Were DiFi’s Aides Who Claimed “Only a Small Number” of Back Door Searches Ignorant or Lying?

Yesterday, we learned:

  • NSA conducted unwarranted back door searches on 198 US persons’ content last year and 9,500 back door searches on US person metadata
  • CIA conducted around 1,900 unwarranted back door searches on US person content, and an uncounted number of back door searches on US person metadata
  • FBI conducted a substantial number of unwarranted back door searches on US person content and metadata — so much so it doesn’t count it

Back in November, when Dianne Feinstein was trying to codify these unwarranted back door searches explicitly into law, here’s what anonymous sources described as Senate Intelligence Committee aides told the WaPo:

They say that there have been only a “small number” of such queries each year. Such searches are useful, for instance, if a tip arises that a terrorist group is plotting to kill or kidnap an American, officials have said.

“Only a small number.”

Over 2,000 counted searches between the CIA and NSA. Uncounted, but substantial, number of searches by FBI. “Only a small number.”

Were these anonymous sources ignorant — relying on false information from the Agencies? The actual number of unwarranted back door searches doesn’t appear in the unredacted portions of the one Semiannual Section 702 Compliance report we’ve seen (see page 13); there doesn’t appear to be a redacted section where they would end up.

So have the Agencies (CIA and NSA in this case; FBI’s back door searches get audited in a different way) simply hidden from their Congressional overseers how frequently they were doing these searches?

Or were these aides trying, once again, to pass legislation permitting the nation’s spy agencies to conduct intrusive searches on Americans by lying?

One way or another, it’s a damn good thing Ron Wyden asked for and insisted on getting an answer to his question of how common these back door searches are (even if the FBI still refuses to count them). Because the key people who are supposed to oversee them are either ignorant or lying about them.

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.

11 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    I don’t know about DiFi’s aides, but I’m sure that she doesn’t want to know about it.

  2. What Constitution? says:

    Sure makes one feel comforted to know we’re probably “protected” by a “protocol” in these regards…. Uh, where might we find that protocol? And what was the vote on that? Under what provision of the Constitution is it authorized?

  3. qweryous says:

    Because the key people who are supposed to oversee them are either ignorant or lying about them.

    I personally have begun to suspect the possibility that the key people who are supposed to oversee them are BOTH ignorant and lying about them.

  4. LitThom says:

    I asked you this on Twitter, Marcy, but I wanted to put it here, too.

    “NSA conducted unwarranted back door searches on 198 US persons’ content last year”

    I’m missing something. Spencer Ackerman yesterday wrote this:

    ‘ The National Security Agency searched through its data troves of emails and other communications data for 198 “identifiers” of Americans’ information in 2013 alone, a practice civil libertarians denounce as a way to evade constitutional privacy protections. ‘

    That does not describe what you say here. That’s not the search “on 198 US persons’ content.” It’s a search of **the entire data trove** for those identifiers, isn’t it? Meaning if they have 50,000 comms in the trove, searching for the identifiers of 198 ppl – might get 10,000 hits. Meaning *many more* than 198 people get their content searched.

    Am I just completely misunderstanding this?

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