Posts

Why I Left The Intercept: The Surveillance Story They Let Go Untold for 15 Months

The Intercept has a long, must-read story from James Risen about the government’s targeting of him for his reporting on the war on terror. It’s self-serving in many ways — there are parts of his telling of the Wen Ho Lee, the Valerie Plame, and the Jeffrey Sterling stories he leaves out, which I may return to. But it provides a critical narrative of DOJ’s pursuit of him. He describes how DOJ tracked even his financial transactions with his kids (which I wrote about here).

The government eventually disclosed that they had not subpoenaed my phone records, but had subpoenaed the records of people with whom I was in contact. The government obtained my credit reports, along with my credit card and bank records, and hotel and flight records from my travel. They also monitored my financial transactions with my children, including cash I wired to one of my sons while he was studying in Europe.

He also reveals that DOJ sent him a letter suggesting he might be a subject of the investigation into Stellar Wind.

But in August 2007, I found out that the government hadn’t forgotten about me. Penny called to tell me that a FedEx envelope had arrived from the Justice Department. It was a letter saying the DOJ was conducting a criminal investigation into “the unauthorized disclosure of classified information” in “State of War.” The letter was apparently sent to satisfy the requirements of the Justice Department’s internal guidelines that lay out how prosecutors should proceed before issuing subpoenas to journalists to testify in criminal cases.

[snip]

When my lawyers called the Justice Department about the letter I had received, prosecutors refused to assure them that I was not a “subject” of their investigation. That was bad news. If I were considered a “subject,” rather than simply a witness, it meant the government hadn’t ruled out prosecuting me for publishing classified information or other alleged offenses.

But a key part of the story lays out the NYT’s refusals to report Risen’s Merlin story and its reluctance — until Risen threatened to scoop him with his book — to publish the Stellar Wind one.

Glenn Greenwald is rightly touting the piece, suggesting that the NYT was corrupt for acceding to the government’s wishes to hold the Stellar Wind story. But in doing so he suggests The Intercept would never do the same.

That’s not correct.

One of two reasons I left The Intercept is because John Cook did not want to publish a story I had written — it was drafted in the content management system — about how the government uses Section 702 to track cyberattacks. Given that The Intercept thinks such stories are newsworthy, I’m breaking my silence now to explain why I left The Intercept.

I was recruited to work with First Look before it was publicly announced. The initial discussions pertained to a full time job, with a generous salary. But along the way — after Glenn and Jeremy Scahill had already gotten a number of other people hired and as Pierre Omidyar started hearing from friends that the effort was out of control — the outlet decided that they were going to go in a different direction. They’d have journalists — Glenn and Jeremy counted as that. And they’d have bloggers, who would get paid less.

At that point, the discussion of hiring me turned into a discussion of a temporary part time hire. I should have balked at that point. What distinguishes my reporting from other journalists — that I’m document rather than source-focused (though by no means exclusively), to say nothing of the fact that I was the only journalist who had read both the released Snowden documents and the official government releases — should have been an asset to The Intercept. But I wanted to work on the Snowden documents, and so I agreed to those terms.

There were a lot of other reasons why, at that chaotic time, working at The Intercept was a pain in the ass. But nevertheless I set out to write stories I knew the Snowden documents would support. The most important one, I believed, was to document how the government was using upstream Section 702 for cybersecurity — something it had admitted in its very first releases, but something that it tried to hide as time went on. With Ryan Gallagher’s help, I soon had the proof of that.

The initial hook I wanted to use for the story was how, in testimony to PCLOB, government officials misleadingly suggested it only used upstream to collect on things like email addresses.

Bob Litt:

We then target selectors such as telephone numbers or email addresses that will produce foreign intelligence falling within the scope of the certifications.

[snip]

It is targeted collection based on selectors such as telephone numbers or email addresses where there’s reason to believe that the selector is relevant to a foreign intelligence purpose.

[snip]

It is also however selector-based, i.e. based on particular phone numbers or emails, things like phone numbers or emails.

Raj De:

Selectors are things like phone numbers and email addresses.

[snip]

A term like selector is just an operational term to refer to something like an email or phone number, directive being the legal process by which that’s effectuated, and tasking being the sort of internal government term for how you start the collection on a particular selector.

[snip]

So all collection under 702 is based on specific selectors, things like phone numbers or email addresses.

Brad Wiegmann:

A selector would typically be an email account or a phone number that you are targeting.

[snip]

So that’s when we say selector it’s really an arcane term that people wouldn’t understand, but it’s really phone numbers, email addresses, things like that.

[snip]

So putting those cases aside, in cases where we just kind of get it wrong, we think the email account or the phone is located overseas but it turns out that that’s wrong, or it turns out that we think it’s a non-U.S. person but it is a  U.S. person, we do review every single one to see if that’s the case.

That PCLOB’s witnesses so carefully obscured the fact that 702 is used to collect cybersecurity and other IP-based or other code collection is important for several reasons. First, because collection on a chat room or an encryption key, rather than an email thread, has very different First Amendment implications than collecting on the email of a target. But particularly within the cybersecurity function, identifying foreignness is going to be far more difficult to do because cyberattacks virtually by definition obscure their location, and you risk collecting on victims (whether they are hijacked websites or emails, or actual theft victims) as well as the perpetrator.

Moreover, the distinction was particularly critical because most of the privacy community did not know — many still don’t — how NSA interpreted the word “facility,” and therefore was missing this entire privacy-impacting aspect of the program (though Jameel Jaffer did raise the collection on IP addresses in the hearing).

I had, before writing up the piece, done the same kind of iterative work (one, two, three) I always do; the last of these would have been a worthy story for The Intercept, and did get covered elsewhere. That meant I had put in close to 25 hours working on the hearing before I did other work tied to the story at The Intercept.

I wrote up the story and started talking to John Cook, who had only recently been brought in, about publishing it. He told me that the use of 702 with cyber sounded like a good application (it is!), so why would we want to expose it. I laid out why it would be questionably legal under the 2011 John Bates opinion, but in any case would have very different privacy implications than the terrorism function that the government liked to harp on.

In the end, Cook softened his stance against spiking the story. He told me to keep reporting on it. But in the same conversation, I told him I was no longer willing to work in a part time capacity for the outlet, because it meant The Intercept benefitted from the iterative work that was as much a part of my method as meetings with sources that reveal no big scoop. I told him I was no longer willing to work for The Intercept for free.

Cook’s response to that was to exclude me from the first meeting at which all Intercept reporters would be meeting. The two things together — the refusal to pay me for work and expertise that would be critical to Intercept stories, as well as the reluctance to report what was an important surveillance story, not to mention Cook’s apparent opinion I was not a worthy journalist — are why I left.

And so, in addition to losing the person who could report on both the substance and the policy of the spying that was so central to the Snowden archives, the story didn’t get told until 15 months later, by two journalists with whom I had previously discussed 702’s cybersecurity function specifically with regards to the Snowden archive. In the interim period, the government got approval for the Tor exception (which I remain the only reporter to have covered), an application that might have been scrutinized more closely had the privacy community been discussing the privacy implications of collecting location-obscured data in the interim.

As recently as November, The Intercept asked me questions about how 702 is actually implemented because I am, after all, the expert.

So by all means, read The Intercept’s story about how the NYT refused to report on certain stories. But know that The Intercept has not always been above such things itself. In 2014 it was reluctant to publish a story the NYT thought was newsworthy by the time they got around to publishing it 15 months later.

In Advance of USA Freedom and CISA Fights, PCLOB Pretends Section 702 Doesn’t Have a Cyber Function

In a piece for Salon, I note some of the weird silences in yesterday’s PCLOB report, from things like the failure to give defendants notice (which I discussed yesterday) to the false claim that Targeting Procedures haven’t been released (they have been — by Edward Snowden). One of the most troubling silences, however, pertains to cybersecurity.

That’s especially true in one area where PCLOB inexplicably remained entirely silent. PCLOB noted in its report that, because Congress limited its mandate to counterterrorism programs, it focused primarily on those uses of Section 702. That meant a number of PCLOB’s discussions — particularly regarding “incidental collections” of Americans sucked up under Section 702 — minimized the degree to which Americans who corresponded with completely innocent foreigners could be in a government database. That said, PCLOB did admit there were other uses, and it discussed the government’s use of Section 702 to pursue weapons proliferators.

Yet PCLOB remained silent about a use of Section 702 that both Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s office, in its very first information sheet on Section 702 released in June 2013, and multiple government witnesses at PCLOB’s own hearing on this topic in March, discussed: cybersecurity. Not only should that have been discussed because Congress is preparing to debate cybersecurity legislation that would be modeled on Section 702. But the use of Section 702 for cybersecurity presents a number of unique, and potentially more significant, privacy concerns.

And PCLOB just dodged that issue entirely, even though Section 702′s use for cybersecurity is unclassified.

In the transcript of the March PCLOB hearing on Section 702 uses, the word “cyber” shows up 12 times. Four of those references come from DOJ’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brad Wiegmann’s description of the kinds of foreign intelligence uses targeted under Section 702. (The other references came from Information Technology Industry Council President Dean Garfield.)

MR. WIEGMANN: You task a selector. So you’re identifying, that’s when you take that selector to the company and say this one’s been approved. You’ve concluded that it is, does belong to a non-U.S. person overseas, a terrorist, or a proliferator, or a cyber person, right, whoever it is, and then we go to the company and get the information.

[snip]

It’s aimed at only those people who are foreign intelligence targets and you have reason to believe that going up on that account that I mentioned, bad guy at Google.com is going to give you back information, information that is foreign intelligence, like on cyber threats, on terrorists, on proliferation, whatever it might be.

[snip]

So in other words, if I need to, if it’s Joe Smith and his name is necessary if I’m passing it to that foreign government and it’s key that they understand that it’s Joe Smith because that’s relevant to understanding what the threat is, or what the information is, let’s say he’s a cyber, malicious cyber hacker or whatever, and it was key to know the information, then you might pass Joe Smith’s name.

Yesterday’s report, however, doesn’t mention “cyber” a single time. Indeed, it seems to go out of its way to avoid mentioning it.

As discussed elsewhere in this Report, the Board believes that the Section 702 program significantly aids the government’s efforts to prevent terrorism, as well as to combat weapons proliferation and gather foreign intelligence for other purposes.

[snip]

The Section 702 program, for instance, is also used for surveillance aimed at countering the efforts of proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.473 Given that these other foreign intelligence purposes of the program are not strictly within the Board’s mandate, we have not scrutinized the effectiveness of Section 702 in contributing to those other purposes with the same rigor that we have applied in assessing the program’s contribution to counterterrorism. Nevertheless, we have come to learn how the program is used for these other purposes, including, for example, specific ways in which it has been used to combat weapons proliferation and the degree to which the program supports the government’s efforts to gather foreign intelligence for the benefit of policymakers.

Its footnote to that last section cites DOJ’s 2012 report to SSCI on the uses of Section 702 (which doesn’t mention cyber) rather than the information sheet released in June 2013, which does.

I find PCLOB’s silence about the use of Section 702 to pursue cyber targets particularly interesting for several reasons.

First, because cyber targets pose unique privacy threats — in part because cyberattackers are more likely to hide their location and exploit the communications of entirely innocent people, meaning Section 702’s claimed targeting limits offer no protection to Americans. Additionally, targeting (as Wiegmann describes it) a “malicious cyber hacker” goes beyond any traditional definition of foreign agent; it is telling he didn’t use a Chinese military hacker as his example instead! Indeed, while proliferation (along with foreign governments, the other presumed certification) is solidly within FISA Amendment Act’s definition of foreign intelligence, cybersecurity is not. In its discussion of back door searches, PCLOB admits there are concerns raised by back door searches that are heightened (or perhaps more sensitive, because they involve affluent white people) outside the counterterrorism context, that’s especially true for cybersecurity targeting.

Consider, too, the likelihood that cyber collection is among the categories of about collection that PCLOB obliquely mentions but doesn’t describe due to classification.

Although we cannot discuss the details in an unclassified public report, the moniker “about” collection describes a number of distinct scenarios, which the government has in the past characterized as different “categories” of “about” collection. These categories are not predetermined limits that confine what the government acquires; rather, they are merely ways of describing the different forms of communications that are neither to nor from a tasked selector but nevertheless are collected because they contain the selector somewhere within them.

At the beginning of the report, PCLOB repeated the government’s claim this is primarily about emails; here in the guts of it, it obliquely references other categories of collection, without really considering whether these categories present different privacy concerns.

Remember, too, that the original, good version of USA Freedom Act remains before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That bill would disallow the use of upstream 702 for any use but counterterrorism and counterproliferation. Did PCLOB ignore this use of Section 702 just to avoid alerting Senators who haven’t been briefed on it that it exists?

Finally, I also find PCLOB’s silence about NSA’s admitted use of Section 702 to pursue cyberattackers curious given that, after Congress largely ditched ideas to involve PCLOB in various NSA oversight — such as providing it a role in the FISA Advocate position — Dianne Feinstein’s Cyber Information Sharing Act all of a sudden has found a use for PCLOB again (serving a function, I should add, that arguably replaces FISC review).

(1) BIENNIAL REPORT FROM PRIVACY AND CIVIL LIBERTIES OVERSIGHT BOARD.—Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act and not less frequently than once every 2 years thereafter, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board shall submit to Congress and the President a report providing—

(A) an assessment of the privacy and civil liberties impact of the type of activities carried out under this Act; and

(B) an assessment of the sufficiency of the policies, procedures, and guidelines established pursuant to section 5 in addressing privacy and civil liberties concerns.

Feinstein introduced this bill on June 17, several weeks after PCLOB briefed her staffers on their report (they briefed Congressional committee aides on June 2, and the White House on June 17 — see just after 9:00).

A renewed openness to expanding PCLOB’s role may be entirely unmotivated, or it may stem from PCLOB’s chastened analysis of the legal issues surrounding Section 702.

But I do find it interesting that PCLOB uttered, literally, not one word about the topic that, if DiFi’s bill passes, would expand their mandate.

Does FBI EVER Age Off Its Section 702 Data?

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has released the transcript of the first panel from its hearing on Wednesday.

And while I was concerned by the following exchange — between Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brad Wiegmann and PCLOB Chair David Medine — in real time, I find it even more troubling on second pass.

MR. MEDINE: And could you address why the minimization procedures make it a reasonable form of collection under the Fourth Amendment?

[snip]

MR. WIEGMANN: You have retention rules. I believe in some cases, for NSA for example, you have a five year retention limit on how long the information can be retained. And so these are procedures that the courts have found protect U.S. privacy and make the collection reasonable for Fourth Amendment purposes.

MR. MEDINE: And under the minimization procedures I understand that the agency, the NSA, FBI, the CIA have their own minimization procedures and they’re not the same with each other?

MR. WIEGMANN: That’s right.

MR. MEDINE: Can you address why that shouldn’t be a concern that this information is not being subjected to the same minimization standards?

MR. WIEGMANN: So each of them have their own minimization procedures based on their unique mission, and the court reviews each of those for CIA, FBI, NSA, and it’s found them all reasonable for each different agency. They’re slightly different based on the operational needs, but they’re similar.

MR. MEDINE: Would it make more sense then if the same set of minimization procedures apply across the board for this kind of information?

MR. WIEGMANN: I don’t think. Again, just to contrast, for example, FBI and NSA that are using information in different ways. The FBI has a little more latitude with respect to U.S. person information in terms of criminal activity and evidence of a crime than NSA, which doesn’t have that law enforcement mission. So I think it is important to have some differences between the agencies in terms of how they handle the information.

We know what the NSA minimization procedures look like. Not only do they permit dissemination use of US person data in more than the examples described by Wiegmann, they’re frightfully permissive on other points (such as the retention of data for technical database purposes, or the limits on Attorney-Client privilege). Moreover, they permit the retention of data because of a threat to property, a clear expansion on the legal requirements.

But from Wiegmann’s description, it sounds like FBI’s minimization procedures (which are used as a basis for National Counterterrorism Center’s minimization procedures) are worse. Worse because they permit FBI even more leeway to use FISA authorized data in criminal investigations.

And worse because it’s not clear whether there’s even any retention time limits. Indeed, if you watch the clip above, it might be more accurate to punctuate that data retention sentence this way:

You have retention rules, I believe, in some cases. For NSA, for example, you have a five year retention limit.

In any case, the comment seems to suggest that in other cases — like, perhaps, the FBI and derivatively NCTC — you don’t have temporal limits. That would be consistent with FBI’s retention of many kinds of investigative data forever. But it would mean a great deal of data involving innocent Americans collected without a warrant remains in the FBI’s hands forever.

And all that’s before you consider that FBI has always, since the passage of FISA Amendments Act (or at least the first certifications later that year), been permitted to conduct backdoor searches on incidentally collected data. So they may not only be keeping this data forever, but performing warrantless back door searches on it.