now, in most circumstances, the difference between hours and minutes isn’t going to be material except when it matters most. And so it’s a useful tool to me because of the agility it offers. [my emphasis]

Comey prefaced his entire answer by making it clear he was only addressing the way the FBI uses the dragnet. That suggests he was bracketing off his answer from possible other uses, notably by NSA.

If the FBI Director brackets off such an answer after 7 months of NSA pointing to FBI’s efforts to thwart plots, to suggest his Agency’s use may not be the most important use of the dragnet, can we stop talking about plots thwarted and get an explanation what role the dragnet really plays?

That said, it’s worth comparing Comey’s answer to what the PCLOB said about FBI’s use of the dragnet. Because in the 5 cases the government cited claiming the dragnet found particular leads (the exception is Basaaly Moalin, which PCLOB said might have been found via active investigations FBI already had going), FBI found the same leads via other means (and the implication for some of these is that FBI found those other leads first).

Operation WiFi: Those numbers simply mirrored information about telephone connections that the FBI developed independently using other authorities.


David Headley: Those numbers, however, only corroborated data about telephone calls that the FBI obtained independently through other authorities.


3 other cases: But in all three cases, that information simply mirrored or corroborated intelligence that the FBI obtained independently through other means.

That is, usually the dragnet isn’t even a matter of agility. It’s a matter of redundancy.

It seems Jim Comey, sharing the dais with several colleagues who’ve already torched their credibility, had no interest in pretending the dragnet is primarily about the investigations of his Agency.

Perhaps the rest of the us can dispense with that myth too now?

6 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    with respect to “hours vs minutes”, what comey refers to as “agility”,

    that seems a trivial gain in return for on-demand, blanket spying.

    more importantly for civil liberties, comey’s example, very sensibly, refers to a terrorist event that has already occurred – the damage has been done, people injured and killed, property and/or infrastructure damaged.

    what’s the point of allowing on-demand, 24/7 spying to gain a few hours in learning if it were a gang or an individual?

    since september 2001 the attacks that have actually occurred in the u.s., as distinguished from fbi stings, have been by individuals, not by “cells” or “gangs”.

  2. orionATL says:

    a second question raised in my mind by comey’s testimony, and alluded to at this weblog previously, is whether there is an fbi spying organization operating seperately from any nsa spying within the u.s.?

    would that mean parallel systems? parallel equipment? parallel taking of communications traffic (calls and e-mails) from any or all u.s. persons? parallel legal demands on the private communications carriers in the u.s.? or what would amount to the same, farming this task out to gchq in britain?

    parallel domestic spying? parallel storage? parallel secret rules?

    recently the fbi put out a proposal for a new hq in or near d.c. requiring a minimum of 50 acres. firing ranges and hostage squad training sites aside, would some of this acreage be devoted to the fbi’s domestic espionage?

  3. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    Comey: “… or something blows up in the United States”

    Contrary to all the claims of being able to predict and interrupt a plot, Comey lays out that AFTER something happens they can more quickly track the network involved.

    What, not able to predict and interrupt a plot, wow, so much for the whole we’ll ensure another 9/11 never occurs.

    NO prediction capability, as I’ve said repeatedly.

    Second, it is often many days or even weeks after an event occurs that anyone knows who did it, and then it is often ‘claimed’ by the terrorist cell responsible rather than discovered by any network analysis. So, claiming agility seems dubious and to me seems pretty pointless when balanced against the intrusion on civil liberties.

    NO prediction, NO agility! Sorry, what exactly is achieved by this surveillance?

  4. GKJames says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): I also was puzzled by the “something blows up” reference, given that dragnet value has always been about its purported predictive/preventive brilliance. (Apparently, “Bad guys will fly planes into buildings” wasn’t enough.) And, in my view, the standard that should be used is the opposite of what they’ve been doing: If circumstances demanded immediate government action, a failure to follow the law would be excused. Instead, we have a standard of not following the law because (a) we’re not being compelled to; and (b) doing so would be inconvenient. And the majority yawns….

  5. phred says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): In which case, the difference between minutes and hours matters not at all. The ticking time bomb scenario has always been a fictional device as it depends on omniscience (always available to a fiction writer, but never in real life). So obtaining the same information in hours using Constitutional means is entirely adequate for the task Comey describes.

  6. timbo says:

    This begs the question why we have to be safe >now< and not a minute from now. The whole thing is affective more than effective. And very dangerous in the long term if one wants what we used to think of as representative democracy to function in as open a way as is practical.

    Hiding how this systematic data collection thing works doesn't make it any more effective.

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