Posts

John Bates Intervened in the Phone Dragnet Problems

Yesterday, I Con the Record released more records in response to the ACLU FOIA for records on the Section 215 program (though once again, they didn’t mention the FOIA).

Three of the documents provide more data points for a notable progression I laid out in this post, in which Reggie Walton appears to have shut down some collection from one telecom on July 9, 2009, reapproved it (including retroactively) on September 3, 2009, just in time for the Intelligence Community to claim Section 215 collection was central to the Najibullah Zazi investigation.

First, a July 2, 2009 notice to Walton provided the End-to-End review “for the Court’s information.” It had been completed on June 25 and provided to the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees on June 30. It was also included in the formal DOJ filing to Walton on August 19, which left the impression that DOJ had held it for two months before sharing it with the court. But this notice makes it clear Walton received a copy with only a slight delay (and the day before they delivered the first weekly report he had demanded). It also makes it clear he had gotten it, and probably read it, before whatever action he took on July 9. What may be the problematic collection (see page 15-16) apparently got reported to FISC before May 29 (no mention of a formal notice is included, though it seems to be addressed in the May 29 order). But there are other violations (such as the sharing described on page 17 that may involve Homeland Security) that appear to have been newly disclosed with this report.

In a second document — a September 10 notice to just the Senate Intelligence Committee (?!) that Judge Walton had reauthorized the bulk collection program on September 3 — reveals that on August 4, FISC Chief Judge John Bates had written Eric Holder a letter raising concerns. The notice portrays a September 1 demonstration for Walton, Bates, and Judge Thomas Hogan (who I believe was the only other FISC judge from the DC Circuit at the time) apparently at NSA as a response to Bates’ concerns. But the description of the demonstration also notes that,

The information was presented in the context of a current operation that concerns a potential threat to the U.S. homeland.

Remember, this was before (by 2 days) the Zazi investigation started. So this must reference something else, though it certainly didn’t sound all that urgent.

In any case, while it is unclear who got Bates involved (after all, it could have been the Administration, complaining that some of its production had been cut off), it is noteworthy he was involved, which provides a little more background to the frustration he expressed in his October 3, 2011 opinion accusing the government of signifiant misrepresentations on 3 occasions.

Finally, on October 21, in what must have been part of the PATRIOT Act reauthorization push, National Counterterrorism Center’s Michael Leiter and the NSA’s Assistant Deputy Director for Counterterrorism addressed the House Intelligence Committee. Along with their case for the program and a heavily glossed description of the problems with it (which they indicate had already been noticed in some form to the Committee), they described how tips from the dragnet “have contributed directly to the following specific cases,” plural. It includes an entirely unredacted description of the dragnet’s role in the Zazi investigation (without, for example, disclosing FBI already knew of Adis Medunjanin through travel documents to Pakistan where he and Zazi trained with terrorists). And it includes a shorter description of what must be at least one other case, which is entirely redacted. It’s possible, after all, that that second “success” (which is so credible we can’t know about it) is the ongoing threat referred to in the September 10 notice, which NSA used to scare FISC into reauthorizing the dragnet.

One more detail about the notice to HPSCI. It fails to mention that, less than 3 weeks after he reauthorized the dragnet, Walton learned — from DOJ, not NSA — of further information sharing violations. In other words, the HPSCI witnesses falsely portrayed the problems as fixed, when there were pending violations still being discussed between NSA and FISC.

There’s nothing enormous in these revelations, but they do add to the understanding of how grave FISC took these violations to be, and how partial was Congressional briefing on them.  Read more

The Common Commercial Services OLC Memo and Zombie CISPA

Some time last summer, Ron Wyden wrote Attorney General Holder, asking him (for the second time) to declassify and revoke an OLC opinion pertaining to common commercial service agreements. He said at the time the opinion “ha[d] direct relevance to ongoing congressional debates regarding cybersecurity legislation.”

That request would presumably have been made after President Obama’s April 25, 2012 veto threat of CISPA, but at a time when several proposed Cybersecurity bills, with different information sharing structures, were floating around Congress.

Wyden asked for the declassification and withdrawal of the memo again this January as part of his laundry list of requests in advance of John Brennan’s confirmation. Then, after having been silent about this request for 8 months (at least in public), Wyden asked again on September 26.

It appears that Wyden had intended to ask the question of one of the witnesses at an open Senate Intelligence Committee hearing (perhaps Deputy Attorney General James Cole), but — having had warning of his questions (because he sent them to the witnesses in advance) — Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins ensured there would not be a second round of questions.

As it happens, Wyden made the request for the memo two days after DiFi told The Hill she was preparing to advance her version of CISPA, and the day after Keith Alexander started calling for cybersecurity legislation again.

In a brief interview with The Hill in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, Feinstein said she has prepared a draft bill and plans to move it forward.

The legislation would be the Senate’s counterpart to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, known as CISPA, which cleared the House in April.

CISPA would remove legal barriers that prevent companies from sharing information with each other and the government about cyber attacks. It would also allow the government to share more information with the private sector.

Since then, Alexander has pitched new cybersecurity legislation in an “interview” with the NYT, admitting he needs to be more open about his places for cybersecurity.

Now, the Executive Branch’s unwillingness to actually share the law as it interprets it with us mere citizens prevents us from understanding precisely what relationship this OLC memo has with proposed cybersecurity legislation — but Wyden made it clear in January that it does have one. But here are some things we might surmise about the memo:

  • The Administration is currently relying on this memo. If it weren’t using it, after all, it wouldn’t need to be revoked. That means that since at least January 14, 2011 (before which date Wyden and Russ Feingold first asked it be revoked), the Administration has had a secret interpretation of law relating in some way to cybersecurity.
  • The interpretation would surprise us. As Wyden notes, “this opinion is inconsistent with the public’s understanding of the law” (he doesn’t say what that law is, but I’ll hazard a guess and say it pertains to information sharing). It’s likely, then, that some form of online provider has been sharing cyber-intelligence with the federal government under some strained interpretation of our privacy protections (and, probably, some kind of Attorney General assurances everything’s cool).

Let’s use the lesson we learned during the FISA Amendments Act where the telecoms were clambering for the legislation and the retroactive immunity, but the Internet companies were grateful for “clarity,” but explicitly opposed to retroactive immunity. When we learned the telecoms had been turning over the Internet companies metadata and content, this all made more sense. The Internet Companies wanted the telecoms to be punished for stealing their data.

In this case, in the first round of CISPA (which had broad immunity protections), Facebook and Microsoft were supporters. But in this go-around (which has still generous but somewhat more limited immunity), the big supporters consist of:

  • Telecoms (AT&T, Verizon; interestingly, Sprint did not sign a letter of support)
  • Broadband and other backbone providers (Boeing, Cisco, Comcast, TimeWarner, USTelecom)
  • Banks and financial transfer
  • Power grid operators and other utilities

Now, who knows with which of these entities the government is already relying on this common commercial services memo, which of our providers we believe have made some assurances to us but in fact they’ve made entirely different ones.

But I will say the presence of the telecoms, again, angling for immunity for information sharing, along with their analogues the broadband providers does raise questions. Especially considering Verizon Exec’s trash talking about consumer-centric Internet companies that don’t prioritize national security.

Stratton said that he appreciated that “consumer-centric IT firms” such as Yahoo, Google, Microsoft needed to “grandstand a bit, and wave their arms and protest loudly so as not to offend the sensibility of their customers.”

“This is a more important issue than that which is generated in a press release. This is a matter of national security.”

After all, the telecoms have a history of willingly cooperating with the government, even if it bypassed the protections offered by Internet companies, even if it violated the law. Have they been joined by big broadband?

Well, DOJ could clear all this up by revoking and releasing the memo. Until they do, though, my wildarsed guess is that those operating the Toobz in the country — the telecom and broadband companies — have already started sharing consumers’ data that a plain reading of the law seemingly wouldn’t permit them to do.

Is Carmen Ortiz Subjecting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to Solitary To Prevent Him from Learning about Developments in Florida?

On August 27, Attorney General Eric Holder imposed Special Administrative Measures on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the request of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz. Yesterday, Dzhokhar’s lawyers challenged the SAMs.

Josh Gerstein provides a good overview of the SAMs, but they basically amount to inching Dzhokhar closer to full solitary confinement, as well as reviewing even legal materials his lawyers bring into the prison and prohibiting lawyers and other defense staff from passing on messages from third parties.

The big question is why they’re doing this. The government’s excuses — that Dzhokhar employed “tradecraft” by (in part) throwing away a detonator in the trashcan outside of Gerry’s Italian Kitchen, to which Dzhokhar and his brother had interesting ties; that Dzhokhar’s mother released a recording of a call they had back on May 24 “to generate sympathy;” and that Dzhokhar has received 1,000 pieces of mail — are all absurd. I find it non credible that DOJ considers it “tradecraft” to throw criminal evidence away in a place that should offer up more clues. The call with Dzhokhar’s mother was 3 months before the imposition of the SAMs — and she has obeyed instructions not to repeat it. And, as Dzhokhar’s defense points out, he has not responded to any of that mail, and while some of it consists of people telling him they believe him to be innocent, none of it is “jihadist,” and some even consists of people imploring him to convert to Christianity.

The stated explanations are all ridiculous.

So why did Carmen Ortiz (and not, Dzhokhar’s lawyers point out, prison officials) impose these SAMs over 4 months after Dzhokhar got arrested?

It may be the government just wants to subject Dzhokhar to solitary to make him less defiant in case of any public appearances — to “break” him, just as the US government has used other torture methods for. (Still, if that was the purpose, why not impose them back in April and May, before his arraignment?)

But I’m particularly interested in the way this happened as things have heated up in Florida in the aftermath of FBI’s killing of Ibragim Todashev.

I’ve put the relevant dates below. And while they don’t match exactly, during the same time as Dzhokhar has been subjected to these new measures, the FBI, local authorities, and other federal agencies have been trying to investigate Florida’s Russian immigrant community that had ties to Todashev. While I have no idea why the government would want to prevent Dzhokhar from learning of any of that (nor am I aware of any evidence he knew Todashev or any of the others, though he may have known Todashev from when he lived in MA), I do find the parallel developments to be of interest.

Some of the emphasis, thus far, in how the SAMs have been applied is also of interest. The government won’t let the Defense show Dzhokhar pictures of his family (remember, he has a spooked up uncle). The government will decide what kinds of extremist literature it deems discovery relevant to Dzhokhar’s defense and therefore admissible as legal material.

The latter detail, especially, suggests another possible explanation (and it is just a theory, not one I’m ready to fully support): the government doesn’t want the Defense team to be able to substantiate any other motive for the Boston attack besides the Islamic extremism they’ve publicly claimed and highlight even in the SAM memo.

But I would love to know the real reason they are doing this.

Read more

Further Implications of UndieBomb II Leaker Guilty Plea

As you have likely heard by now, a former FBI agent has agreed to plead guilty to leaking material about the second underwear bomb attempt to reporters in May of 2012. Charlie Savage of the New York Times has the primary rundown:

A former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent has agreed to plead guilty to leaking classified information to The Associated Press about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen last year, the Justice Department announced on Monday. Federal investigators said they identified him after obtaining phone logs of Associated Press reporters.

The retired agent, a former bomb technician named Donald Sachtleben, has agreed to serve 43 months in prison, the Justice Department said. The case brings to eight the number of leak-related prosecutions brought under President Obama’s administration; under all previous presidents, there were three such cases.

“This prosecution demonstrates our deep resolve to hold accountable anyone who would violate their solemn duty to protect our nation’s secrets and to prevent future, potentially devastating leaks by those who would wantonly ignore their obligations to safeguard classified information,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, who was assigned to lead the investigation by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

In a twist, Mr. Sachtleben, 55, of Carmel, Ind., was already the subject of a separate F.B.I. investigation for distributing child pornography, and has separately agreed to plead guilty in that matter and serve 97 months. His total sentence for both sets of offenses, should the plea deal be accepted by a judge, is 140 months.

Here is the DOJ Press Release on the case.

Here is the information filed in SDIN (Southern District of Indiana). And here is the factual basis for the guilty plea on the child porn charges Sachtleben is also pleading guilty to.

So Sachtleben is the leaker, he’s going to plead guilty and this all has a nice beautiful bow on it! Yay! Except that there are several troubling issues presented by all this tidy wonderful case wrap up.

First off, the information on the leak charges refers only to “Reporter A”, “Reporter A’s news organization” and “another reporter from Reporter A’s news organization”. Now while the DOJ may be coy about the identities, it has long been clear that the “news organization” is the AP and “Reporter A” and “another reporter” are AP national security reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman (I’d hazard a guess probably in that order) and the subject article for the leak is this AP report from May 7, 2012.

What is notable about who the reporters are, and which story is involved, is that this is the exact matter that was the subject of the infamous AP phone records subpoenas that were incredibly broad – over 20 business and personal phone lines. These subpoenas, along with those in the US v. Steven Kim case collected against James Rosen and Fox News, caused a major uproar about the sanctity of First Amendment press and government intrusion thereon.

The issue here is that Attorney General Eric Holder and the DOJ, as a result of the uproar over the Read more

Has Federal Use of Drones Violated EO 12333?

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board just sent a letter to Eric Holder and James Clapper requesting that they have all the Intelligence Committee agencies update what are minimization procedures (though the letter doesn’t call them that), “to take into account new developments including technological developments.”

As you know, Executive Order 12333 establishes the overall framework for the conduct of intelligence activities by U.S. intelligence agencies. Under section 2.3 of the Executive Order, intelligence agencies can only collect, retain, and disseminate information about U.S. persons if the information fits within one of the enumerated categories under the Order and if it is permitted under that agency’s implementing guidelines approved by the Attorney General after consultation with the Director of National Intelligence.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has learned that key procedures that form the guidelines to protect “information concerning United States person” have not comprehensively been updated, in some cases in almost three decades, despite dramatic changes in information use and technology.

The whole letter reads like the public record of a far more extensive and explicit classified discussion. Which makes me wonder what PCLOB found, in particular.

There are many technological issues that might be at issue — especially location data, but also generally Internet uses. Then there’s the advance in database technology, making the sharing of information much more invasive because of the way it can be used. But I wonder if this letter isn’t a demand that members of the intelligence community correct their use of drones.

The letter seems to point to something in EO 12333 Section 2.3 as its concern. Among the other potential enumerated categories of interest is this one:

Agencies within the Intelligence Community are authorized to collect, retain or disseminate information concerning United States persons only in accordance with procedures established by the head of the agency concerned and approved by the Attorney General, consistent with the authorities provided by Part 1 of this Order. Those procedures shall permit collection, retention and dissemination of the following types of information:

[snip]

(h) Information acquired by overhead reconnaissance not directed at specific United States persons; [my emphasis]

We recently learned that the FBI has used drones in the following situations:

UAVs have been used for surveillance to support missions related to kidnappings, search and rescue operations, drug interdictions, and fugitive investigations. Since late 2006, the FBI has conducted surveillance using UAVs in eight criminal cases and two national security cases.  For example, earlier this year in Alabama, the FBI used UAV surveillance to support the successful rescue of the 5-year-old child who was being held hostage in an underground bunker by Jimmy Lee Dykes.

[snip]

The FBI does not use UAVs to conduct “bulk” surveillance or to conduct general surveillance not related to an investigation or an assessment.

It goes on to cite the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide as its internal authority for the use of drones.

And while FBI’s use of drones to catch a kidnapper may not fall under the FBI’s intelligence mandate (and therefore may not violate EO 12333, which is about intelligence collection), it seems the two national security uses would.

If the subject of those national security investigations was a US person, it would seem to be a violation of EO 12333.

Note, too, that drones are listed among PCLOB’s focus items (see page 13).

That’s just a guess. I would also imagine that minimization procedures need updated given the more prevalent use of databases (NCTC’s access of government databases is another of PCLOB’s focuses). I would imagine that some intelligence community members (including both the NCTC and DHS) are in violation of the mandate that the FBI collect foreign intelligence within the US. And PCLOB also cites GPC use as another of its foci, which is one of the technologies that has developed in the last 30 years.

But given the timing of it all, I wonder if this is a push to get the FBI to stop using drones for intelligence collection.

Eric Holder: Well, Maybe Just a Little Forced Nudity and Solitary Confinement…

Eric Holder has written a letter to Russian Minister of Justice Alexander Valdimirovich Konovalov. In it, he claims to address the issues Edward Snowden raised in his application for asylum to Russia (I’m not sure he accurately represents the claim — in other asylum applications Snowden made a clear case he was charged with a political crime, which Holder doesn’t mention at all).

The letter assures Konovalov that the charges currently charged don’t carry the death penalty and the government wouldn’t seek the death penalty if he were charged with such crimes.

But it also offers this guarantee that Snowden won’t be tortured:

Second, Mr. Snowden will not be tortured. Torture is unlawful in the United States.

That’s it! The guy whose DOJ reviewed but chose not to charge a bunch of CIA torturers (and those who obstructed investigations into that torture) says torture is illegal here and therefore Snowden wouldn’t be tortured.

Assuming, of course, you believe the forced nudity and solitary confinement Bradley Manning was illegally (per the judge in his case) subjected to doesn’t amount to torture. I’m sure Vladimir Putin would agree, but much of the civilized world does not.

In other curious assurances, Holder promises that Snowden would have the right to counsel.

Any questioning of Mr. Snowden could be conducted only with his consent: his participation would be entirely voluntary, and his legal counsel would be present should he wish it.

I guess Holder ought to tell Dzhokhar Tsarnaev about this return to the good old days, because he asked for a lawyer several times under questioning before he got one.

These assurances are all very nice. But more and more, such assurances are easily disproven by our recent history. Again, I don’t think Vlad Putin gives a great shit about all that. But ultimately this increasingly shoddy recent history will hurt such claims in the international realm.

In Bid to Placate Legacy Media, DOJ Moves Closer to Instituting Official Press

The First Amendment was written, in part, to eliminate the kind of official press that parrots only the King’s sanctioned views. But with its revised “News Media Policies,” DOJ gets us closer to having just that, an official press.

That’s because all the changes laid out in the new policy (some of which are good, some of which are obviously flawed) apply only to “members of the news media.” They repeat over and over and over and over, “news media.” I’m not sure they once utter the word “journalist” or “reporter.” And according to DOJ’s Domestic Investigation and Operations Guide, a whole slew of journalists are not included in their definition of “news media.”

DIOG does include online news in its definition of media (PDF 157).

“News media” includes persons and organizations that gather, report or publish news, whether through traditional means (e.g., newspapers, radio, magazines, news service) or the on-line or wireless equivalent. A “member of the media” is a person who gathers, reports, or publishes news through the news media.

But then it goes on to exclude bloggers from those included in the term “news media.”

The definition does not, however, include a person or entity who posts information or opinion on the Internet in blogs, chat rooms or social networking sites, such as YouTube, Facebook, or MySpace, unless that person or entity falls within the definition of a member of the media or a news organization under the other provisions within this section (e.g., a national news reporter who posts on his/her personal blog).

Then it goes onto lay out what I will call the “WikiLeaks exception.”

As the term is used in the DIOG, “news media” is not intended to include persons and entities that simply make information available. Instead, it is intended to apply to a person or entity that gathers information of potential interest to a segment of the general public, uses editorial skills to turn raw materials into a distinct work, and distributes that work to an audience, as a journalism professional.

The definition does warn that if there is any doubt, the person should be treated as media. Nevertheless, the definition seems to exclude a whole bunch of people (including, probably, me), who are engaged in journalism.

The limitation of all these changes to the “news media” is most obvious when it treats the Privacy Protection Act — which should have prevented DOJ from treating James Rosen as a  suspect. They say,

The Privacy Protection Act of 1980 (PPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000aa, generally prohibits the search or seizure of work product and documentary materials held by individuals who have a purpose to disseminate information to the public. The PPA, however, contains a number of exceptions to its general prohibition, including the “suspect exception” which applies when there is “probable cause to believe that the person possessing such materials has committed or is committing a criminal offense to which the materials relate,” including the “receipt, possession, or communication of information relating to the national defense, classified information, or restricted data “under enumerated provisions. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000aa(a)(1) and (b)(1). Under current Department policy, a Deputy Assistant Attorney General may authorize an application for a search warrant that is covered by the PPA, and no higher level reviews or approvals are required.

First, the Department will modify its policy concerning search warrants covered by the PPA involving members of the news media to provide that work product materials and other documents may be sought under the “suspect exception” of the PPA only when the member of the news media is the focus of a criminal investigation for conduct not connected to ordinary newsgathering activities. Under the reviews policy, the Department would not seek search warrants under the PPA’s suspect exception if the sole purpose is the investigation of a person other than the member of the news media.

Second, the Department would revise current policy to elevate the current approval requirements and require the approval of the Attorney General for all search warrants and court orders issued pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d) directed at members of the news media. [my emphasis]

The PPA, however, applies to all persons “reasonably believed to have a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public communication.”

Notwithstanding any other law, it shall be unlawful for a government officer or employee, in connection with the investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense, to search for or seize any work product materials possessed by a person reasonably believed to have a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public communication, in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce;

I’m clearly covered by the PPA. But the FBI could easily decide to exclude me from this “news media” protection so as to be able to snoop into my work product.

Congratulations to the “members of the news media” who have been deemed the President’s official press. I hope you use your privileges wisely.

Update: I’ve learned that the issue of whom this applied to did come up in background meetings at DOJ; in fact, DOJ raised the issue. The problem is, there is no credentialing system that could define who gets this protection and DOJ didn’t want to lay it out (and most of the people invited have never been anything but a member of the news media, making it hard for them to understand how to differentiate a journalist).

Ultimately, I think DOJ is so anxious for Congress to pass a shield law (which they say elsewhere in their report) because it’ll mean Congress will do the dirty work of defining who is and who is not a journalist.

Edward Snowden: Congress Has Immunity from Spying, But You Don’t

I’ll admit from the start that the Snowden chat at the Guardian was a brilliant journalistic and technical feat. At the same time, it’s clear that Snowden is still closely following the news, and presumably shaping his answers for maximal political effect.

So I take this comment, the last words he spoke on the chat, with a grain of salt.

This is the precise reason that NSA provides Congress with a special immunity to its surveillance.

Certainly, it would seem technically feasible to block all Verizon numbers associated with official Congressional communications devices. It would be far harder to block the abundant communications devices tied to campaign activity.

From this, shall we assume the White House and Courts are also immune?

Contrast that with Snowden’s claims about we peons’ communications.

NSA likes to use “domestic” as a weasel word here for a number of reasons. The reality is that due to the FISA Amendments Act and its section 702 authorities, Americans’ communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as “incidental” collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications. Even in the event of “warranted” intercept, it’s important to understand the intelligence community doesn’t always deal with what you would consider a “real” warrant like a Police department would have to, the “warrant” is more of a templated form they fill out and send to a reliable judge with a rubber stamp.

[snip]

US Persons do enjoy limited policy protections (and again, it’s important to understand that policy protection is no protection – policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens) and one very weak technical protection – a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points. The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the “widest allowable aperture,” and can be stripped out at any time. Even with the filter, US comms get ingested, and even more so as soon as they leave the border. Your protected communications shouldn’t stop being protected communications just because of the IP they’re tagged with.

I do believe I pointed out James Clapper using “domestic” as just on such weasel word (I prefer to call it Orwellian turd-splat) this morning!

Clearly, Snowden is trying to make it clear that our Congressional overseers aren’t protecting our interests as well as the NSA has protected theirs (for good reasons under the Constitution, I would add).

So this claim may just be an effort to make us more pissed.

Remember, however, the day after the first leak on this, Eric Holder testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Barbara Milulski, who (as a tremendously powerful Senator representing NSA) had not previously publicly ever met NSA surveillance she didn’t like, was up in arms about the possibility the government was surveilling her communications.

Those concerns had been placated by the time Keith Alexander testified a day or so later.

So while Snowden is clearly trying to push the debate, it is also quite likely that the immunity comment is true.

Meet 3 PATRIOT Act False Positives Investigated for Buying Beauty Supplies

Both Mike Rogers and Ron Wyden made claims about the efficacy of the surveillance scoops of the last few days, especially the use of Section 215 to collect the phone data — and other tangible stuff, including credit card records — of every American.

The assessment of efficacy ought to consider a number of factors: Whether this surveillance has prevented any attacks (Rogers says it has, but mentions only one in the entire 7 year span of the program). Why it didn’t prevent an attack like the Boston Marathon bombing, which was carried out by two guys whose lives and extremist interests were splashed all over social media, and one of whom was discussed in international texts  that would have been fair game for collection under PRISM.

But an efficacy assessment also needs to find a way to quantify the costs such surveillance has on false positives.

So let’s consider what may have happened to three probable false positives who had their lives thoroughly investigated in 2009 after being — wrongly, apparently — tied to Najibullah Zazi’s plot to bomb the NYC subway.

We first learned of these three people when they appeared in the detention motion the FBI used to keep him in custody in Brooklyn. As part of the proof offered that Zazi was a real threat, FBI described 3 people in Aurora, CO, who bought large amounts of beauty supplies.

Evidence that “individuals associated with Zazi purchased unusual quantities of hydrogen and acetone products in July, August, and September 2009 from three different beauty supply stores in and around Aurora;” these purchases include:

  • Person one: a one-gallon container of a product containing 20% hydrogen peroxide and an 8-oz bottle of acetone
  • Person two: an acetone product
  • Person three: 32-oz bottles of Ion Sensitive Scalp Developer three different times

Unlike just about everything else cited in the detention motion, there was no obvious means by which these individuals were identified.

During the debate on PATRIOT Act reauthorization later that fall, Dianne Feinstein used the Zazi investigation to insist that Section 215 retain its broad “relevant to” standard. Given her insistence Section 215 had been important to the investigation, and given that the identification of these beauty supply buying subjects appeared to work backwards from their purchase of beauty supplies, I guessed at the time that the FBI used Section 215 to cross reference all the people who had bought these beauty supplies in Aurora, CO — which are precursors for the TATP explosive Zazi made — with possible associations with Zazi.

Just days later, as part of the debate, Ben Cardin discussed using National Security Letters to track people who buy “cleaning products that could be used to make explosive device.” And John Kyl discussed wanting to “know about Joe Blow buying hydogen peroxide.” Acetone and hydrogen peroxide, the same precursors used to implicate these three people.

In February 2011, Robert Mueller confirmed explicitly that Section 215 had been used to collect “records relating to the purchase of hydrogen peroxide.”

That seems to suggest that the government used Section 215 or NSLs to search on all the people who bought acetone and hydrogen peroxide in Aurora (by all public reporting, Zazi kept to himself the entire time he lived in CO).

But here’s the thing: these three people never appeared again in the legal case against Zazi and his co-conspirators. The only one from CO ever implicated in the plot was Zazi’s father, who had lied to protect his son.

Poof!

They were three known associates buying dangerous explosives precursors one day, and apparently became either cleared innocents or recruited confidential informants the next day.

In other words, they appear to be false positives identified by the Section 215 dragnet celebrated by Obama and DiFi and everyone else implicated in it now as a great way to prevent terrorism (Zazi, remember, was discovered through legal FISA intercepts obtained after we got a tip from Pakistan).

Now, no one, as far as I know, has ever found these three probable false positives to ask them what they went through during the period when they were suspected of being co-conspirators in the biggest terrorist attack since 9/11. But given the likelihood that the association with Zazi went through his mosque (the other likely possibility is another driver from the airport), I imagine that their neighbors and employers got awfully suspicious when the FBI showed up and started asking questions. How badly does being actively — and, apparently, falsely — investigated for being a terrorist ruin your life if you’re an American Muslim? Do you lose job security? Do other kids’ parents refuse to let their kids play with yours? Does your homeowners association try to cause you trouble?

That’s what this debate about efficacy needs to quantify. Data mining is never completely accurate, and given the small number of terrorists and therefore the high degree of guessworks that goes into what counts as an association, you’re going to have false positives, as appears to have happened here.

Lots of apologists are saying they never do anything wrong, and therefore they don’t have to worry. But it appears that doing something as innocent as buying hair bleach can get you sucked into this dragnet.

Section 215: The White House’s Bullshit Talking Points

Here’s what the White House has offered as talking points to defend collecting (DiFi has confirmed) all the call data from all Americans since 2006. Interspersed is my commentary.

The article discusses what purports to be an order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes the production of business records. Orders of the FISA Court are classified.

As they’ve done with drone strikes and, especially, WikiLeaks cables before, the Administration refuses to confirm that this is, in fact, what several members of Congress have made it clear it is: an authentic FISA Order that (as Dianne Feinstein revealed) is just the quarterly renewal of a program that goes back to the PATRIOT Act renewal in March 2006.

In other words, with its “talking points,” the Administration is recommitting to keeping this program legally secret, even though it’s not secret.

Everything that say after they set up that information asymmetry should be regarded with the knowledge that the White House refuses to permit you to check its claims.

The talking points go on.

On its face, the order reprinted in the article does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.

Here, the White House does two things. With its “exclusively metadata” comment, it tries to minimize how much metadata really provides. Here’s how Shane Harris, in a superb explainer, describes what metadata can really provide.

What can you learn with metadata but no content?

A lot. In fact, telephone metadata can be more useful than the words spoken on the phone call. Starting with just one target’s phone number, analysts construct a social network. They can see who the target talks to most often. They can discern if he’s trying to obscure who he knows in the way he makes a call; the target calls one number, say, hangs up, and then within second someone calls the target from a different number. With metadata, you can also determine someone’s location, both through physical landlines or, more often, by collecting cell phone tower data to locate and track him. Metadata is also useful for trying to track suspects that use multiple phones or disposable phones. For more on how instructive metadata can be, read this.

Note the White House fails to mention the forms of some metadata, such as geolocation, that are particularly invasive.

But the other thing this White House bullshit talking point does is precisely the same thing the Bush White House did when, in 2005 after James Risen and Eric Lichtblau exposed the illegal wiretap program, it dubbed a subpart of the program the Terrorist Surveillance Program and talked about how innocuous it was taken in solitary. The White House is segregating one part of the government’s interdependent surveillance system and preening about how harmless that isolated part is in isolation.

What the White House doesn’t mention is how the government uses this data, among other ways, to identify possible terrorists who they can conduct more investigation of, including accessing their content using this data mining to establish probable cause.

What the White House is trying to hide, in other words, is that this collection is part of a massive collection program that uses algorithms and other data analysis to invent people to investigate as terrorists.

And then the bullshit White House talking points contradict themselves.

Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.

Wait, what? Just one talking point ago, the White House told us that, “The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber.” But here we are, a mere talking point later, and the White House is claiming that it is used to discover whether known terrorists are in contact with other persons? Uh, so it does involve the known identities of both existing suspects and those gleaned from this massive collection of data, huh?

But don’t worry. Because a court has rubber stamped this.

As we have publicly stated before, all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congress passed that act and is regularly and fully briefed on how it is used, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizes such collection.

How does the separation of powers work again? Congress passes the law, the Executive enforces the law, and Courts review the law?

Only, in its bold claim that all three branches of government support this, the Court’s role is to “authorize such collection.” There’s a reason for that word, authorize. The only thing the courts are permitted to review are whether the government has provided,

(A) a statement of facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation (other than a threat assessment) conducted in accordance with subsection (a)(2) to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, such things being presumptively relevant to an authorized investigation if the applicant shows in the statement of the facts that they pertain to—
(i) a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power;

(ii) the activities of a suspected agent of a foreign power who is the subject of such authorized investigation; or

(iii) an individual in contact with, or known to, a suspected agent of a foreign power who is the subject of such authorized investigation; and

(B) an enumeration of the minimization procedures adopted by the Attorney General under subsection (g) that are applicable to the retention and dissemination by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of any tangible things to be made available to the Federal Bureau of Investigation based on the order requested in such application.

That is, the government just has to make a “reasonable” argument that this stuff is “relevant” to an investigation geared toward protecting against international terror or foreign clandestine activities. And if they can point to any number of foreign types (a foreign power, a suspected agent of a foreign power, or someone in contact with a suspected agent of a foreign power), the judge is instructed to presume it is related even if that seems like a stretch.

This is not a robust review of the claims the government is making. On the contrary, it is designed not to be a robust review of those claims.

Which brings us to Congress, that other branch the White House touts. It is utterly and embarrassingly true that they have repeatedly bought off on this, even if James Sensenbrenner, among others, is suckering journalists claiming that he didn’t. Indeed, oversight committees shot down efforts to limit Section 215 orders to people who actually had a tie to a suspected terrorist or foreign spy in 2006, 2009, and 2011. Such language was shot down each time. So, too, were efforts in 2011 and 2012 to reveal what was really going on in Section 215 collection; oversight committees shot that down too.

So here, in a rarity for national security overreach, the White House is absolutely right. Congress repeatedly bought off on this program, including its unbelievably broad standard for “relevance.”

Except … except … when Ron Wyden tried to get the government to tell him how many Americans’ records had been reviewed (by using this front-end collection to identify the back-end collection) the Inspectors General in question professed to be helpless to do that (later hints suggested they had done that study, but refused to share it with the Intelligence Committees).

So while it is true that Congress, with a few exceptions, have been completely complicit in this, it is also true that the Executive Branch has withheld the information Congress needs to understand what is happening with US person data.

I wonder why?

Never you worry, though, because it’s all constitutional.

There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That regime has been briefed to and approved by the Court.

Activities authorized under the Act are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties.

Don’t worry, the White House concludes. The legal review designed not to be robust is robust.

And to be fair, the FISA Court has, on at least one occasion, told the Administration they were violating the Fourth Amendment. Though apparently DOJ and ODNI thought this Fourth Amendment violative collection was kosher, as they had to be slapped down by the court, so I’m not sure what purpose their purported oversight serves.

But as I pointed out this morning, there’s a flaw to this argument that is grounded in the Administration’s refusal to admit this is a real FISA Court order.

Standing.

The government, over and over and over and over, assures us this is all very Constitutional. Even while the government, over and over and over and over, goes to great lengths to ensure citizens don’t learn how they’re being surveilled, which would (in addition to pissing them off) give them the ability to sue.

Until the Americans who have been surveilled are permitted to challenge this in a court — precisely what the government has gone to great lengths to prevent — White House claims to constitutionality ring hollow.

The government doesn’t have the confidence to let us test these claims in court. That ought to tell you what they really think about its constitutionality.