[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

Rick Ledgett’s Straw Malware

For some reason, over a month after NotPetya and almost two months after WannaCry, former Deputy DIRNSA Rick Ledgett has decided now’s the time to respond to them by inventing a straw man argument denying the need for vulnerabilities disclosure. In the same (opening) paragraph where he claims the malware attacks have revived calls for the government to release all vulnerabilities, he accuses his opponents of oversimplification.

The WannaCry and Petya malware, both of which are partially based on hacking tools allegedly developed by the National Security Agency, have revived calls for the U.S. government to release all vulnerabilities that it holds.  Proponents argue this will allow for the development of patches, which will in turn ensure networks are secure.  On the face of it, this argument might seem to make sense, but it is actually a gross oversimplification of the problem, would not have the desired effect, and would in fact be dangerous.

Yet it’s Ledgett who is oversimplifying. What most people engaging in the VEP debate — even before two worms based, in part, on tools stolen from NSA — have asked for is for some kind of sense and transparency on the process by which NSA reviews vulnerabilities for disclosure. Ledgett instead poses his opponents as absolutists, asking for everything to be disclosed.

Ledgett then spends part of his column claiming that WannaCry targeted XP.

Users agree to buy the software “as is” and most software companies will attempt to patch vulnerabilities as they are discovered, unless the software has been made obsolete by the company, as was the case with Windows XP that WannaCry exploited.

[snip]

Customers who buy software should expect to have to patch it and update it to new versions periodically.

Except multiple reports said that XP wasn’t the problem, Windows 7 was. Ledgett’s mistake is all the more curious given reports that EternalBlue was blue screening at NSA when — while he was still at the agency — it was primarily focused on XP. That is, Ledgett is one of the people who might have expected WannaCry to crash XP; that he doesn’t even when I do doesn’t say a lot for NSA’s oversight of its exploits.

Ledgett then goes on to claim that WannaCry was a failed ransomware attack, even though that’s not entirely clear.

At least he understands NotPetya better, noting that the NSA component of that worm was largely a shiny object.

In fact, the primary damage caused by Petya resulted from credential theft, not an exploit.

The most disturbing part of Ledgett’s column, however, is that it takes him a good eight (of nine total) paragraphs to get around to addressing what really has been the specific response to WannaCry and NotPetya, a response shared by people on both sides of the VEP debate: NSA needs to secure its shit.

Some have made the analogy that the alleged U.S. government loss of control of their software tools is tantamount to losing control of Tomahawk missile systems, with the systems in the hands of criminal groups threatening to use them.  While the analogy is vivid, it incorrectly places all the fault on the government.  A more accurate rendering would be a missile in which the software industry built the warhead (vulnerabilities in their products), their customers built the rocket motor (failing to upgrade and patch), and the ransomware is the guidance system.

We are almost a full year past the day ShadowBrokers first came on the scene, threatening to leak NSA’s tools. A recent CyberScoop article suggests that, while government investigators now have a profile they believe ShadowBrokers matches, they’re not even entirely sure whether they’re looking for a disgruntled former IC insider, a current employee, or a contractor.

The U.S. government’s counterintelligence investigation into the so-called Shadow Brokers group is currently focused on identifying a disgruntled, former U.S. intelligence community insider, multiple people familiar with the matter told CyberScoop.

[snip]

While investigators believe that a former insider is involved, the expansive probe also spans other possibilities, including the threat of a current intelligence community employee being connected to the mysterious group.

[snip]

It’s not clear if the former insider was once a contractor or in-house employee of the secretive agency. Two people familiar with the matter said the investigation “goes beyond” Harold Martin, the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who is currently facing charges for taking troves of classified material outside a secure environment.

At least some of Shadow Brokers’ tools were stolen after Edward Snowden walked out of NSA Hawaii with the crown jewels, at a time when Rick Ledgett, personally, was leading a leak investigation into NSA’s vulnerabilities. And yet, over three years after Snowden stole his documents, the Rick Ledgett-led NSA still had servers sitting unlocked in their racks, still hadn’t addressed its privileged user issues.

Rick Ledgett, the guy inventing straw man arguments about absolutist VEP demands is a guy who’d do the country far more good if he talked about what NSA can do to lock down its shit — and explained why that shit didn’t get locked down when Ledgett was working on those issues specifically.

But he barely mentions that part of the response to WannaCry and NotPetya.

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.

The Problems with Rosemary Collyer’s Shitty Upstream 702 Opinion

This post took a great deal of time, both in this go-around, and over the years to read all of these opinions carefully. Please consider donating to support this work. 

It often surprises people when I tell them this, but in general, I’ve got a much better opinion of the FISA Court than most other civil libertarians. I do so because I’ve actually read the opinions. And while there are some real stinkers in the bunch, I recognize that the court has long been a source of some control over the executive branch, at times even applying more stringent standards than criminal courts.

But Rosemary Collyer’s April 26, 2017 opinion approving new Section 702 certificates undermines all the trust and regard I have for the FISA Court. It embodies everything that can go wrong with the court — which is all the more inexcusable given efforts to improve the court’s transparency and process since the Snowden leaks. I don’t think she understood what she was ruling on. And when faced with evidence of years of abuse (and the government’s attempt to hide it), she did little to rein in or even ensure accountability for those abuses.

This post is divided into three sections:

  • My analysis of the aspects of the opinion that deal with the upstream surveillance
    • Describing upstream searches
    • Refusing to count the impact
    • Treating the problem as exclusively about MCTs, not SCTs
    • Defining key terms
    • Failing to appoint (much less consider) appointing an amicus
    • Approving back door upstream searches
    • Imposing no consequences
  • A description of all the documents I Con the Record released — and more importantly, the more important ones it did not release (if you’re in the mood for weeds, start there)
  • A timeline showing how NSA tried to hide these violations from FISC

Opinion

The Collyer opinion deals with a range of issues: an expansion of data sharing with the National Counterterrorism Center, the resolution of past abuses, and the rote approval of 702 certificates for form and content.

But the big news from the opinion is that the NSA discovered it had been violating the terms of upstream FISA collection set in 2011 (after violating the terms of upstream FISA set in 2007-2008, terms which were set after Stellar Wind violated FISA since 2002). After five months of trying and failing to find an adequate solution to fix the problem, NSA proposed and Collyer approved new rules for upstream collection. The collection conducted under FISA Section 702 is narrower than it had been because NSA can no longer do “about” searches (which are basically searching for some signature in the “content” of a communication). But it is broader — and still potentially problematic — because NSA now has permission to do the back door searches of upstream collected data that they had, in reality, been doing all along.

My analysis here will focus on the issue of upstream collection, because that is what matters going forward, though I will note problems with the opinion addressing other topics to the extent they support my larger point.

Describing upstream searches

Upstream collection under Section 702 is the collection of communications identified by packet sniffing for a selector at telecommunication switches. As an example, if the NSA wants to collect the communications of someone who doesn’t use Google or Yahoo, they will search for the email address as it passes across circuits the government has access to (overseas, under EO 12333) or that a US telecommunications company runs (domestically, under 702; note many of the data centers at which this occurs have recently changed hands). Stellar Wind — the illegal warrantless wiretap program done under Bush — was upstream surveillance. The period in 2007 when the government tried to replace Stellar Wind under traditional FISA was upstream surveillance. And the Protect America Act and FISA Amendments Act have always included upstream surveillance as part of the mix, even as they moved more (roughly 90% according to a 2011 estimate) of the collection to US-based providers.

The thing is, there’s no reason to believe NSA has ever fully explained how upstream surveillance works to the FISC, not even in this most recent go-around (and it’s now clear that they always lied about how they were using and processing a form of upstream collection to get Internet metadata from 2004 to 2011). Perhaps ironically, the most detailed discussions of the technology behind it likely occurred in 2004 and 2010 in advance of opinions authorizing collection of metadata, not content, but NSA was definitely not fully forthcoming in those discussions about how it processed upstream data.

In 2011, the NSA explained (for the first time), that it was not just collecting communications by searching for a selector in metadata, but it was also collecting communications that included a selector as content. One reason they might do this is to obtain forwarded emails involving a target, but there are clearly other reasons. As a result of looking for selectors as content, NSA got a lot of entirely domestic communications, both in what NSA called multiple communication transactions (“MCTs,” basically emails and other things sent in bundles) and in single communication transactions (SCTs) that NSA didn’t identify as domestic, perhaps because they used Tor or a VPN or were routed overseas for some other reason. The presiding judge in 2011, John Bates, ruled that the bundled stuff violated the Fourth Amendment and imposed new protections — including the requirement NSA segregate that data — for some of the MCTs. Bizarrely, he did not rule the domestic SCTs problematic, on the logic that those entirely domestic communications might have foreign intelligence value.

In the same order, John Bates for the first time let CIA and NSA do something FBI had already been doing: taking US person selectors (like an email address) and searching through already collected content to see what communications they were involved in (this was partly a response to the 2009 Nidal Hasan attack, which FBI didn’t prevent in part because they were never able to pull up all of Hasan’s communications with Anwar al-Awlaki at once). Following Ron Wyden’s lead, these searches on US person content are often called “back door searches” for the way they let the government read Americans’ communications without a warrant. Because of the newly disclosed risk that upstream collection could pick up domestic communications, however, when Bates approved back door searches in 2011, he explicitly prohibited the back door searching of data collected via upstream searches. He prohibited this for all of it — MCTs (many of which were segregated from general repositories) and SCTs (none of which were segregated).

As I’ve noted, as early as 2013, NSA knew it was conducting “many” back door searches of upstream data. The reasons why it was doing so were stupid: in part, because to avoid upstream searches analysts had to exclude upstream repositories from the search query (basically by writing “NOT upstream” in a Boolean query), which also required them realizing they were searching on a US person selector. For whatever reason, though, no one got alarmed by reports this was going on — not NSA’s overseers, not FISC (which reportedly got notices of these searches), and not Congress (which got notices of them in Semiannual reports, which is how I knew they were going on). So the problem continued; I noted that this was a persistent problem back in August, when NSA and DOJ were still hiding the extent of the problems from FISC.

It became clear the problem was far worse than known, however, when NSA started looking into how it dealt with 704 surveillance. Section 704 is the authority the NSA uses to spy on Americans who are overseas. It basically amounts to getting a FISC order to use EO 12333 spying on an American. An IG Report completed in January 2016 generally found 704 surveillance to be a clusterfuck; as part of that, though, the NSA discovered that there were a whole bunch of 704 backdoor searches that weren’t following the rules, in part because they were collecting US person communications for periods outside of the period when the FISC had authorized surveillance (for 705(b) communication, which is the spying on Americans who are simply traveling overseas, this might mean NSA used EO 12333 to collect on an American when they were in the US). Then NSA’s Compliance people (OCO) did some more checking and found still worse problems.

And then the government — the same government that boasted about properly disclosing this to FISC — tried to bury it, basically not even telling FISC about how bad the problem was until days before Collyer was set to approve new certificates in October 2016. Once they did disclose it, Judge Collyer gave NSA first one and then another extension for them to figure out what went wrong. After 5 months of figuring, they were still having problems nailing it down or even finding where the data and searches had occurred. So, finally, facing a choice of ending “about” collection (only under 702 — they can still accomplish the very same thing under EO 12333) or ending searches of upstream data, they chose the former option, which Collyer approved with almost no accountability for all the problems she saw in the process.

Refusing to count the impact

I believe that (at least given what has been made public) Collyer didn’t really understand the issue placed before her. One thing she does is just operate on assumptions about the impact of certain practices. For example, she uses the 2011 number for the volume of total 702 collection accomplished using upstream collection to claim that it is “a small percentage of NSA’s overall collection of Internet communications under Section 702.” That’s likely still true, but she provides no basis for the claim, and it’s possible changes in communication — such as the increased popularity of Twitter — would change the mix significantly.

Similarly, she assumes that MCTs that involve “a non-U.S. person outside the United States” will be “for that reason [] less likely to contain a large volume of information about U.S. person or domestic communications.” She makes a similar assumption (this time in her treatment of the new NCTC raw take) about 702 data being less intrusive than individual orders targeted at someone in the US, “which often involve targets who are United States persons and typically are directed at persons in the United States.” In both of these, she repeats an assumption John Bates made in 2011 when he first approved back door searches using the same logic — that it was okay to provide raw access to this data, collected without a warrant, because it wouldn’t be as impactful as the data collected with an individual order. And the assumption may be true in both cases. But in an age of increasingly global data flows, that remains unproven. Certainly, with ISIS recruiters located in Syria attempting to recruit Americans, that would not be true at all.

Collyer makes the same move when she makes a critical move in the opinion, when she asserts that “NSA’s elimination of ‘abouts’ collection should reduce the number of communications acquired under Section 702 to which a U.S. person or a person in the United States is a party.” Again, that’s probably true, but it is not clear she has investigated all the possible ways Americans will still be sucked up (which she acknowledges will happen).

And she does this even as NSA was providing her unreliable numbers.

The government later reported that it had inadvertently misstated the percentage of NSA’s overall upstream Internet collection during the relevant period that could have been affected by this [misidentification of MCTs] error (the government first reported the percentage as roughly 1.3% when it was roughly 3.7%.

Collyer’s reliance on assumptions rather than real numbers is all the more unforgivable given one of the changes she approved with this order: basically, permitting the the agencies to conduct otherwise impermissible searches to be able to count how many Americans get sucked up under 702.  In other words, she was told, at length, that Congress wants this number (the government’s application even cites the April 22, 2106 letter from members of the House Judiciary Committee asking for such a number). Moreover, she was told that NSA had already started trying to do such counts.

The government has since [that is, sometime between September 26 and April 26] orally notified the Court that, in order to respond to these requests and in reliance on this provision of its minimization procedures, NSA has made some otherwise-noncompliant queries of data acquired under Section 702 by means other than upstream Internet collection.

And yet she doesn’t then demand real numbers herself (again, in 2011, Bates got NSA to do at least a limited count of the impact of the upstream problems).

Treating the problem as exclusively about MCTs, not SCTs

But the bigger problem with Collyer’s discussion is that she treats all of the problem of upstream collection as being about MCTs, not SCTs. This is true in general — the term single communication transaction or SCT doesn’t appear at all in the opinion. But she also, at times, makes claims about MCTs that are more generally true for SCTs. For example, she cites one aspect of NSA’s minimization procedures that applies generally to all upstream collection, but describes it as only applying to MCTs.

A shorter retention period was also put into place, whereby an MCT of any type could not be retained longer than two years after the expiration of the certificate pursuant to which it was acquired, unless applicable criteria were met. And, of greatest relevance to the present discussion, those procedures categorically prohibited NSA analysts from using known U.S.-person identifiers to query the results of upstream Internet collection. (17-18)

Here’s the section of the minimization procedures that imposed the two year retention deadline, which is an entirely different section than that describing the special handling for MCTs.

Similarly, Collyer cites a passage from the 2015 Hogan opinion stating that upstream “is more likely than other forms of section 702 collection to contain information of or concerning United States person with no foreign intelligence value” (see page 17). But that passage cites to a passage of the 2011 Bates opinion that includes SCTs in its discussion, as in this sentence.

In addition to these MCTs, NSA likely acquires tens of thousands more wholly domestic communications every year, given that NSA’s upstream collection devices will acquire a wholly domestic “about” SCT if it is routed internationally. (33)

Collyer’s failure to address SCTs is problematic because — as I explain here — the bulk of the searches implicating US persons almost certainly searched SCTs, not MCTs. That’s true for two reasons. First, because (at least according to Bates’ 2011 guesstimate) NSA collects (or collected) far more entirely domestic communications via SCTs than via MCTs. Here’s how Bates made that calculation in 2011 (see footnote 32).

NSA ultimately did not provide the Court with an estimate of the number of wholly domestic “about” SCTs that may be acquired through its upstream collection. Instead, NSA has concluded that “the probability of encountering wholly domestic communications in transactions that feature only a single, discrete communication should be smaller — and certainly no greater — than potentially encountering wholly domestic communications within MCTs.” Sept. 13 Submission at 2.

The Court understands this to mean that the percentage of wholly domestic communications within the universe of SCTs acquired through NSA’s upstream collection should not exceed the percentage of MCTs within its statistical sample. Since NSA found 10 MCTs with wholly domestic communications within the 5,081 MCTs reviewed, the relevant percentage is .197% (10/5,081). Aug. 16 Submission at 5.

NSA’s manual review found that approximately 90% of the 50,440 transactions in the same were SCTs. Id. at 3. Ninety percent of the approximately 13.25 million total Internet transactions acquired by NSA through its upstream collection during the six-month period, works out to be approximately 11,925,000 transactions. Those 11,925,000 transactions would constitute the universe of SCTs acquired during the six-month period, and .197% of that universe would be approximately 23,000 wholly domestic SCTs. Thus, NSA may be acquiring as many as 46,000 wholly domestic “about” SCTs each year, in addition to the 2,000-10,000 MCTs referenced above.

Assuming some of this happens because people use VPNs or Tor, then the amount of entirely domestic communications collected via upstream would presumably have increased significantly in the interim period. Indeed, the redaction in this passage likely hides a reference to technologies that obscure location.

If so, it would seem to acknowledge NSA collects entirely domestic communications using upstream that obscure their location.

The other reason the problem is likely worse with SCTs is because — as I noted above — no SCTs were segregated from NSA’s general repositories, whereas some MCTs were supposed to be (and in any case, in 2011 the SCTs constituted by far the bulk of upstream collection).

Now, Collyer’s failure to deal with SCTs may or may not matter for her ultimate analysis that upstream collection without “about” collection solves the problem. Collyer limits the collection of abouts by limiting upstream collection to communications where “the active user is the target of acquisition.” She describes “active user” as “the user of a communication service to or from whom the MCT is in transit when it is acquired (e.g., the user of an e-mail account [half line redacted].” If upstream signatures are limited to emails and texts, that would seem to fix the problem. But upstream wouldn’t necessarily be limited to emails and texts — upstream collection would be particularly valuable for searching on other kinds of selectors, such as an encryption key, and there may be more than one person who would use those other kinds of selectors. And when Collyer says, “NSA may target for acquisition a particular ‘selector,’ which is typically a facility such as a telephone number or e-mail address,” I worry she’s unaware or simply not ensuring that NSA won’t use upstream to search for non-typical signatures that might function as abouts even if they’re not “content.” The problem is treating this as a content/metadata distinction, when “metadata” (however far down in the packet you go) could include stuff that functions like an about selector.

Defining key terms terms

Collyer did define “active user,” however inadequately. But there are a number of other terms that go undefined in this opinion. By far the funniest is when Collyer notes that the government’s March 30 submission promises to sequester upstream data that is stored in “institutionally managed repositories.” In a footnote, she notes they don’t define the term. Then she pretty much drops the issue. This comes in an opinion that shows FBI data has been wandering around in repositories it didn’t belong and indicating that NSA can’t identify where all its 704 data is. Yet she’s told there is some other kind of repository and she doesn’t make a point to figure out what the hell that means.

Later, in a discussion of other violations, Collyer introduces the term “data object,” which she always uses in quotation marks, without explaining what that is.

Failing to appoint (or even consider) amicus

In any case, this opinion makes clear that what should have happened, years ago, is a careful discussion of how packet sniffing works, and where a packet collected by a backbone provider stops being metadata and starts being content, and all the kinds of data NSA might want to and does collect via domestic packet sniffing. (They collect far more under EO 12333.) As mentioned, some of that discussion may have taken place in advance of the 2004 and 2010 opinions approving upstream collection of Internet metadata (though, again, I’m now convinced NSA was always lying about what it would take to process that data). But there’s no evidence the discussion has ever happened when discussing the collection of upstream content. As a result, judges are still using made up terms like MCTs, rather than adopting terms that have real technical meaning.

For that reason, it’s particularly troubling Collyer didn’t use — didn’t even consider using, according to the available documentation — an amicus. As Collyer herself notes, upstream surveillance “has represented more than its share of the challenges in implementing Section 702” (and, I’d add, Internet metadata collection).

At a minimum, when NSA was pitching fixes to this, she should have stopped and said, “this sounds like a significant decision” and brought in amicus Amy Jeffress or Marc Zwillinger to help her think through whether this solution really fixes the problem. Even better, she should have brought in a technical expert who, at a minimum, could have explained to her that SCTs pose as big a problem as MCTs; Steve Bellovin — one of the authors of this paper that explores the content versus metadata issue in depth — was already cleared to serve as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board’s technical expert, so presumably could easily have been brought into consult here.

That didn’t happen. And while the decision whether or not to appoint an amicus is at the court’s discretion, Collyer is obligated to explain why she didn’t choose to appoint one for anything that presents a significant interpretation of the law.

A court established under subsection (a) or (b), consistent with the requirement of subsection (c) and any other statutory requirement that the court act expeditiously or within a stated time–

(A) shall appoint an individual who has been designated under paragraph (1) to serve as amicus curiae to assist such court in the consideration of any application for an order or review that, in the opinion of the court, presents a novel or significant interpretation of the law, unless the court issues a finding that such appointment is not appropriate;

For what it’s worth, my guess is that Collyer didn’t want to extend the 2015 certificates (as it was, she didn’t extend them as long as NSA had asked in January), so figured there wasn’t time. There are other aspects of this opinion that make it seem like she just gave up at the end. But that still doesn’t excuse her from explaining why she didn’t appoint one.

Instead, she wrote a shitty opinion that doesn’t appear to fully understand the issue and that defers, once again, the issue of what counts as content in a packet.

Approving back door upstream searches

Collyer’s failure to appoint an amicus is most problematic when it comes to her decision to reverse John Bates’ restriction on doing back door searches on upstream data.

To restate what I suggested above, by all appearances, NSA largely blew off the Bates’ restriction. Indeed, Collyer notes in passing that, “In practice, however, no analysts received the requisite training to work with the segregated MCTs.” Given the persistent problems with back door searches on upstream data, it’s hard to believe NSA took that restriction seriously at all (particularly since it refused to consider a technical fix to the requirement to exclude upstream from searches). So Collyer’s approval of back door searches of upstream data is, for all intents and purposes, the sanctioning of behavior that NSA refused to stop, even when told to.

And the way in which she sanctions it is very problematic.

First, in spite of her judgment that ending about searches would fix the problems in (as she described it) MCT collection, she nevertheless laid out a scenario (see page 27) where an MCT would acquire an entirely domestic communication.

Having laid out that there will still be some entirely domestic comms in the collection, Collyer then goes on to say this:

The Court agrees that the removal of “abouts” communications eliminates the types of communications presenting the Court the greatest level of constitutional and statutory concern. As discussed above, the October 3, 2011 Memorandum Opinion (finding the then-proposed NSA Minimization Procedures deficient in their handling of some types of MCTs) noted that MCTs in which the target was the active user, and therefore a party to all of the discrete communications within the MCT, did not present the same statutory and constitutional concerns as other MCTs. The Court is therefore satisfied that queries using U.S.-person identifiers may now be permitted to run against information obtained by the above-described, more limited form of upstream Internet collection, subject to the same restrictions as apply to querying other forms of Section

This is absurd! She has just laid out that there will be some exclusively domestic comms in the collection. Not as much as there was before NSA stopped collecting abouts, but it’ll still be there. So she’s basically permitting domestic communications to be back door searched, which, if they’re found (as she notes), might be kept based on some claim of foreign intelligence value.

And this is where her misunderstanding of the MCT/SCT distinction is her undoing. Bates prohibited back door searching of all upstream data, both that supposedly segregated because it was most likely to have unrelated domestic communications in it, and that not segregated because even the domestic communications would have intelligence value. Bates’ specific concerns about MCTs are irrelevant to his analysis about back door searches, but that’s precisely what Collyer cites to justify her own decision.

She then applies the 2015 opinion, with its input from amicus Amy Jeffress stating that NSA back door searches that excluded upstream collection were constitutional, to claim that back door searches that include upstream collection would meet Fourth Amendment standards.

The revised procedures subject NSA’s use of U.S. person identifiers to query the results of its newly-limited upstream Internet collection to the same limitations and requirements that apply to its use of such identifiers to query information acquired by other forms of Section 702 collection. See NSA Minimization Procedures § 3(b)(5). For that reason, the analysis in the November 6, 2015 Opinion remains valid regarding why NSA’s procedures comport with Fourth Amendment standards of reasonableness with regard to such U.S. person queries, even as applied to queries of upstream Internet collection. (63)

As with her invocation of Bates’ 2011 opinion, she applies analysis that may not fully apply to the question — because it’s not actually clear that the active user restriction really equates newly limited upstream collection to PRISM collection — before her as if it does.

Imposing no consequences

The other area where Collyer’s opinion fails to meet the standards of prior ones is in resolution of the problem. In 2009, when Reggie Walton was dealing with first phone and then Internet dragnet problems, he required the NSA to do complete end-to-end reviews of the programs. In the case of the Internet dragnet, the report was ridiculous (because it failed to identify that the entire program had always been violating category restrictions). He demanded IG reports, which seems to be what led the NSA to finally admit the Internet dragnet program was broken. He shut down production twice, first of foreign call records, from July to September 2009, then of the entire Internet dragnet sometime in fall 2009. Significantly, he required the NSA to track down and withdraw all the reports based on violative production.

In 2010 and 2011, dealing with the Internet dragnet and upstream problems, John Bates similarly required written details (and, as noted, actual volume of the upstream problem). Then, when the NSA wanted to retain the fruits of its violative collection, Bates threatened to find NSA in violation of 50 USC 1809(a) — basically, threatened to declare them to be conducting illegal wiretapping — to make them actually fix their prior violations. Ultimately, NSA destroyed (or said they destroyed) their violative collection and the fruits of it.

Even Thomas Hogan threatened NSA with 50 USC 1809(a) to make them clean up willful flouting of FISC orders.

Not Collyer. She went from issuing stern complaints (John Bates was admittedly also good at this) back in October…

At the October 26, 2016 hearing, the Court ascribed the government’s failure to disclose those IG and OCO reviews at the October 4, 2016 hearing to an institutional “lack of candor” on NSA’s part and emphasized that “this is a very serious Fourth Amendment issue.”

… to basically reauthorizing 702 before using the reauthorization process as leverage over NSA.

Of course, NSA still needs to take all reasonable and necessary steps to investigate and close out the compliance incidents described in the October 26, 2016 Notice and subsequent submissions relating to the improper use of U.S.-person identifiers to query terms in NSA upstream data. The Court is approving on a going-foward basis, subject to the above-mentioned requirements, use of U.S.-person identifiers to query the results of a narrower form of Internet upstream collection. That approval, and the reasoning that supports it, by no means suggest that the Court approves or excuses violations that occurred under the prior procedures.

That is particularly troubling given that there is no indication, even six months after NSA first (belatedly) disclosed the back door search problems to FISC, that it had finally gotten ahold of the problem.

As Collyer noted, weeks before it submitted its new application, NSA still didn’t know where all the upstream data lived. “On March 17, 2017, the government reported that NSA was still attempting to identify all systems that store upstream data and all tools used to query such data.” She revealed that  some of the queries of US persons do not interact with “NSA’s query audit system,” meaning they may have escaped notice forever (I’ve had former NSA people tell me even they don’t believe this claim, as seemingly nothing should be this far beyond auditability). Which is presumably why, “The government still had not ascertained the full range of systems that might have been used to conduct improper U.S.-person queries.” There’s the data that might be in repositories that weren’t run by NSA, alluded to above. There’s the fact that on April 7, even after NSA submitted its new plan, it was discovering that someone had mislabeled upstream data as PRISM, allowing it to be queried.

Here’s the thing. There seems to be no way to have that bad an idea of where the data is and what functions access the data and to be able to claim — as Mike Rogers, Dan Coats, and Jeff Sessions apparently did in the certificates submitted in March that didn’t get publicly released — to be able to fulfill the promises they made FISC. How can the NSA promise to destroy upstream data at an accelerated pace if it admits it doesn’t know where it is? How can NSA promise to implement new limits on upstream collection if that data doesn’t get audited?

And Collyer excuses John Bates’ past decision (and, by association, her continued reliance on his logic to approve back door searches) by saying the decision wasn’t so much the problem, but the implementation of it was.

When the Court approved the prior, broader form of upstream collection in 2011, it did so partly in reliance on the government’s assertion that, due to some communications of foreign intelligence interest could only be acquired by such means. $ee October 3, 2011 Memorandum Opinion at 31 & n. 27, 43, 57-58. This Opinion and Order does not question the propriety of acquiring “abouts” communications and MCTs as approved by the Court since 2011, subject to the rigorous safeguards imposed on such acquisitions. The concerns raised in the current matters stem from NSA’s failure to adhere fully to those safeguards.

If problems arise because NSA has failed, over 6 years, to adhere to safeguards imposed because NSA hadn’t adhered to the rules for the 3 years before that, which came after NSA had just blown off the law itself for the 6 years before that, what basis is there to believe they’ll adhere to the safeguards she herself imposed, particularly given that unlike her predecessors in similar moments, she gave up any leverage she had over the agency?

The other thing Collyer does differently from her predecessors is that she lets NSA keep data that arose from violations.

Certain records derived from upstream Internet communications (many of which have been evaluated and found to meet retention standards) will be retained by NSA, even though the underlying raw Internet transactions from which they are derived might be subject to destruction. These records include serialized intelligence reports and evaluated and minimized traffic disseminations, completed transcripts and transcriptions of Internet transactions, [redacted] information used to support Section 702 taskings and FISA applications to this Court, and [redacted].

If “many” of these communications have been found to meet retention standards, it suggests that “some” have not. Meaning they should never have been retained in the first place. Yet Collyer lets an entire stream of reporting — and the Section 702 taskings that arise from that stream of reporting — remain unrecalled. Effectively, even while issuing stern warning after stern warning, by letting NSA keep this stuff, she is letting the agency commit violations for years without any disincentive.

Now, perhaps Collyer is availing herself of the exception offered in Section 301 of the USA Freedom Act, which permits the government to retain illegally obtained material if it is corrected by subsequent minimization procedures.

Exception.–If the Government corrects any deficiency identified by the order of the Court under subparagraph (B), the Court may permit the use or disclosure of information obtained before the date of the correction under such minimization procedures as the Court may approve for purposes of this clause.

Except that she doesn’t cite that provision, nor is there any evidence deficiencies have been corrected.

Which should mean, especially given the way Collyer depends on the prior opinions of Bates and Hogan, she should likewise rely on their practice of treating this as a potential violation of 50 USC 1809(a) to ensure the harm to Americans doesn’t persist. She did no such thing, basically sanctioning the illegal use of back door searches to spy on Americans.

Up until this opinion, I was generally willing to argue for the efficacy of the FISC (even while arguing the job could and should be devolved to district courts for more rigorous testing of the law). But not now. This opinion discredits the entire court.

Last April when Collyer became presiding FISC judge, I pointed to what I considered Rosemary Collyer’s worst FISC decision, which was actually a District Court opinion that permitted the NSA to keep aspects of its upstream problems secret from EFF, which is suing over those same issues. I predicted then that, “I fear she will be a crummy presiding judge, making the FISC worse than it already is.”

In my opinion — as a civil libertarian who has been willing to defend the FISC in the past — with this opinion she has done real damage to any credibility or legitimacy the FISC has.

Update: Latter for former fixed in which choice the Administration picked, h/t CS.

The Documents

Here’s what I Con the Record released.

January 7, 2016 IG Report

This heavily redacted report describes a review of NSA’s compliance with 704/705b of Title VII of FISA, the authority NSA uses to spy on Americans who are located overseas (see my report on the 704 problems here). It was conducted from March through August 2015 and reviewed data from January through March 2015. It basically showed there were no compliance mechanisms in place for 704/705b, and NSA couldn’t even reliably identify the queries that had been conducted under the authority. This report is relevant to the reauthorization, because Americans targeted in individual FISA orders are approved (and almost certainly tasked) by default for 702 back door searches. Though the report was obviously done well before the 702 certifications were submitted on September 26, was not noticed to FISC until days before the court would otherwise have approved the certifications in conjunction with the upstream problems.

September 26, 2016 702 Certification Package 

ICTR released much if not all of the materials submitted for 702 reauthorization on September 2016. The package includes:

Certification cover filing: This is basically the application, which the metadata reveals is actually two parts merged. It describes the changes to the certificates from the past year, most notably a request to share raw 702 data directly from NSA or FBI to NCTC, some tweaks to the FBI targeting and minimization procedures, and permission for NSA, FBI, and CIA to deviate from minimization procedures to develop a count of how many US persons get collected under 702.

The report also describes how the government has fulfilled reporting requirements imposed in 2015. Several of the reports pertain to destroying data it should not have had. The most interesting one is the report on how many criminal queries of 702 data FBI does that result in the retrieval and review of US person data; as I note in this post, the FBI really didn’t (and couldn’t, and can’t, given the oversight regime currently in place) comply with the intent of the reporting requirement.

Very importantly: this application did not include any changes to upstream collection, in large part because NSA did not tell FISC (more specifically, Chief Judge Rosemary Collyer) about the problems they had always had preventing queries of upstream data in its initial application. In NSA’s April statement on ending upstream about collection, it boasts, “Although the incidents were not willful, NSA was required to, and did, report them to both Congress and the FISC.” But that’s a load of horse manure: in fact, NSA and DOJ sat on this information for months. And even with this disclosure, because the government didn’t release the later application that did describe those changes, we don’t actually get to see the government’s description of the problems; we only get to see Collyer’s (I believe mis-) understanding of them.

Procedures and certifications accepted: The September 26 materials also include the targeting and minimization procedures that were accepted in the form in which they were submitted on that date. These include:

Procedures and certificates not accepted: The materials include the documents that the government would have to change before approval on April 26. These include,

Note, I include the latter two items because I believe they would have had to be resubmitted on March 30, 2017 with the updated NSA documents and the opinion makes clear a new DIRNSA affidavit was submitted (see footnote 10), but the release doesn’t give us those. I have mild interest in that, not least because the AG/DNI one would be the first big certification to FISC signed by Jeff Sessions and Dan Coats.

October 26, 2016 Extension

The October 26 extension of 2015’s 702 certificates is interesting primarily for its revelation that the government waited until October 24, 2016 to disclose problems that had been simmering since 2013.

March 30, 2017 Submissions

The release includes two of what I suspect are at least four items submitted on March 30, which are:

April 26, 2017 Opinion

This is the opinion that reauthorized 702, with the now-restricted upstream search component. My comments below largely lay out the problems with it.

April 11, 2017 ACLU Release

I Con the Record also released the FOIAed documents released earlier in April to ACLU, which are on their website in searchable form here. I still have to finish my analysis of that (which includes new details about how the NSA was breaking the law in 2011), but these posts cover some of those files and are relevant to these 702 changes:

Importantly, the ACLU documents as a whole reveal what kinds of US persons are approved for back door searches at NSA (largely, but not exclusively, Americans for whom an individual FISA order has already been approved, importantly including 704 targets, as well as more urgent terrorist targets), and reveal that one reason NSA was able to shut down the PRTT metadata dragnet in 2011 was because John Bates had permitted them to query the metadata from upstream collection.

Not included

Given the point I noted above — that the application submitted on September 26 did not address the problem with upstream surveillance and that we only get to see Collyer’s understanding of it — I wanted to capture the documents that should or do exist that we haven’t seen.

  • October 26, 2016 Preliminary and Supplemental Notice of Compliance Incidents Regarding the Querying of Section 702-Acquired Data
  • January 3, 2017: Supplemental Notice of Compliance Incidents Regarding the Querying of Section 702-Acquired Data
  • NSA Compliance Officer (OCO) review covering April through December 2015
  • OCO review covering April though July of 2016
  • IG Review covering first quarter of 2016 (22)
  • January 27, 2017: Letter In re: DNI/AG 702(g) Certifications asking for another extension
  • January 27, 2017: Order extending 2015 certifications (and noting concern with “important safeguards for interests protected by the Fourth Amendment”)
  • March 30, 2017: Amendment to [Certificates]; includes (or is) second explanatory memo, referred to as “March 30, 2017 Memorandum” in Collyer’s opinion; this would include a description of the decision to shut down about searches
  • March 30, 2017 AG/DNI Certification (?)
  • March 30, 2017 DIRNSA Certification
  • April 7, 2017 preliminary notice

Other Relevant Documents

Because they’re important to this analysis and get cited extensively in Collyer’s opinion, I’m including:

Timeline

November 30, 2013: Latest possible date at which upstream search problems identified

October 2014: Semiannual Report shows problems with upstream searches during period from June 1, 2013 – November 30, 2013

October 2014: SIGINT Compliance (SV) begins helping NSD review 704/705b compliance

June 2015: Semiannual Report shows problems with upstream searches during period from December 1, 2013 – May 31, 2014

December 18, 2015: Quarterly Report to the FISC Concerning Compliance Matters Under Section 702 of FISA

January 7, 2016: IG Report on controls over §§704/705b released

January 26, 2016: Discovery of error in upstream collection

March 9, 2016: FBI releases raw data

March 18, 2016: Quarterly Report to the FISC Concerning Compliance Matters Under Section 702 of FISA

May and June, 2016: Discovery of querying problem dating back to 2012

May 17, 2016: Opinion relating to improper retention

June 17, 2016: Quarterly Report to the FISC Concerning Compliance Matters Under Section 702 of FISA

August 24, 2016: Pre-tasking review update

September 16, 2016: Quarterly Report to the FISC Concerning Compliance Matters Under Section 702 of FISA

September 26, 2016: Submission of certifications

October 4, 2016: Hearing on compliance issues

October 24, 2016: Notice of compliance errors

October 26, 2016: Formal notice, with hearing; FISC extends the 2015 certifications to January 31, 2017

November 5, 2016: Date on which 2015 certificates would have expired without extension

December 15, 2016: James Clapper approves EO 12333 Sharing Procedures

December 16, 2016: Quarterly Report to the FISC Concerning Compliance Matters Under Section 702 of FISA

December 29, 2016: Government plans to deal with indefinite retention of data on FBI systems

January 3, 2017: DOJ provides supplemental report on compliance programs; Loretta Lynch approves new EO 12333 Sharing Procedures

January 27, 2017: DOJ informs FISC they won’t be able to fully clarify before January 31 expiration, ask for extension to May 26; FISC extends to April 28

January 31, 2007: First extension date for 2015 certificates

March 17, 2017:Quarterly Report to the FISC Concerning Compliance Matters Under Section 702 of FISA; Probable halt of upstream “about” collection

March 30, 2016: Submission of amended NSA certifications

April 7, 2017: Preliminary notice of more query violations

April 28, 2017: Second extension date for 2015 certificates

May 26, 2017: Requested second extension date for 2015 certificates

June 2, 2017: Deadline for report on outstanding issues

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.

I Rarely Say I Told You So, Section 704 I Told You So Edition

Since 2014, I have been trying to alert anyone who would listen about Section 704.

That’s a part of FISA Title VII — the part of FISA that will be reauthorized this year. When Congress passed FISA Amendments Act in 2008, they promised they’d protect US persons overseas by requiring an order to surveil them. Almost always, the section that accomplished that was referred to Section 703, which is basically PRISM for Americans overseas.

Except I discovered when I (briefly) worked at the Intercept that NSA never uses 703. Ever. Which meant that what they use to surveil Americans overseas is somewhat looser Section 704 (or, for Americans against whom there is a traditional domestic FISA order, 705b). Except no one — and I mean literally no one, not in the NGO community nor on the Hill — understood how Section 704 was used.

Exactly a year ago, I laid all this out in a post and suggested that, as part of the Section 702 reauthorization this year, Congress should finally figure out how 704 works and whether there are any particular concerns about it.

It turns out, four months before I wrote that, NSA’s Inspector General had finalized a report showing that in the seven and a half years since Section 704 was purportedly protecting Americans overseas, it wasn’t. The report is heavily redacted, but what isn’t redacted showed that the NSA had never set up a means to identify all 704/705b queries, and so couldn’t reliably oversee whether analysts were following the rules. The report showed that Signals Intelligence Compliance and Oversight only started helping DOJ and ODNI do their compliance reviews of 704/705b in October 2014, by providing the queries they could identify to the reviewers. But not all queries can be audited, because not all the feeds in question can be sent to NSA’s auditing and logging system.

The review itself — conducted from March to August of 2015 on data from the first quarter of that year — showed a not insignificant amount of querying non-compliance.

The 704 compliance problems are a part of the problem with NSA’s decision to shut down upstream surveillance (because 704 collection authorization is one of the things that automatically gets a US person approved for upstream searches]. Though, in her most biting comment in an otherwise pathetic opinion, Chief FISC judge Rosemary Collyer note the failure to tell her about this when 702 certificates were submitted in September or in an October 4 hearing showed a lack of candor.

At the October 26, 2016 hearing, the Court ascribed the government’s failure to disclose those IG and OCO reviews at the October 4, 2016 hearing to an institutional “lack of candor” on NSA’s part and emphasized that “this is a very serious Fourth Amendment issue.”

A review that post-dated the IG Report revealed the problem was even bigger than that. In the compliance section of the report, Collyer noted that 85% of the 704/705b queries conducting using one particular tool (which was rolled out in 2012) were non-compliant.

NSA examined all queries using identifiers for “U.S. persons targeted pursuant to Sections 704 and 705(b) of FISA using the tool [redacted] in [redacted] . . . from November 1, 2015 to May 1, 2016.” Id. at 2-3 (footnote omitted). Based on that examination, “NSA estimates that approximately eighty-five percent of those queries, representing [redacted] queries conducted by approximately [redacted] targeted offices, were not compliant with the applicable minimization procedures.” Id. at 3. Many of these non-compliant queries involved use of the same identifiers over different date ranges. Id. Even so, a non-compliance rate of 85% raises substantial questions about the propriety of using of [redacted] to query FISA data. While the government reports that it is unable to provide a reliable estimate of the number of non-compliant queries since 2012, id., there is no apparent reason to believe the November 2015-April 2016 period coincided with an unusually high error rate.

And NSA was unable to chase down the reporting based off this non-compliant querying.

The government reports that NSA “is unable to identify any reporting or other disseminations that may have been based on information returned by [these] non-compliant queries” because “NSA’s disseminations are sourced to specific objects,” not to the queries that may have presented those objects to the analyst. Id. at 6. Moreover, [redacted] query results are generally retained for just [redacted].

All of which is to say that the authority that the government has been pointing to for years to show how great Title VII is is really a dumpster fire of compliance problems.

And still, we know very little about how this authority is used.

The number of Americans affected is not huge — roughly 80 people approved under 704 plus anyone approved for domestic FISA order that goes overseas (though that would almost certainly include Carter Page). Still, if this is supposed to be the big protection Americans overseas receive, it hasn’t been providing much protection.

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.

The Curious Silence about the Mostly Unremarked Russian BGP Hijack

These days, it seems that NYT-approved columnists and self-appointed THREADsters can start a conspiracy theory about anything just by slapping the label “Russia” on it. Which is why I find it so curious that the BGP hijack last week of a bunch of finance companies (and some other interesting targets) by Russian telecom Rostelecom has gone generally unnoticed, except by Ars’ Dan Goodin.

Here’s a great description of what the Border Gateway Protocol is — and why it’s ripe for hijacking.

Such is the story of the “three-napkins protocol,” more formally known as Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP.

At its most basic level, BGP helps routers decide how to send giant flows of data across the vast mesh of connections that make up the Internet. With infinite numbers of possible paths — some slow and meandering, others quick and direct — BGP gives routers the information they need to pick one, even though there is no overall map of the Internet and no authority charged with directing its traffic.

The creation of BGP, which relies on individual networks continuously sharing information about available data links, helped the Internet continue its growth into a worldwide network. But BGP also allows huge swaths of data to be “hijacked” by almost anyone with the necessary skills and access.

The main reason is that BGP, like many key systems on the Internet, is built to automatically trust users — something that may work on smaller networks but leaves a global one ripe for attack.

As BGPstream first noted, the data streams for 37 entities were rerouted by Rostelecom manually last Wednesday for a 6 minute period.

Starting at April 26 22:36 UTC till approximately 22:43 UTC AS12389 (PJSC Rostelecom) started to originate 50 prefixes for numerous other Autonomous systems. The 50 hijacked prefixes included 37 unique autonomous systems

The victims include Visa, Mastercard, Verisign, and Symantec.

Oh — and according to BGPmon, the victims also include Alfa bank — the bank that got mentioned in Christopher Steele’s dossier, that had some weird behavior involving a Trump marketing server last summer, and one of two banks for which the FBI allegedly got a FISA order as part of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the US election.

BGPmon provides one possible innocent explanation (which is, in fact, the analogue of the innocent explanation offered for the Alfa-Trump traffic): it could be BGP advertising gone wrong.

It’s also worth noting that at the same time as the hijacks we did see many (78) new advertisements originated by 12389 for prefixes by ‘other’ Rostelecom telecom ASns (29456,21378,13056,13118,8570). So something probably went wrong internally causing Rostelecom to start originating these new prefixes.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by… well let’s say an innocent misconfiguration. If this was in-fact an attempt to on purpose redirect traffic for some of these financial institutions, it was done in a very visible and large scale manner, so from that perspective perhaps not too likely. Then again, given the number of high value prefixes of all the same category (financial institutions and credit card processors) it seems a bit more than an innocent accidental hijack, especially considering the fact that new more specific prefixes were introduced.

But Goodin provides some reasons why the hijack should be treated with suspicion. First, Rostelcom — the company that hijacked this traffic — is considered an official Russian government entity.

According to shareholder information provided by Rostelecom, the Russian government owns 49 percent of the telecom’s ordinary shares. The US Department of Commerce lists Rostelecom as a state-owned enterprise and reports that one or more senior government officials have seats on Rostelecom’s board of directors. Rostelecom officials didn’t respond to e-mail seeking comment for this post.

He  cites Dyn’s Doug Madory explaining why the targeted nature of this hijack should rouse suspicion.

“I would classify this as quite suspicious,” Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at network management firm Dyn, told Ars. “Typically accidental leaks appear more voluminous and indiscriminate. This would appear to be targeted to financial institutions. A typical cause of these errors [is] in some sort of internal traffic engineering, but it would seem strange that someone would limit their traffic engineering to mostly financial networks.”

As Goodin notes, and as I have before, one reason an entity (especially a government) might want to hijack traffic is to make it cross a router where it has the ability to collect it for spying purposes. That process was described in some presentations from an NSA hacker that the Intercept published last year.

As Goodin notes, given that the victims here should be presumed to be using the best encryption, it would take some work for Rostelecom to obtain the financial and other data in the traffic it hijacked.

Such interception or manipulation would be most easily done to data that wasn’t encrypted, but even in cases when it was encrypted, traffic might still be decrypted using attacks with names such as Logjam and DROWN, which work against outdated transport layer security implementations that some organizations still use.

Madory said that even if data couldn’t be decrypted, attackers could potentially use the diverted traffic to enumerate what parties were initiating connections to MasterCard and the other affected companies. The attacker could then target those parties, which may have weaker defenses.

But there’s at least one other reason someone might hijack traffic. If you were able to pull traffic off of switches you knew to be accessible to an adversary that was spying on you, you might succeed in detasking that spying, even if only for 6 minutes.

One of my all-time favorite Snowden disclosures revealed that the NSA was forced to detask from some IRGC Yahoo accounts because they were being spammed and the data was flooding NSA’s systems. That happened at precisely the moment that the FBI was trying to catch some IRGC figures in trying to assassinate then Saudi Ambassador to the US (and current Foreign Secretary) Adel al-Jubeir, which I find to be a mighty interesting coinkydink.

This hypothetically could be something similar: a very well-timed effort to thwart surveillance by making it inaccessible to the switches from which the NSA was collecting it (though honestly, it would take some doing to pull traffic off all collection points accessible to the NSA, and I’m not even sure that would be possible for transatlantic traffic).

Don’t get me wrong. Accidental or not, this was a foot-stomping event. I’m sure the competent and responsible authorities at both the victim companies and the NSA have taken notice of this event, and are working to understand why it happened and if anything was compromised by it.

But I find it striking that the thousands of people spending all their time fervently creating conspiracies where none exist have not even noticed this event which, whatever it explains it, was a real event, and one involving the bank that has been at the center of so many real and imagined conspiracies.

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.

I Con the Record Transparency Bingo (4): How 151 Million Call Events Can Look Reasonable But Is Besides the Point

Other entries in I Con the Record Transparency Bingo:

(1) Only One Positive Hit on a Criminal Search

(2): The Inexplicable Drop in PRTT Numbers

(3): CIA Continues to Hide Its US Person Network Analysis

If your understanding of the phone dragnet replacing the old USA Freedom dragnet came from the the public claims of USA Freedom Act boosters or from this NYT article on the I Con the Record report, you might believe 42 terrorist suspects and their 3,150 friends made 48,000 phone calls last year, which would work out to 130 calls a day … or maybe 24,000 perfectly duplicative calls, which works out to about 65 calls a day.

That’s the math suggested by these two entries in the I Con the Record Transparency Report — showing that the 42 targets of the new phone dragnet generated over 151 million “call detail records.” But as I’ll show, the impact of the 151 million [corrected] records collected last year is in some ways far lower than collecting 65 calls a day, which is a good thing! But it supports a claim that USAF has an entirely different function than boosters understood.

 

Here’s the math for assuming these are just phone calls. There were 42 targets approved for use in the new phone dragnet for some part of last year. Given the data showing just 40 orders, they might only be approved for six months of the year (each order lasts for 180 days), but we’ll just assume the NSA gets multiple targets approved with each order and that all 42 targets were tasked for the entirety of last year (for example, you could have just two orders getting 42 targets approved to cover all these people for a year).

In its report on the phone dragnet, PCLOB estimated that each target might have 75 total contacts. So a first round would collect on 42 targets, but with a second round you would be collecting on 3,192 people. That would mean each of those 3,192 people would be responsible for roughly 48,000 calls a year, every single one of which might represent a new totally innocent American sucked into NSA’s maw for the short term [update: that would be up to a total of 239,400 2nd-degree interlocutors]. The I Con the Record report says that, “the metric provided is over‐inclusive because the government counts each record separately even if the government receives the same record multiple times (whether from one provider or multiple providers).” If these were phone calls between just two people, then if our terrorist buddies only spoke to each other, each would be responsible for 24,000 calls a year, or 65 a day, which is certainly doable, but would mean our terrorist suspects and their friends all spent a lot of time calling each other.

The number becomes less surprising when you remember that even with traditional telephony call records can capture calls and texts. All of a sudden 65 becomes a lot more doable, and a lot more likely to have lots of perfectly duplicative records as terrorists and their buddies spend afternoons texting back and forth with each other.

Still, it may mean that 65 totally innocent people a day get sucked up by NSA.

All that said, there’s no reason to believe we’re dealing just with texts and calls.

As the report reminds us, we’re actually talking about session identifying information, which in the report I Con the Record pretends are “commonly referred to” as “call events.”

Call Detail Records (CDR) – commonly referred to as “call event metadata” – may be obtained from telecommunications providers pursuant to 50 U.S.C. §1861(b)(2)(C). A CDR is defined as session identifying information (including an originating or terminating telephone number, an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, or an International Mobile Station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number), a telephone calling card number, or the time or duration of a call. See 50 U.S.C. §1861(k)(3)(A). CDRs do not include the content of any communication, the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer, or cell site location or global positioning system information. See 50 U.S.C. §1861(k)(3)(B). CDRs are stored and queried by the service providers. See 50 U.S.C. §1861(c)(2).

Significantly, this parenthesis — “(including an originating or terminating telephone number, an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, or an International Mobile Station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number)” — suggests that so long as something returns a phone number, a SIM card number, or a handset number, that can be a “call event.” That is, a terrorist using his cell phone to access a site, generating a cookie, would have the requisite identifiers for his phone as well as a time associated with it. And I Con the Record’s transparency report says it is collecting these “call event” records from “telecommunications” firms, not phone companies, meaning a lot more kinds of things might be included — certainly iMessage and WhatsApp, possibly Signal. Indeed, that’s necessarily true given repeated efforts in Congress to get a list of all electronic communications service providers company that don’t keep their “call records” 18 months and to track any changes in retention policies. It’s also necessarily true given Marco Rubio’s claim that we’re sending requests out to a “large and significant number of companies” under the new phone dragnet.

The fine print provides further elements that suggest both that the 151 million events collected last year are not that high. First, it suggests a significant number of CDRs fail validation at some point in the process.

This metric represents the number of records received from the provider(s) and stored in NSA repositories (records that fail at any of a variety of validation steps are not included in this number).

At one level, this means NSA’s results resulted in well more than 151 million events collected. But it also means they may be getting junk. One thing that in the past might have represented a failed validation is if the target no longer uses the selector, though the apparent failure at multiple levels suggests there may be far more interesting reasons for failed validation, some probably technically more interesting.

In addition, the fine print notes that the 151 million call events include both historical events collected with the first order as well as the prospective events collected each day.

CDRs covered by § 501(b)(2)(C) include call detail records created before, on, or after the date of the application relating to an authorized investigation.

So these events weren’t all generated last year — if they’re from AT&T they could have been generated decades ago. Remember that Verizon and T-Mobile agreed to a handshake agreement to keep their call records two years as part of USAF, so for major providers providing just traditional telephony, a request will include at least two years of data, plus the prospective collection. That means our 3,192 targets and friends might only have had 48 calls or texts a day, without any duplication.

Finally, there’s one more thing that suggests this huge number isn’t that huge, but that also it may be a totally irrelevant measure of the privacy impact. In NSA’s document on implementing the program from last year, it described first querying the NSA Enterprise Architecture to find query results, and then sending out selectors for more data.

Once the one-hop results are retrieved from the NSA’s internal holdings, the list of FISC-approved specific selection terms, along with NSA’s internal one-hop results, are submitted to the provider(s).

In other words — and this is a point that was clear about the old phone dragnet but which most people simply refused to understand — this program is not only designed to interact seamlessly with EO 12333 collected data (NSA’s report says so explicitly, as did the USAF report), but many of the selectors involved are already in NSA’s maw.

Under the old phone dragnet, a great proportion of the phone records in question came from EO 12333. NSA preferred then — and I’m sure still prefers now — to rely on queries run on EO 12333 because they came with fewer limits on dissemination.

Which means we need to understand the 65 additional texts — or anything else available only in the US from a large number of electronic communications service providers that might be deemed a session identifier — a day from 42 terrorists and their 3150 buddies on top of the vast store of EO 12333 records that form the primary basis here.

Because (particularly as the rest of the report shows continually expanding metadata analysis and collection) this is literally just the tip of an enormous iceberg, 151 million edge cases to a vast sea of data.

Update: Charlie Savage, who has a really thin skin, wrote me an email trying to dispute this post. In the past, his emails have almost universally devolved into him being really defensive while insisting over and over that stuff I’ve written doesn’t count as reporting (he likes to do this, especially, with stuff he claims a scoop for three years after I’ve written about it). So I told him I would only engage publicly, which he does here.

Fundamentally, Charlie disputes whether Section 215 is getting anything that’s not traditional telephony (he says my texts point is “likely right,” apparently unaware that a document he obtained in FOIA shows an issue that almost certainly shows they were getting texts years ago). Fair enough: the law is written to define CDRs as session identifiers, not telephony calls; we’ll see whether the government is obtaining things that are session identifiers. The I Con the Record report is obviously misleading on other points, but Charlie relies on language from it rather than the actual law. Charlie ignores the larger point, that any discussion of this needs to engage with how Section 215 requests interact with EO 12333, which was always a problem with the reporting on the topic and remains a problem now.

So, perhaps I’m wrong that it is “necessarily” the case that they’re getting non-telephony calls. The law is written such that they can do so (though the bill report limits it to “phone companies,” which would make WhatsApp but not iMessage a stretch).

What’s remarkable about Charlie’s piece, though, is that he utterly and completely misreads this post, “About half” of which, he says, “is devoted to showing how the math to generate 151 million call events within a year is implausible.”

The title of this post says, “151 Million Call Events Can Look Reasonable.” I then say, “But as I’ll show, the impact of the 131 [sic, now corrected] million records collected last year is in some ways far lower than collecting 65 calls a day, which is a good thing!” I then say, “The number becomes less surprising when you remember that even with traditional telephony call records can capture calls and texts. All of a sudden 65 becomes a lot more doable, and a lot more likely to have lots of perfectly duplicative records as terrorists and their buddies spend afternoons texting back and forth with each other.” I go on to say, “The fine print provides further elements that suggest both that the 151 million events collected last year are not that high.” I then go on to say, “So these events weren’t all generated last year — if they’re from AT&T they could have been generated decades ago.”

That is, in the title, and at least four times after that, I point out that 151 million is not that high. Yet he claims that my post aims to show that the math is implausible, not totally plausible.  (He also seems to think I’ve not accounted for the duplicative nature of this, which is curious, since I quote that and incorporate it into my math.)

In his email, I noted that this post replied not just to him, but to others who were alarmed by the number. I said specifically with regards the number, “yes, you were among the people I subtweeted there. But not the only one and some people did take this as just live calls. It’s not all about you, Charlie.”

Yet having been told that that part of the post was not a response to him, Charlie nevertheless persisted in completely misunderstanding the post.

I guess he still believed it was all about him.

Maybe Charlie should spend his time reading the documents he gets in FOIA more attentively rather than writing thin-skinned emails assuming everything is about him?

Update: Once I pointed out that Charlie totally misread this post he told me to go back on my meds.

Since he’s being such a douche, I’ll give you two more pieces of background. First, after I said that I knew CIA wasn’t tracking metadata (because it’s all over public records), Charlie suggested he knew better.

Here’s me twice pointing out that the number of call events was not (just) calls (as he had claimed in his story), a point he mostly concedes in his response.

Here’s the lead of his story:

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.

What Queries of Metadata Derived from Upstream Data Might Include

In this post, I explained that at virtually the exact moment the NSA shut down the PRTT dragnet in 2011, FISC permitted it to start querying metadata derived from upstream collection. After that happened, it started distinguishing between data that was “handled” according to minimization procedures and data that was “processed” before being intelligible.

In this post, I want to talk about what we can learn about metadata derived from FAA 702 from the opinion that authorized it and this document which based on the date, I assume pertains at least to upstream 702 derived metadata (from which the two kinds of MCTs most likely to include domestic communications would be excluded).

First, assuming that this querying document does include upstream, then it means that entirely domestic communications might be included in the querying. The opinion allows,

NSA to copy metadata from Internet transactions that are not subject tosegregation pursuant to Section 3(b) without first complying with the other rules for handlingnon-segregated transactions – i.e., without ruling out that the metadata pertained to a discretewholly domestic communication or to a discrete non-target communication to or from a U.S.person or a person inside the United States.

This means that after the data comes in to NSA and the two types of metadata most likely to include domestic MCTs are segregated, it can be made available to metadata analysis. The NSA prevented queries of segregated data via technical means.

NSA’s technical implementation will ensure that USP metadata queries of FAA 702 collection will only run against communications metadata derived from FAA 702 [redacted] and telephony collection.

The document stated that “NSA’s Technical Directorate (TD) continues to work to implement this requirement.” It’s not clear whether that language dates to December 16, 2011, when it was first written, or to August 19, 2013, when it was most recently revised.

Yet even assuming that technical protection occurred, there would still be Americans in the pool. According to John Bates’ estimate from the same year, there might be 46,000 domestic communications in there that ended up in the batch because the domestic communication that made mention of targeted selector transited internationally, which led them to get caught in filters supposedly targeted at international traffic.

The opinion mandates that, if after doing the analysis, the analyst realizes she has a completely domestic communication, she has to destroy it (though that requirement would get softer the next year). But a footnote also reveals that the means of determining if a selector was American was not failsafe.

NSA will rely on an algorithm and/or a business rule to identify queries of communications metadata derived from the FAA 702 [redacted] and telephony collection that start with a United States person identifier. Neither method will identify those queries that start with a United States person identifier with 100 percent accuracy.

Moreover, in an apparent bid to have this querying process interact relatively seamlessly with Special Procedures Communications Metadata Analysis (SPCMA — a way to query EO 12333 metadata incorporating US person identifiers), the standards were lackadaisical. As with SPCMA, an analyst had to come up with a foreign intelligence justification, but that’s just a “memory aid” in case the analyst gets questioned about it “long after the fact” in a fact check. Analysts don’t have to seek approval before they use a particular selector to query and they’re not required to attach any supporting documentation for their justification (this was in 2013, so requirements may be stronger in the wake of the PCLOB report). And SPCMA training is considered adequate to query metadata derived from 702.

In other words (again, assuming this pertains to upstream querying), there are several risks: that US person data will get thrown in the mix, that it won’t get identified by an algorithm as such, and so that that query result will lead to further spying on a US person without getting destroyed.

Still, as made clear, the alternative is SPCMA, which offers even fewer protections than 702 querying.

One more thought: the NSA report on the aftermath of Bates’ upstream decision (and the implementation of the 2012 certificates) revealed the PRISM providers incurred cost with the transition between certificates. It’s actually quite possible that the upstream metadata queries would come to constitute a critical part of the targeting process, effectively identifying what Goole or Yahoo content might be of interest at the metadata stage, only then to submit that to the provider for the content. If that’s true, it would be somewhat easy to end up targeting a US person for content collection via such upstream searches (though that presumably would be captured in the post-targeting process).

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.

Why Susan Rice May Be a Shiny Object

A bunch of Republican propagandists are outraged that the press isn’t showing more interest in PizzaGate Mike Cernovich’s “scoop” that the woman in charge of ensuring our national security under President Obama, then National Security Advisor Susan Rice, sought to fully understand the national security intercepts she was being shown.

There are two bases for their poutrage, which might have merit — but coming from such hacks, may not.

The first is the suggestion, based off Devin Nunes’ claim (and refuted by Adam Schiff) that Rice unmasked things she shouldn’t have. Thus far, the (probably illegally) leaked details — such as that family members, perhaps like Jared Kushner (who met with an FSB officer turned head of a sanctioned Russian bank used as cover for other spying operations), Sean Hannity (who met with an already-targeted Julian Assange at a time he was suspected of coordinating with Russians), and Erik Prince (who has literally built armies for foreign powers) got spied on — do nothing but undermine Nunes’ claims. All the claimed outrageous unmaskings actually seem quite justifiable, given the accepted purpose for FISA intercepts.

The other suggestion — and thus far, it is a suggestion, probably because (as I’ll show) it’s thus far logically devoid of evidence — is that because Rice asked to have the names of people unmasked, she must be the person who leaked the contents of the intercepts of Sergey Kislyak discussing sanctions with Mike Flynn. (Somehow, the propagandists always throw Ben Rhodes’ name in, though it’s not clear on what basis.)

Let me start by saying this. Let’s assume those intercepts remained classified when they were leaked. That’s almost certain, but Obama certainly did have the authority to declassify them, just as either George Bush or Dick Cheney allegedly used that authority to declassify Valerie Plame’s ID (as some of these same propagandists applauded back in the day). But assuming the intercepts did remain classified, I agree that it is a problem that they were leaked by nine different sources to the WaPo.

But just because Rice asked to unmask the identities of various Trump (and right wing media) figures doesn’t mean she and Ben Rhodes are the nine sources for the WaPo.

That’s because the information on Flynn may have existed in a number of other places.

Obviously, Rice could not have been the first person to read the Flynn-Kislyak intercepts. That’s because some analyst(s) would have had to read them and put them into a finished report (most, but not all, of Nunes’ blathering comments about these reports suggest they were finished intelligence). Assuming those analysts were at NSA (which is not at all certain) someone would have had to have approved the unmasking of Flynn’s name before Rice saw it.

In addition, it is possible — likely even, at least by January 2017, when we know people were asking why Russia didn’t respond more strongly to Obama’s hacking sanctions — that there were two other sets of people who had access to the raw intelligence on Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak: the CIA and, especially, the FBI, which would have been involved in any FISA-related collection. Both CIA and FBI can get raw data on topics they’re working on. Likely, in this case, the multi-agency task force was getting raw collection related to their Russian investigation.

And as I’ve explained, as soon as FBI developed a suspicion that either Kislyak was at the center of discussions on sanctions or that Flynn was an unregistered agent of multiple foreign powers, the Special Agents doing that investigation would routinely pull up everything in their databases on those people by name, which would result in raw Title I and 702 FISA collection (post January 3, it probably began to include raw EO 12333 data as well).

So already you’re up to about 15 to 20 people who would have access to the raw intercepts, and that’s before they brief their bosses, Congress (though the Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff briefing, at least, was delayed a bit), and DOJ, all the way up to Sally Yates, who wanted to warn the White House. Jim Comey has suggested it is likely that the nine sources behind the WaPo story were among these people briefed secondarily on the intercepts. And it’s worth noting that David Ignatius, who first broke the story of Flynn’s chats with Kislyak but was not credited on the nine source story, has known source relationships in other parts of the government than the National Security Advisor, though he also has ties to Rice.

All of which is to say that the question of who leaked the contents of Mike Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak is a very different question from whether Susan Rice’s requests to unmask Trump associates’ names were proper or not. It is possible that Rice leaked the intercepts without declassifying them first. But it’s also possible that any of tens of other people did, most of whom would have a completely independent channel for that information.

And the big vulnerability is not — no matter what Eli Lake wants to pretend — the unmasking of individual names by the National Security Advisor. Rather, it’s that groups of investigators can access the same intelligence in raw form without a warrant tied to the American person in question.

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.

Devin Nunes’ So-Called Bibi Netanyahu Precedent

Throughout his ongoing information operation to claim the Obama White House spied on the Trump transition team, Devin Nunes has pointed to what he claimed was a precedent: when, in December 2015, members of Congress suddenly copped on that their conversations with Bibi Netanyahu would get picked up incidentally. In his March 22 press conference, he explained,

We went through this about a year and a half ago as it related to members of Congress, if you may remember there was a report I think it was in the Wall Street Journal and but then we had to have we had a whole series of hearings and then we had to have changes made to how Congress is informed if members of Congress are picked up in surveillance and this looks it’s like very similar to that.

Eli Lake dutifully repeated it in the second of his three-post series pitching Nunes’ information operation.

A precedent to what may have happened with the Trump transition involved the monitoring of Israel’s prime minister and other senior Israeli officials. The Wall Street Journal reported at the end of 2015 that members of Congress and American Jewish groups were caught up in this surveillance and that the reports were sent to the White House. This occurred during a bitter political fight over the Iran nuclear deal. In essence the Obama White House was learning about the strategy of its domestic political opposition through legal wiretaps of a foreign head of state and his aides.

But Lake didn’t apparently think through what the implications of Nunes’ analogy — or the differences between the two cases.

Here’s the WSJ report and CBS and WaPo versions that aren’t paywalled. All make it very clear that Devin Nunes took the lead in worrying about his conversations with Bibi Netanyahu being sucked up (I don’t remember Republicans being as sympathetic when Jane Harman got sucked up in a conversation with AIPAC). They also describe that Obama’s WH, faced with the potential that their surveillance would be seen as spying on another branch of Congress, had the NSA take charge of the unmasking.

The administration believed that Israel had leaked information gleaned from spying on the negotiations to sympathetic lawmakers and Jewish American groups seeking to undermine the talks.

According to the Journal, when the White House learned that the NSA eavesdropping had collected communications with U.S. lawmakers, it feared being accused of spying on Congress and left it to the NSA to determine what information to share with the administration. The Journal said the NSA did not pass along the names of lawmakers or any of their personal attacks on White House officials.

That’s not to say they’d take the same approach here — indeed, Lake now claims, at  least, that Susan Rice requested some Trump officials’ names to be unmasked, distinguishing it from the Bibi case in that White House did not leave it up to NSA to decide what to unmask (though the underlying reporting makes the silly claim that Rice, Loretta Lynch, and John Brennan were among a very limited number of people who could request a name be unmasked).

The larger point is, even assuming the collection of conversations between your political opponents and a foreign government designed to undermine your executive branch authority was scandalous, it’d still fall under the very legitimate concern of separation of powers.

Yes, Trump’s aides are from a different party. But they are nevertheless part of the executive branch. And the entire basis of counterintelligence spying — the entire point of FISA — is to ensure that executive branch officials are not targeted by foreign countries to be spies, which is part of the reason Mike Flynn attracted attention (which is not to justify the leaking of that intercept). Add in the legitimate necessity to implement executive branch policy and this is a very different case than the Bibi case, even if you want to defend (as I do, to a point) Republican members of Congress collaborating with foreign governments to undermine Article II authorities.

Nunes’ imagined solution — from his March 22 White House press conference — is ever nuttier.

Q: You’ve said legal and incidental. That doesn’t sound like a proactive effort to spy.

Nunes: I would refer you to, we had a similar issue with members of Congress that were being picked up in incidental collection a little over a year ago, we had to spend a full year working with the DNI on the proper notification for members of Congress to be notified which comes through the Gang of Eight. I would refer you to that because it looks very similar to that, would be the best way I can describe it.

The ODNI current informs the Gang of Eight when members of Congress get spied on (which means claims that a lot of GOP candidates got spied on is likely hot air, but which also means that if Nunes were collected as a member of the transition team, he’d have been the first to learn of it). Which is an important protection for separation of powers, but which also enables corrupt members of Congress to not just learn they’re being surveilled but, potentially, to alert the foreign targets what channels we’re using.

Maybe Trump wants that standard applied to the executive branch, but if he adopts it, we’re going to have a leaking free for all. Not to mention, it would make it absolutely impossible for the government to protect against espionage related to elections.

Or perhaps Nunes is just saying something more simple. Perhaps Nunes is saying the “dozens” of intercepts where Trump officials had been unmasked (to the extent that’s true) disclosed Trump’s transition-period attempts to drum up a war with Iran at the behest of Israel. Perhaps the real stink here is that, in the very same days Mike Flynn was telling Russia sanctions would be loosened, Trump was publicly undermining US efforts to take a stand against Israeli illegal settlements.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is still about a belief that the Israelis should never be wiretapped.

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.

Who Violated Their Designated Role: Ezra Cohen-Watnick or Susan Rice?

In the original version of the latest right wing claim — that Susan Rice requested that multiple incoming Trump figures’ names be unmasked in intercepts — Mike Cernovich describes the genesis of Devin Nunes’ concern this way:

The White House Counsel’s office identified Rice as the person responsible for the unmasking after examining Rice’s document log requests. The reports Rice requested to see are kept under tightly-controlled conditions. Each person must log her name before being granted access to them.

Upon learning of Rice’s actions, H. R. McMaster dispatched his close aide Derek Harvey to Capitol Hill to brief Chairman Nunes.

But as Eli Lake — fresh off having apologized for letting Devin Nunes use him — tells the story, close Mike Flynn associate Ezra Cohen-Watnick discovered it and brought the discovery to the White House Counsel’s office, whereupon he was told to “end his own research” on unmasking.

The pattern of Rice’s requests was discovered in a National Security Council review of the government’s policy on “unmasking” the identities of individuals in the U.S. who are not targets of electronic eavesdropping, but whose communications are collected incidentally. Normally those names are redacted from summaries of monitored conversations and appear in reports as something like “U.S. Person One.”

The National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, was conducting the review, according to two U.S. officials who spoke with Bloomberg View on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. In February Cohen-Watnick discovered Rice’s multiple requests to unmask U.S. persons in intelligence reports that related to Trump transition activities. He brought this to the attention of the White House General Counsel’s office, who reviewed more of Rice’s requests and instructed him to end his own research into the unmasking policy.

This repeats a claim Lake had made in his earlier apology post, which he presented as one detail in the NYT version of this story that was not accurate.

Another U.S. official familiar with the affair told me that one of the sources named in the article, former Defense Intelligence officer Ezra Cohen-Watnick, did not play a role in getting information to Nunes. This official said Cohen-Watnick had come upon the reports while working on a review of recent Justice Department rules that made it easier for intelligence officials to share the identities of U.S. persons swept up in surveillance. He turned them over to White House lawyers.

But it adds the detail that Cohen-Watnick had been told to stand down. That would explain why Lake and others would want to claim that Cohen-Watnick wasn’t involved in dealing all this to Nunes: because he had already been told not to pursue it further. If the multiple accounts saying he was involved in the hand-off to Nunes, it appears he did.

The WaPo’s version of this included a detail not included by the right wingers: that Cohen-Watnick went to John Eisenberg, not Don McGahn, with his “discovery.” Eisenberg is significantly responsible, dating back to when he was at DOJ, for ensuring that ordinary Americans would be sucked up in surveillance under PRISM. For him to be concerned about the legal unmasking of Americans’ identities (to the extent that did exist — and the record is still unclear whether it did) is laughable.

The timing of Cohen-Watnick’s research — dating back to February — intersects in interesting ways with the timeline in this March 14 Politico story of H.R. McMaster’s attempt to sideline him, which was overruled by Steven Bannon.

On Friday [March 10], McMaster told the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, that he would be moved to another position in the organization.

The conversation followed weeks of pressure from career officials at the CIA who had expressed reservations about the 30-year-old intelligence operative and pushed for his ouster.

But Cohen-Watnick appealed McMaster’s decision to two influential allies with whom he had forged a relationship while working on Trump’s transition team — White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. They brought the matter to Trump on Sunday [March 12], and the president agreed that Cohen-Watnick should remain as the NSC’s intelligence director, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.

The House Intelligence Committee first asked NSA, CIA, and FBI for details on unmasking on March 15, the day after this story broke, at which point Nunes already knew of the White House effort. When Nunes first blew this up on March 22, he falsely claimed that that March 15 request had been submitted two weeks earlier.

It’s clear the right wing wants to shift this into Benghazi 2.0, attacking Susan Rice for activities that are, at least on the face of it, part of her job. But the only way the White House could be sure that she (or Ben Rhodes, who they’re also naming) were the ones to leak this would be to investigate not just those two, but also all the FBI (which would have access to this information without unmasking these names, which not a single one of these right wing scribes admit or even seem to understand). That is, the only way they could make credible, as opposed to regurgitated right wing propaganda accusations about leakers is to have spied even more inappropriately than they are accusing the Obama White House of doing.

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.

Raw Versus Cooked: Could NSC Monitor FBI’s Investigation?

Multiple people,including Bart Gellman and Josh Marshall, are now arguing that the reason Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis found intercepts involving Trump’s people is that they were monitoring FBI’s investigation of the investigation.

I certainly think the Trump people would like to do that — and would be willing to stoop to that. I even believe that the response to the Russian hack last year had some counterintelligence problems, though probably not on the FBI side.

But there are some details that may limit how much the NSC can monitor the investigation.

First, Devin Nunes has always been very clear: the intercepts he was shown have nothing to do with Russia. That’s not, itself, determinative. After all, Cohen-Watnick and Ellis might have found a bunch of Russian intercepts, but only shared the non-Russian ones so Nunes could make a stink without being accused of endangering the investigation. Also, it’s possible that intercepts involving other countries — most notably Turkey, but there are other countries that might be even more interesting, including Ukraine or Syria — would impact any Russian investigation.

Also note that among the many things Nunes appears not to understand about surveillance is that there are two ways an American’s name can be visible outside the circle of analysts doing the initial review of them: their names can be put into finished intelligence reports that get circulated more broadly, with customers asking to have the name unmasked after the fact. Alternately, their names can be found off of subsequent searches of raw data. At the NSA and CIA, searches for US person content are somewhat controlled. At FBI they are not only not controlled, but they are routine even for criminal investigations. So if, say, General Flynn (or Paul Manafort) were under investigation for failing to register as a foreign agent, the FBI would routinely search their database of raw FISA material on his name. (These are the “back door searches” Ron Wyden has been screaming about for years, concerns which people like Devin Nunes have previously dismissed on national security grounds.) And we have every reason to believe that counterintelligence intercepts of Russians in the US are among the raw feeds that the FBI gets. So if Flynn had conversations with Russians (or Turks) in the US, we should assume that FBI saw them as a routine matter if Flynn became the subject of an investigation at all. We should also assume that the FBI did a search on every Sergey Kislyak intercept in their possession, so they will have read everything that got picked up, including all recorded calls with Trump aides.

On March 15, the House Intelligence Committee asked the NSA, CIA, and FBI for information on unmasking. I don’t believe that request asked about access to US person names on subsequent searches or raw material. Furthermore, at least as of last week, the FBI was not rushing to comply with that request. As I noted after the Jim Comey hearing before HPSCI, none of the Republicans concerned about these issues seemed to have any basic clue about FBI’s searches on raw data. If Nunes doesn’t know (and he appears not to), it’s unlikely Ellis knows, who was until this month Nunes’ aide.

But there’s one other thing that may prevent NSC from obtaining information about the investigation: FBI sometimes uses what are called “ad hoc databases” that include raw FISA data (and probably, post EO 12333 sharing rule changes, raw EO 12333 data) tied to particular investigations. It’s unclear what conditions might necessitate the use of an ad hoc database (see page 25ff for a discussion of them), but if security concerns would encourage their use, it would be likely to have one here, an investigation which Comey described as being so sensitive he delayed briefing the Gang of Four. Ad hoc databases are restricted to those working on investigations, and include specific records of those authorized to access the database. So if FBI were using an ad hoc database for this investigation, it would be even harder for the NSC to learn what they were looking at.

If the FBI’s investigation relies on raw intelligence — and it would be unfathomable that it does not, because it would probably receive the raw FISA data tied to such an investigation routinely, and EO 12333 sharing rules specifically envision the sharing of raw data associated with counterintelligence investigations — then the NSC’s access to finished intelligence reports would provide little insight into the investigation (Nunes was a bit unclear on whether that’s what he was looking at, but the entire premise of his complaints is that these were finished reports).

But while we’re worrying about whether and how Trump would monitor an investigation into his aides, remember that in 2002, Jay Bybee wrote a memo authorizing the sharing of grand jury information with the President and his close advisors including for counterintelligence investigations.

In addition, the Patriot Act recently amended 6(e) and Title III specifically to provide that matters involving foreign intelligence or counterintelligence or foreign intelligence information may be disclosed by any attorney for the government (and in the case of Title III, also by an investigative or law enforcement officer) to certain federal officials in order to assist those officials in carrying out their duties. Federal officials who are included within these provisions may include, for example, the President, attorneys within the White House Counsel’s Office, the President’s Chief of Staff, the National Security Advisor, and officials within the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense.

[snip]

Although the new provision in Rule 6(e) permitting disclosure also requires that any disclosures be reported to the district court responsible for supervising the grand jury, we conclude that disclosures made to the President fall outside the scope of the reporting requirement contained in that amendment, as do related subsequent disclosures made to other officials on the President’s behalf.

In other words, Trump could demand that he — or his National Security Advisor! — get information on any grand jury investigations, including those covering counterintelligence cases. And no judge would be given notice of that.

With Jeff Sessions’ recusal, that’s far less likely to happen than it might have been. But understand that the Executive Branch believes that the President can learn about the happenings in grand jury investigations of the sort that might target his aides.

Update: additional details have been added to this post after it was first posted.

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.