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Matt Olsen Admits He Didn’t Bargain on a President Trump

Something predictable, but infuriating, happened at least week’s Cato conference on surveillance.

A bunch of spook lawyers did a panel, at which they considered the state of surveillance under Trump. Former White House Director of Privacy and Civil Liberties Tim Edgar asked whether adhering to basic norms, which he suggested would otherwise be an adequate on surveillance, works in a Trump Administration.

In response, former NSA General Counsel Matt Olsen provided an innocuous description of the things he had done to expand the dragnet.

I fought hard … in the last 10 [years] when I worked in national security, for increasing information sharing, breaking down barriers for sharing information, foreign-domestic, within domestic agencies, and for the modernization of FISA, so we could have a better approach to surveillance.

Then, Olsen admitted that he (who for three years after he left NSA headed up the National Counterterrorism Center managing a ton of analysts paid to imagine the unimaginable) did not imagine someone like Trump might come along.

As I fought for these changes, I did not bargain on a President Trump. That was beyond my ability to imagine as a leader of the country in thinking about how these policies would actually be implemented by the Chief Executive.

It was beyond his ability [breathe, Marcy, breathe] to imagine someone who might abuse power to come along!!!

What makes Olsen’s comment even more infuriating that I called out Olsen’s problematic efforts to “modernize” FISA and sustain the phone dragnet even in spite of abuse in September, in arguing that Hillary could not, in fact, be supporting a balanced approach on intelligence if she planned on hiring him, as seemed likely.

Olsen was the DOJ lawyer who oversaw the Yahoo challenge to PRISM in 2007 and 2008. He did two things of note. First, he withheld information from the FISC until forced to turn it over, not even offering up details about how the government had completely restructured PRISM during the course of Yahoo’s challenge, and underplaying details of how US person metadata is used to select foreign targets. He’s also the guy who threatened Yahoo with $250,000 a day fines for appealing the FISC decision.

Olsen was a key player in filings on the NSA violations in early 2009, presiding over what I believe to be grossly misleading claims about the intent and knowledge NSA had about the phone and Internet dragnets. Basically, working closely with Keith Alexander, he hid the fact that NSA had basically willfully treated FISA-collected data under the more lenient protection regime of EO 12333.

These comments were used, in this post by former NSA Compliance chief John DeLong and former NSA lawyer Susan Hennessey (the latter of whom was on this panel) to unbelievably dishonestly suggest that surveillance skeptics, embodied by me and EFF’s Nate Cardozo (who has been litigating some of these issues for years), took our understanding of NSA excesses from one footnote in a FISA Court opinion, rather than from years of reading underlying documents.

Readers are likely aware of the incident, which has become a persistent reference point for NSA’s most ardent critics. One such critic recently pointed to a FISC memorandum referencing the episode as evidence that “NSA lawyers routinely lie, even to the secret rubber stamp FISA court”; another cited it in claiming DOJ’s attorneys made “misleading claims about the intent and knowledge NSA had about the phone and Internet dragnets” and that “NSA had basically willfully treated FISA-collected data under the more lenient protection regime of EO 12333.”

These allegations are false. And by insisting that government officials routinely mislead and lie, these critics are missing one of the most important stories in the history of modern intelligence oversight.

Never mind that I actually hadn’t cited the footnote. Never mind that then FISA Judge Reggie Walton was the first to espouse my “false” view, even before seven more months of evidence came out providing further support for it.

The underlying point is that these two NSA people were so angry that I called out Matt Olsen for documented actions he had taken that they used it as a foil to make some pretty problematic claims about the oversight over NSA spying. But before they did so, they assured us of the integrity of the people involved (that is, Olsen and others).

It’s tempting to respond to these accusations by defending the integrity of the individuals involved. After all, we know from firsthand experience that our former colleagues—both within the NSA and across the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Department of Defense—serve the public with a high degree of integrity. But we think it is important to move beyond the focus on who is good and who is bad, and instead explore the history behind that footnote and the many lessons learned and incorporated into practice. After all, we are ultimately a “government of laws,” not of people.

 

 

We are a government of laws, not people, they said in October, before laying out oversight that (they don’t tell you, but I will once I finally get back to responding to this post) has already proven to be inadequate. I mean, I agree with their intent — that we need(ed) to build a bureaucracy that could withstand the craziest of Executives. But contrary to what they claim in their piece and the presumably best intent of DeLong, they didn’t do that.

They now seem to realize that.

In the wake of the Trump victory, a number of these people are now admitting that maybe their reassurances about the bureaucracy they contributed to — which were in reality based on faith in the good intentions and honesty and competence of their colleagues — were overstated. Maybe these tools are too dangerous for an unhinged man to wield.

And, it turns out, one of the people largely responsible for expanding the dragnet that its former defenders now worry might be dangerous for Donald Trump to control never even imagined that someone like Trump might come along.

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.

Adventures in Credulous NSA Journalism, Episode 2,524

The Hill sees fit to quote NSA’s Compliance Officer John DeLong boasting that the NSA put in (one of) the reforms Obama announced the day he announced it — which (DeLong claimed) was proof that NSA’s compliance system works.

Earlier this year, Obama directed the NSA to get court approval before it searched a database of Americans’ phone records and limited those searches to people two “hops” away from a suspect.

DeLong said on Thursday that the changes were put into effect the same day that the president announced them.

“It helped to have a compliance program — a compliance workforce — that was already in place,” he said. That way, the agency was not operating “from a cold start.”

As I noted in January when commentators first started hailing what the Administration billed as a great change, it was instead presidential codification of a policy that had been in place since 2011.

I’m seeing a lot of enthusiasm about President Obama’s promise to limit the NSA to 2 hops on its phone dragnet.

Effective immediately, we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three.

But it’s not that big of a limit.

As far back as 2011, the NSA had standardized on 2-hops, only permitting a 3rd with special approval. (See page 13.)

While the BR Order permits contact chaining for up to three hops, NSA has decided to limit contact chaining to only two hops away from the RAS-approved identifier without prior approval from your Division management to chain the third hop.

So in effect, Obama has replaced the NSA’s internal directive limiting the hops to 2 with his own directive (which can be pixie dusted with no notice) limiting the hops to 2.

What NSA’s ability to implement this change immediately shows is not the great performance of its compliance program, but rather the ability to do nothing while claiming a great victory over the status quo.

But don’t look for that to appear in most reporting on the NSA.

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.

Both These Things Cannot Be True

Last Friday, NSA’s Compliance Director John DeLong assured journalists the violations NSA reported in 2012 were “miniscule.” (I noted that the report showed some of the most sensitive violations primarily get found through audits and therefore their discovery depend in part on how many people are auditing.)

Today, as part of a story describing that NSA still doesn’t know what Edward Snowden took from NSA, MSNBC quotes a source saying NSA has stinky audit capabilities.

Another said that the NSA has a poor audit capability, which is frustrating efforts to complete a damage assessment.

(We’ve long known this about NSA’s financial auditing function, and there have long been signs they couldn’t audit data either, but apparently MSNBC’s source agree.)

For the past several months, various Intelligence officials have assured Congress and the public that it keeps US person data very carefully guarded, so only authorized people can access it.

Today, MSNBC reports NSA had (has?) poor data compartmentalization.

NSA had poor data compartmentalization, said the sources, allowing Snowden, who was a system administrator, to roam freely across wide areas.

Again, there have long been signs that non-analysts had untracked access to very sensitive data. Multiple sources agree — and possibly not just non-analysts.

While I’m really sympathetic for the people who are reportedly “overwhelmed” trying to figure out what Snowden took, we’re seeing precisely the same thing we saw with Bradley Manning: that it takes a giant black eye for intelligence agencies to even admit to gaping holes in their security and oversight.

And in NSA’s case, it proves most of their reassurances to be false.

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.

Lack of Due Diligence: The NSA’s “the Analyst Didn’t Give a Fuck” Violation

The NSA claims there have been no willful violations the law relating to the NSA databases. For example, NSA’s Director of Compliance John DeLong just said “NSA has a zero tolerance policy for willful misconduct. None of the incidents were willful.” House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers just said the documents show “no intentional or willful violations.”

Which is why I want to look more closely at the user error categories included in the May 3, 2012 audit.

The report doesn’t actually break down the root cause of errors across all violations. But it does for 3 different types of overlapping incident types (the 195 FISA authority incidents, the 115 database query ones, and the 772 S2 Directorate violations).

It says the root cause for FISA authority incidents breaks down this way:

  • 60 resource (31% of all FISA authority violations)
  • 39 lack of due diligence (20% of all FISA authority violations)
  • 21 human error (11% of all FISA authority violations)
  • 3 training (1.5% of all FISA authority violations)
  • 67 system limitations (34% of all FISA authority violations, mostly on the roamer problem)
  • 4 system engineering (2% of all FISA authority violations)
  • 1 system disruption (.5% of all FISA authority violations)

It says the root cause of all database query incidents breaks down this way:

  • 85 human error (74% of all database query incidents)
  • 13 lack of due diligence (11% of all database query incidents)
  • 9 training (8% of all database query incidents)
  • 7 resources (6% of all database query incidents)
  • 1 system disruption (~1% of all database query incidents)

And it breaks down the errors in its worst performing (in terms of violations) Deputy Directorate organization, S2, this way:

  • 71 human error (9% of all S2 violations)
  • 80 resources (10% of all S2 violations)
  • 68 lack of due diligence (9% of all S2 violations)
  • 2 resources
  • 9 training (1% of all S2 violations)
  • 541 system limitations (70% of all S2 violations)
  • 1 system engineering

What I’m interested in are the three main types of operator error: human error, resources, and lack of due diligence.

Human error is, from the descriptions, an honest mistake. It includes broad syntax errors, typographical errors, Boolean operator errors, misapplied query technique, incorrect option, unfamiliarity with tool, selector mistypes, incorrect realm, or improper queries. Let’s assume, improbably, that none of the violations listed as human error were anything but honest mistakes. These honest mistakes account for anywhere from 9% to 74% of the violations broken out by root cause.

Then there’s resource violations. Those are described as “inaccurate of insufficient research information and/or workload issues.” So partly, resource violations stem from someone having too much analysis to do. But given that “inaccurate or insufficient research information” always appears first, it seems that resource violations arise when an analyst targets someone based on a faulty understanding about this person. Given how prominent this problem is for FISA violations, I suspect it includes, in part, target location. It may also pertain to targets erroneously believed to have a tie to terror or Chinese military or Iranian nukes. These appear to mistakes based on the analyst not having enough or accurate information before she starts the collection. These may or may not be honest mistakes. The description of them as resource errors suggests they may in part by people taking research short cuts. Resource problems account for anywhere from 6% to 31% of the violations broken out by root cause.

But then there’s a third category: lack of due diligence. The report defines lack of due diligence as “a failure to follow standard operating procedures.” But some failure to follow standard operating procedure is accounted for in other categories, like training, the misapplied query techniques, and the apparent inadequate research violations. This category appears to be something different than the “honest mistake” errors categorized under human error. In fact, by the very exclusion of these violations from the “human error” category, NSA seems to be admitting these violations aren’t errors. These violations of standard operating procedures, it seems, are intentional. Not errors. Willful violations.

At the very least, this category seems to count the violations on behalf of analysts who just don’t give a fuck what he rules are, they’re going to ignore the rules.

This category, what consider the “Analyst didn’t give a fuck” category, accounts for 9% to 20% of all the violations broken out by root cause.

In aggregate, these violations may not amount to all that many given the thousands of queries run every year — they make up just 68 of the violations in S2, for example. Those 68 due diligence violations make up almost 8% of the violations in the quarter, not counting due diligence violations that may have happened in other Directorates.

John DeLong, who is in charge of compliance at NSA, says the Agency has zero tolerance for willful misconduct. But the NSA appears to have a good deal more tolerance for a lack of due diligence.

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.