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 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. wayoutwest says:

    I think you may have missed what this Newspeak is actually addressing about Trump’s behavior. I’m sure these insiders couldn’t imagine a president who hadn’t been groomed and conditioned to lap up the BS they often produce and it is a shock to their control of reality.

    Notice the response, fed to the public by their media, when Trump rejected daily conditioning sessions and when Trump publicly rejected their poorly sourced propaganda about Russian involvement in our election.  Trump saw right through this BS and I suppose that these establishment intelligence managers would view this as unhinged while outside observers have described them as inhabitants of an open-air asylum.

  2. Peterr says:

    The folks a little deeper in the bureaucracy than Olsen are a bit nervous, especially those serving with the NSC right now. From The Guardian (internal links omitted):

    The White House is struggling to prevent a crippling exodus of foreign policy staffers eager to leave before the arrival of the Trump administration, according to current and former officials.

    The top level officials in the National Security Council (NSC) are political appointees who have to submit resignations and leave in a normal transition. The rest of the 400 NSC staff are career civil servants on secondment from other departments. An unusual number of these more junior officials are now looking to depart.

    Many are concerned by a proliferation of reports about the incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn. On Wednesday the Washington Post reported that Flynn had improperly shared classified information with foreign military officers. On the same day, CNN reported that the former Defense Intelligence Agency chief had this week deleted a tweet he had sent out a few days before the election that linked to a fake news story suggesting Hillary Clinton took part in crimes against children.

    “Career people are looking get out and go back to their agencies and pressure is being put on them to get them to stay. There is concern there will be a half-empty NSC by the time the new administration arrives, which no one wants,” said one official.

    Sounds like some of that bureaucracy is looking to find a safer place to hunker down for the next four years than the NSC.

    OTOH, outside help is coming for folks at the EPA and Department of Energy, to help federal scientists push back when the anti-science folks move in on January 20th:

    Climate scientists are predicting rough weather for their profession in 2017. US president-elect Donald Trump’s statements on climate change, his appointments to head environmental agencies, and the threatening actions of his transition team all have the nation’s weather professionals on alert and preparing for the worst.

    The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has established a hotline for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employees to report political meddling. There’s currently concern among NOAA scientists about who Trump’s pick to head the agency will be. “I am hearing a lot of worry,” union director Andrew Rosenberg told Bloomberg. “The worry is that they will be putting another ideologue in place.”

    Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Energy (DOE), former Texas governor Rick Perry, has denied climate change altogether, and the future head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt says the science isn’t certain. These choices signal storms ahead generally and for NOAA specifically. Trump himself has tweeted that climate change is a fiction created by the Chinese to harm US manufacturing, and more recently said “nobody really knows” if it’s real.

    There have always been turf wars in the federal bureaucracy, but what we’re seeing here are battles over the nature of reality. The climate scientists are probably way ahead of the folks at the NSA, because they’ve been fighting this battle for years. The only difference is that now they have to deal with climate change denialists from inside — and at the top — of the bureaucracy.

    But I suppose the NSA can’t just set up a big data dump to get their info into non-government servers, to protect against inconvenient data being disappeared by the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

  3. jerryy says:

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

    :) :) :) :)
     

    “Maybe these tools are too dangerous for an unhinged man to wield.”

    Hinged, unhinged? Who decides? The tools are too dangerous for anyone to use, hinged or unhinged.

  4. Karl Kolchak says:

    We’re a nation of laws?  Really?  Did anyone bother telling Obama that?

    For eight years our alleged Constitutional lawyer in the White House doubled down on the worst excesses of the Bush administration, including warrantless spying, extrajudicial assassinations, predator drone attacks on civilians and engaging in wars without even bothering to consult congress, and now his appointees are all freaked out about Trump?  Nobody forced Obama to do any of this–he obviously couldn’t be trusted with that power either.

    • John Casper says:

       

      Obama “doubled down on the worst excesses of the Bush administration, including warrantless spying, extrajudicial assassinations, predator drone attacks on civilians….”

      Yeah and like Bush he did it for the money. WWII ended in less than four-years, because elites couldn’t make money on it. GWOT will go on so long as they can.

      Obama was a lot better than Bush on voting rights and green issues.

      “…And engaging in wars without even bothering to consult congress,…”

      Congress and the Judicial branch both have responsibility for the unitary executive.

      When will they regain their institutional pride?

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mr. Olsen seems to be channeling Condi Rice: “No one could have imagined…” flying planes into American architectural icons – an event that was already a staple of highly popular techno fiction, such as Tom Clancy’s 1994 thriller, Debt of Honor, or that had been contemplated in previous government security fora since then.  It’s not the accuracy of the claim that seems to count in Washington (or corporate boardrooms), but the apparent sincerity with which it is repeated and repeated.

  6. martin says:

    quote”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.”unquote

     

    Ya mean like “Mr. We Kill People Based on Metadata”, Or “President Kill List Tuesday/We Tortured Some Folks… kind of unhinged?  sheeezushchrist.. if unhinged were weather, the Obama admin was a fucking 5.9 hurricane.  And so are these scum sucking Totalitarian wannabe’s in the NSA.  Now that Trump’s in control of the asylum, these people are just afraid the world will find out just how out of control the NSA really is in the first place. ..and just who opened Pandora’s box…like THEM. Cause they know.. they can’t put the monster back in the box now.

    It would appear to me though, Trump’s use of the NSA is the least of the worlds worries.  After all.. President Grab them by the Pussy now has visions of Nuclear codes dancing through that jello between his ears, notwithstanding a Cabinet straight out of Frankenstein Meets Hellraiser.   However, even Clive Barker  couldn’t make this shit up.

    • martin says:

      ps… this…

      “based on faith in the good intentions and honesty and competence of their colleague”

      The only intention these maggots had was creating a surveillance system so unaccountable even Congress couldn’t rein them in. Not to mention power that only God could challenge.  As for honesty.  BWAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA… HOHOHOHOHOHOHOHOHO…  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA..thats fucking rich.  These scumbags redefine the word liar.

      As for competent.  Please. Spare me. I’m sure the ghosts of those people who died in San Bernadino are rolling on the floor in gut splitting laughter.

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