Anonymous Pushback Emphasizes that Surveillance Leads to Informants

I’ve already suggested I suspect the government falsely claimed it didn’t have a a FISA warrant on CAIR’s Executive Director Nihad Awad in an attempt to gain an advantage in EFF’s suit challenging the phone dragnet.

The conflicting denials anonymous officials gave to ABC about the story — with one senior official implying the people the Intercept profiled actually were profiled, but other current and former officials claiming the Intercept may have misunderstood what they were looking at — don’t change that suspicion in the least.

A senior government official said without knowing the underlying probable cause presented to a federal judge from the FISA court in each case, Greenwald and The Intercept cannot know why the e-mails of the purported targets were collected.

As a result, the official said, Greenwald and Snowden cannot know whether the surveillance revealed evidence or intelligence in each case that was incriminating or exculpatory — or whether some targets later cooperated with the FBI. Several officials said it was “irresponsible” to name individuals as surveillance targets when no public court record exists. The identified targets could be guilty or innocent or even cooperating with the government, the officials said.

You don’t know if somebody was later approached to become an informant,” the senior official said. “To the extent any of these people were targets, [The Intercept report] is a serious compromise. And if they weren’t targets, they shouldn’t be named.”

The Intercept said many of the emails on the spreadsheet titled “FISA Recap,” which they said Snowden provided, “appear to belong to foreigners whom the government believes are linked to al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.” But the report says their three-month investigation showed that “in practice, the system for authorizing NSA surveillance affords the government wide latitude in spying on U.S. citizens.”

However, current and former U.S. officials told ABC News that Snowden or Greenwald may have misunderstood some of the NSA documents, which they reported are spreadsheets with 7,485 email addresses, including many among multiple accounts by individuals.

“You should not assume all of the names Glenn Greenwald has were targets of surveillance,” a senior official familiar with Snowden’s pilfered cache told ABC News last week.

A former senior official once closely involved in the FISA warrant process told ABC News that The Intercept’s reporters were repeatedly warned by him that they “were getting it wrong” in how they interpreted what the NSA spreadsheets from Snowden signified. The documents also were curiously absent of the markings secret files typically carry which denote its specific level of classification and distribution limitations.

“The documents indicated to me that they were not targets,” the former official said. [brackets original, emphasis mine]

Surely DOJ will point to any doubts about the document in an effort to prevent it from being used to obtain standing to sue.

I’m just as interested in the logic the anonymous senior official used to say these names shouldn’t be released: that the person might have been approached to be an informant!

Sure, I get why the FBI probably wouldn’t want its informants exposed (though more and more GWOT era informants have exposed themselves without being harmed).

But I’m particularly interested in how quickly this official talked about informants. As Ted Olson did, more obliquely, back in 2002.

NSA has offered hint after hint that its surveillance does serve to identify people to coerce into informing. I find it odd that this official, hiding behind the veil of anonymity, introduces it with such little self-awareness.

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.

9 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    “..I’m just as interested in the logic the anonymous senior official used to say these names shouldn’t be released: that the person might have been approached to be an informant!…”

    well, we know from nsa’s rapid, extensive response to the recent intercept article on who gets swept up in the dragnet, that this revelation is very frightening to the nsa/whitehouse legislative team trying to rush spying legitimization and extension bills thru congress before recess.

    a measure of their fear is that they are now using the previously off-record, hush!!!!! subject of using spying to blackmail targets into becoming informants for the americans.
    so:
    – i’m sorry, but we never talk about our methods of gaining useful information.
    – well, hardly ever. however, if our pet legislative projects are in danger, we will raise the issue of our informants in order to distract attention from the substance of the greenwald media article by claiming greenwald is ENDANGERING our informants (whom we endangered by forcing them to become informants – but no matter that.)

  2. greengiant says:

    Where is the dog that is not barking? The National Reconnaissance Agency and the NSA were both black and unacknowledged for how many years? So when and how many black agencies are there now in the intelligence community?
    Getting tired of the shell game? The FBI doesn’t do it, no the NSA doesn’t do it, the FBI doesn’t have it, no the NSA doesn’t have it, no the Secret Service doesn’t have it…, if the network mapping has not been seen by a human, then no one? has it, if the raw data is there but the mapping program has not been run, then there is no mapping? What the IC does off shore stays off shore?
    Set up a state-less subsidiary to hold the goods, and then no one has it?

    • P J Evans says:

      I suspect that anything that they do, hold, or store that’s illegal in one country will be done, held, or stored (possibly by partner agencies) in other countries. That way it’s always a shell game.

  3. liberalrob says:

    Snowden’s pilfered cache

    Oh please.

    A former senior official once closely involved in the FISA warrant process told ABC News that The Intercept’s reporters were repeatedly warned by him that they “were getting it wrong” in how they interpreted what the NSA spreadsheets from Snowden signified.

    OK, Mr. Former Senior Official, then how’s about you clear it up for us? {crickets}

    “The documents indicated to me that they were not targets,” the former official said.

    Oh, well, then it’s all good. Collect away, as long as they’re “not targets.”

  4. jerryy says:

    .
    Somewhat on topic but not as tangentially as it would seem at first glance. As it is spying of a type.
    .
    If you would like a taste of how data can be viewed in real time, I came across this site, no doubt it will be making some news in various places in the near future. It is built by a marketing company to promote a game about hacking. Your browser will need JavaScript turned on and you will probably need better than tablet level browsers.
    .
    http://wearedata.watchdogs.com/
    .
    I understand if this comment is yanked, but this is public data being used. Try it and think what more (not exactly public) data can add to the picture.
    .

  5. Les says:

    Or Greenwald is under threat of being sued if one or more on his list is not under surveillance. He’s fingered someone who’s likely to receive unwanted public scrutiny and suspicion.

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