Why the AP’s Call Record Article Is So Stupid

Update, 12/8: After ignoring corrections on Saturday, letting their story be a key prop on the Sunday shows, having me write this post on Sunday, and then re-tweeting their story Monday morning, the AP has now fact checked the AP, effectively conceding I was right and they should have fixed their story before it became a propaganda tool. 

The AP engaged in willful propaganda yesterday, in what appears to be a planned cutout role for the Marco Rubio campaign. Rubio’s campaign immediately pointed to the article to make claims they know — or should, given that Rubio is on the Senate Intelligence Committee — to be false, relying on the AP article. That’s the A1 cutout method Dick Cheney used to make false claims about aluminum tubes to catastrophic effect back in 2002.

And because editor (and author of the article) Ted Bridis has ignored the multiple people pointing out the errors in the article, I’m going to take the effort to explain how stupid it is.

Here’s how it started:

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 2.17.54 PM

Notice how there’s no mention, in the headline or the lead, of the FBI? They’re the agency that will lead the investigation of the San Bernardino attack. That’s important because FBI has their own databases and the ability to obtain records from phone and Internet companies directly going forward (and already had, given reports from Facebook, before this article was written). The PCLOB report on the 215 phone dragnet showed that the FBI almost always accessed the information they otherwise might have gotten from the 215 dragnet via their own means. “[O]ur review suggests that the Section 215 program offers little unique value here, instead largely duplicating the FBI’s own information-gathering efforts.”

But the real problem with this utterly erroneous article is that it suggests the “US government” can’t get any records from NSA, which in turn suggests the only records of interest the NSA might have came from the Section 215 dragnet, which is of course nonsense. Not only does the NSA get far more records than what they got under Section 215 — that dragnet was, according to Richard Clarke, just a fraction of what NSA got, and according to NSA’s training, it was significantly redundant with EO 12333 collection on international calls to the US, which the NSA can collect with fewer limits as to format and share more freely with the FBI — but there are plenty of other places where the FBI can get records.

So the AP didn’t mention all the ways FBI gets records on its own, and it didn’t mention the larger NSA EO 12333 bulk collection that NSA can share more freely with FBI.

And Bridis, the author of this piece, knows it. Among the things he admitted in 140 character tweets to me was that the government also gets EO 12333 and FAA 702 information, and that his reference pertained to the Section 215 phone dragnet only.

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His article, mind you, was around 700 words long. But nowhere in that 700 word article did he make what he said in a 140-character tweet clear, that Section 215 was just one program among several from which NSA (to say nothing of FBI) gets records. From that, we can only assume the AP deliberately chose to mislead its readers.

And the AP continued to do so. In the 2nd paragraph, it again suggested all historical phone records in bulk were unavailable. It also failed to mention that query results from the old dragnet — meaning the call records of anyone the NSA has deemed interesting enough to query in the past, presumably including the “subjects” government sources say Syed Rizwan Farook had communicated with — will be available to the NSA and FBI going forward and probably would have already been shared (that was made clear by the FISC order Bridis cited in the article).  In the 3rd paragraph, AP suggested the only means to get phone records was under the new USA Freedom approach. In the 4th and 5th paragraph, AP chose to cite Jim Comey not providing details on an ongoing investigation rather than Comey’s testimony to Congress (or ODNI’s recent statement on the new program) that authorities will get more records under the new program.

It wasn’t until paragraph 7 before the AP finally got around to talking about what the AP claims the story was about: the coincidence of the shut down of the old program and the beginning of the new one. Before that point, of course, the propaganda had been done.

There are two other key misleading points in this ridiculous article. AP misstated how many years of records the FBI might be able to get, claiming it was just two, rather than 28 or more in the case of AT&T’s backbone, covering virtually the entire period during which the husband from the San Bernardino couple, Farook, presumably could speak. Even while doing so, Bridis made a remarkably ironic admission: that the 2 year period of phone records allegedly available covered the entire time Tashfeen Malik was in the US.

The period covered the entire time that the wife, Tashfeen Malik, lived in the United States, although her husband, Syed Farook, had been here much longer. She moved from Pakistan to the U.S. in July 2014 and married Farook the following month.

This means that to get records for the period when, it now appears, Malik embraced radical Islam, the NSA would have to rely on EO 12333 collection, because Section 215 only included records involving someone in the US. That is, at least as it pertains to Malik, all the records the AP wrote their story about would be useless.

There’s one other irony about this story. AP has been — both as an institution and through its NatSec beat reporter Ken Dilanian, who was credulously reporting the story even before he moved to AP — among the dead-enders for the misleading claim that the Section 215 dragnet only got 30% of the phone records in the US. So if the AP believes the AP’s still uncorrected reporting, it believes that the phone dragnet only captured 30% of the calls that might help explain the San Bernardino attack. As I noted, they chose not to mention the multiple official assertions that the new program will get more records than the NSA used to get. But if the AP believes the AP’s reporting, then the AP knows that from their past reporting. Given that fact, the AP’s story should be about how great it is that this attack happened after that old gap-ridden program got replaced by one that will pull a far more comprehensive picture of anyone 2 degrees away from Farook and Malik. But the AP didn’t mention that detail.

Why isn’t the AP willing to rely on the AP’s reporting?

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.

13 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    it was a long time ago, but wasn’t the ap one of the major news organizations loudly beating the drums for war with Iraq?

  2. jerry says:

    “But the real problem with this utterly erroneous article is that it suggests the “US government” can’t get any records from NSA…”
    .
    So whom does the NSA work for?

  3. Les says:

    “I don’t think it’s so much a failure to connect or share information this time. I think it’s a problem of having too much information,” Coleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent and legal counsel in Minneapolis who blew the whistle on intelligence failures in lead-up to the 9/11 attacks, said.

    Rowley is now a critic of the mass collection of Americans’ data in the name of combating terrorism, saying such intelligence is not intelligent.

    “How can adding hay — non-relevant info — to the haystack help you find the needle?” Rowley asked.

    http://kstp.com/news/stories/s3981500.shtml?cat=1

    • John VanCamp says:

      WES> “How can adding hay — non-relevant info — to the haystack help you find the needle?” Rowley asked.

      I would suggest that the “needle” is not what they are looking for. Each and every new event gives the Government exactly what it is always looking for–more power, more control, less freedom for the people.

      JVC

    • Mark Walker says:

      Why? Because, we can. It’s all technology for terminologies sake.
      More must be better right?
      “There’s always more. That’s why we call it more.” — The Dinosaurs, “Endangered Species”

  4. April says:

    All phone companies keep the meta data for all calls and with a warrant the FBI can get that data for the couple and everyone they called. It has been like that forever. The phone companies keep the data because they use it later to engineer capacity needed in the networks and to created various pricing plans.

    Yesterday on Meet the Press I heard April Ryan saying that if they use rotary phones then the calls can’t be “seen”. That’s pure horseshit. I tweeted that to Ms Ryan and she claimed the FBI and CIA had told her that. I told her she was talking to someone who is ignorant of how the phone network works. Analog calls have always been tapable and the meta data is collected just like any digital call. All analog calls are digitized at the neighborhood boxes sitting on the sidewalks and have been for decades. So I wonder why the FBI, CIA is misleading a White House reporter like Ms Ryan?

    • emptywheel says:

      They don’t even need a warrant to get the phone calls from the phone companies. Just an administrative subpoena. No judge involved, no probable cause.

      • bmaz says:

        Really no judge, no probable cause, all that needs to be done is fill in a couple of blanks on a form. Sometimes even that isn’t done, cops/prosecutors just ask and get.

    • P J Evans says:

      I haven’t seen a rotary phone in years. I wouldn’t know where to go to find one.
      Possibly Ms Ryan is thinking of some other country.

    • orionATL says:

      thanks.

      some years ago “i” requested call records as part of a civil suit. there was no hassle at all.

      i also got my own phone records simply on personal request to telco.

      the records were sparse but useful. as i recall, number calling, number called, and precise time of call. all calls, whether answered or not, were listed.

      i don’t know what the time limits for retention are now with population increase, but then i believe it was at least two years.

  5. RUKidding says:

    Thanks for this info, and I saw shout-outs to it in several blogs this morning. I heard this specious nonsense spouted out on National Propaganda Radio (which I had to keep turning off due the plethora of propaganda bullsh*t yesterday). I knew that Rubio was wrong wrong wrong – whether Rubio, himself, knew he was lying or is just a [email protected] is beyond my pay grade to figure out – when they reported this crap.
    *
    If nothing else, it *may* have been “reported” in order to deflect attention & criticism from the kazillion$ of US tax dollar$ spent on all the Alphabets & their various spy-on-citizens-to-keep-us-“safe” programs.
    *
    Really aggravating, but most citizens, esp the FoxCult members, will use this a take-away for: a) how Obama’s the terribulist worstest Muslim-supporter evah!!!111, and b) why we taxpayers must for MOAR spying on us. You can bank on that.

  6. Les says:

    They’re reporting that there was a $28,500 deposit to Syed Farook’s bank account and subsequent disbursements to the gun purchaser friend and the mother. They haven’t figured whether the deposit was the result of a loan application or something else. These systems just don’t work in real-time to prevent an attack.

    Meanwhile, Syed Farook’s reported income appears to have stabilized at $53,000. He was first reported to be making $70,000 and then that figure fell to as low as $49,000. $28,500 would be quite a loan on his income.

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