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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Spying, “Things like phone numbers or emails” Turn Out to Be Far More

According to Reuters, the Intelligence Community doesn’t intend to share any details of the Yahoo scan revealed several weeks back with anyone outside of the FISA oversight committees — the House and Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.

Executive branch officials spoke to staff for members of the Senate and House of Representatives committees overseeing intelligence operations and the judiciary, according to people briefed on the events, which followed Reuters’ disclosure of the massive search.

But attempts by other members of Congress and civil society groups to learn more about the Yahoo order are unlikely to meet with success anytime soon, because its details remain a sensitive national security matter, U.S. officials told Reuters. Release of any declassified version of the order is unlikely in the foreseeable future, the officials said.

On its face, it’s a stupid stance, as I think the scan probably fits within existing legal precedents that have already been made public, even if it stretches those precedents from “packet content as content” to “email content as content” (and it may not even do that).

In addition, given that the scan was approved by a judge (albeit one working within the secret FISA court and relying on prior decisions that were issued in secrecy), by releasing more details about the scan the government could at least claim that a judge had determined the scan was necessary and proportionate to obtain details about the (as described to NYT) state-sponsored terrorist group targeted by the scan. This decision presumably relies on a long line of decisions finding warrantless surveillance justified by special needs precedents, which began to be laid out for FISC in In Re Sealed Case in 2002.

Nevertheless, even given the toll the government’s secrecy is having on Yahoo (and presumably on other providers’ willingness to cooperate with the IC), the government thus far has remained intransigent in its secrecy.

Which suggests that the IC believes it would risk more by releasing more data than by its continued, damaging silence.

I’ve already explained one of the risks they might face: that their quick anonymous description of this as a “state-sponsored terrorist group” might (this is admittedly a wildarsed guess) really mean they hacked all of Yahoo’s users to get to Iranian targets, something that wouldn’t have the same scare power as terrorists like ISIS, especially in Europe, which has a markedly different relationship with Iran than the US has.

But I also think ODNI risks losing credibility because it appears to conflict with what ODNI specifically and other spook officials generally have said in the past, both to the US public and to the international community. As I note here, the definition of “facility” has been evolving at FISC since at least 2004. But the privacy community just released a letter and a quote to Reuters that seems unaware of the change. The letter asserts,

According to reports, the order was issued under Title I of FISA, which requires the government to demonstrate probable cause that its target is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power (such as a spy or a terrorist), and probable cause that the “facility” at which the surveillance is conducted will carry the target’s communications. If reports are true, this authority to conduct a particularized search has apparently been secretly construed to authorize a mass scan.

Traditional FISA orders haven’t been limited to particularized targets since 2007, when an order targeting Al Qaeda was used to temporarily give Stellar Wind legal sanction. If one order requiring a scan of traffic at  telecom switches could target Al Qaeda in 2007, then surely one order can target Iran’s Revolutionary Guard or a similar organization in 2016. The problem is in the execution of the order, requiring Yahoo to scan all its incoming email, but it’s not clear the legal issues are much worse than in the 2007 execution.

A Reuters source goes even further, suggesting that all of Yahoo is the facility, rather than the specific code tied to the targeted group.

The groups say that Title I of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, under which sources said the order was issued, requires a finding that the target of such a wiretap is probably an agent of a foreign power and that the facility to be tapped is probably going to be used for a transmission. An entire service, such as Yahoo, has never publicly been considered to be a “facility” in such a case: instead, the word usually refers to a phone number or an email account.

Never mind that under the phone dragnet, Verizon was counted as the targeted selector (which was used by terrorists and everyone else), though admittedly that was just for metadata. Had Yahoo been designed the “place” at which a physical search were conducted this usage might be correct (that said, we know very little about how physical searches, including for stored communication, work in practice), but as Semiannual reports have made clear (admittedly in the Section 702 context), facility has come to be synonymous with selector.

[T]argeting is effectuated by tasking communication facilities (also referred to as “selectors”), including but not limited to telephone numbers and electronic communications accounts, to Section 702 electronic communication service providers.

Facilities are selectors, and here FBI got a selector tied to a kind of usage of email — perhaps an encryption signature — approved as a selector/facility.

In spite of the fact that somewhere among 30 NGOs someone should have been able to make this argument (and ACLU’s litigation side surely could do so), there is good reason for them to believe this.

That’s because the IC has very deliberately avoided talking about how what are called “about” scans but really should be termed signature scans really work.

This is most striking in a March 19, 2014 Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board hearing, which was one of the most extensive discussions of how Section 702 work. Shortly after this hearing, I contacted PCLOB to ask whether they were being fully briefed, including on the non-counterterrorism uses of 702, such as cyber, which use (or used) upstream selectors in a  different way.

Several different times in the hearing, IC witnesses described selectors as “selectors such as telephone numbers or email addresses” or “like telephone numbers or email addresses,” obscuring the full extent of what might be included (Snowden tweeted a list that I included here). Bob Litt did so while insisting that Section 702 (he was referring both to PRISM and upstream here) was not a bulk collection program:

I want to make a couple of important overview points about Section 702. First, there is either a misconception or a mischaracterization commonly repeated that Section 702 is a form of bulk collection. It is not bulk collection. 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.

I just want to repeat that Section 702 is not a bulk collection program.

Then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brad Weigmann said selectors were “really phone numbers, email addresses, things like that” when he defined selector.

A selector would typically be an email account or a phone number that you are targeting. So this is the, you get, you know, terrorists at, you know, whatever. That’s the address that you have information about that if you have reason to believe that that person is a terrorist and you would like to collect foreign intelligence information, I might be focusing on that person’s account.


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.

And when then-NSA General Counsel Raj De moved from describing Section 702 generally (“selectors are things like”), to discussing upstream, he mistakenly said collection was based on “particularly phone numbers or emails” then immediately corrected himself to say, “things like phone numbers or emails.”

So there’s two types of collection under Section 702. Both are targeted, as Bob was saying, which means they are both selector-based, and I’ll get into some more detail about what that means. Selectors are things like phone numbers and email addresses.


It is also however selector-based, i.e. based on particular phone numbers or emails, things like phone numbers or emails. This is collection to, from, or about selectors, the same selectors that are used in PRISM selection. This is not collection based on key words, for example.


That language would — and apparently did — create the false impression that about collection really did just use emails and phone numbers (which is why I called PCLOB, because I knew they were or had also targeted cyber signatures).

Here’s how all that evasiveness appeared in the PCLOB 702 report:

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.

That certainly goes beyond the linguistic game the IC witnesses were playing, but stops well short of explaining that this really isn’t all about emails and phone numbers.

Plus, there’s one exchange from that March 2014 hearing that might be taken to rule out about collection from a PRISM provider. In reply to specific prodding from Elisabeth Collins Cook, De said about collection cannot be made via PRISM.

MS. COLLINS COOK: I wanted to ask one additional question about abouts. Can you do about collection through PRISM?

MR. DE: No.

MS. COLLINS COOK: So it is limited to upstream collection?

MR. DE: Correct. PRISM is only collection to or from selectors.

Of course, De was referring to warrantless collection under Section 702. He wasn’t talking at all about what is possible under Title I. But it may have left the impression that one couldn’t order a PRISM provider to do an about scan, even though in 2007 FISA ordered telecoms to do about scans.

Ultimately, though, the IC is likely remaining mum about these details because revealing it would make clear what publicly released opinions do, but not in real detail: that these about scans have gotten far beyond a collection of content based off a scan of readily available metadata. These scans likely replicate the problem identified in 2004, in that the initial scan is not of things that count as metadata to the provider doing the scan.

The IC may have FISC approval for that argument. But they also had FISC approval for the Section 215 dragnet. And that didn’t live up to public scrutiny either.

Carrie Cordero’s Counterintelligence Complaints

I wasn’t going to respond to Carrie Cordero’s Lawfare piece on my and Jason Leopold’s story on NSA’s response to Edward Snowden’s claims he raised concerns at the agency, largely because I think her stance is fairly reasonable, particularly as compared to other Snowden critics who assume his leaks were, from start to finish, an FSB plot. But a number of people have asked me to do so, so here goes.

Let’s start with this:

As far as we know – even after this new reporting – Snowden didn’t lodge a complaint with the NSA Inspector General. Or the Department of Defense Inspector General. Or the Intelligence Community Inspector General. He didn’t follow up with the NSA Office of General Counsel. He didn’t make phone calls.  He didn’t write letters. He didn’t complain to Members of Congress who would have been willing to listen to his concerns.

Now here’s the rub: do I think that had he done all these things, the programs he questioned would have been shut down and there would have been the same effect as his unauthorized disclosures? No. He probably would have been told that more knowledgeable lawyers, leadership officials, congressmen and dozens of federal judges all assessed that the activities he questioned were legal.

Without noting the parts of the article that show that, nine months into the Snowden leaks and multiple hearings on the subject, Keith Alexander still didn’t know how contractors might raise complaints, and that the NSA editing of its Q&A on Snowden show real questions about the publicity and viability of reporting even to the IG, especially for legal violations, Cordero complains that he did not do so. Then she asserts that had Snowden gone to NSA’s IG (ignoring the record of what happened to Thomas Drake when he did the same), the programs would not have changed.

And yet, having taken a different approach, some of them have changed. Some of the programs — notably Section 215, but also tech companies’ relationship with the government, when exposed to democratic and non-FISA court review, and FISA court process itself — did get changed. I think all but the tech company changes have largely been cosmetic, Cordero has tended to think reforms would go too far. But the record shows that Snowden’s leaks, along with whatever else damage critics want to claim they caused, also led to a democratic decision to shift the US approach on surveillance somewhat. Cordero accuses Snowden of doing what he did because of ego — again, that’s her prerogative; I’m not going to persuade people who’ve already decided to think differently of Snowden — but she also argues that had Snowden followed the already problematic methods to officially report concerns, he would have had less effect raising concerns than he had in fact. Some of what he exposed may have been legally (when argued in secret) sustainable before Snowden, but they turned out not to be democratically sustainable.

Now let’s go back to how Cordero characterizes what the story showed:

Instead, the report reveals:

  • An NSA workforce conducting a huge after-action search for documents seeking to affirm or refute Snowden’s claim that he had raised red flags internally before resorting to leaking classified documents;
  • Numerous officials terrified that they would miss something in the search, knowing full-well how easily that could happen in NSA’s giant and complex enterprise; and
  • The NSA and ODNI General Counsels, and others in the interagency process –doing their job.

The emails in the report do reveal that government officials debated whether to release the one document that was evidence that Snowden did, in fact, communicate with the NSA Office of General Counsel. It’s hard to be surprised by this. On one hand, the one email in and of itself does not support Snowden’s public claim that he lodged numerous complaints; on the other hand, experienced senior government officials have been around the block enough times to know that as soon as you make a public statement that “there’s only one,” there is a very high likelihood that your door will soon be darkened by a staff member telling you, “wait, there’s more.” So it is no wonder that there was some interagency disagreement about what to do.

For what it’s worth, I think the emails show a mixed story about how well various participants did their job. They make Admiral Rogers look great (which probably would have been more prominently noted had the NSA not decided to screw us Friday night, leading to a very rushed edit job). They make Raj De, who appears to have started the push to release the email either during or just as Snowden’s interview with Brian Williams finished airing (it aired at 10:00 PM on May 28; though note the time stamps on this string of De emails are particularly suspect), look pretty crummy, and not only for that reactive response. (I emailed De for comment but got no response.)

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Later on, Cordero admits that, in addition to the OGC email, the story reported for the first time that there had also been a face-to-face conversation with one of the people involved in responding to that email.

The Vice report reveals that Snowden did do at least these things related to his interest in legal authorities and surveillance activities: (i) he clicked on a link to send a question to NSA OGC regarding USSID 18 training, which resulted in an emailed response from an NSA attorney; and (ii) he had a personal interaction (perhaps a short conversation) with a compliance official regarding questions in a training module. But according to the report, in his public statements, “Snowden insisted that he repeatedly raised concerns while at the NSA, and that his concerns were repeatedly ignored.”

(Note Cordero entirely ignores that interviews with Snowden’s colleagues — the same people whom she characterized as terrified they’d miss something in the media response but doesn’t consider whether they would be even more terrified conversations about privacy with Snowden might be deemed evidence of support for him — found a number of them having had conversations about privacy and the Constitution).

She doesn’t get into the chronology of the NSA’s treatment of the face-to-face conversation, though. What the story lays out is this:

  • Released emails show NSA now asserts that Snowden complained about two training programs within the span of a week, possibly even on the same day, with Compliance being involved in both complaints (Snowden would have known they were involved in the OGC response from forwarded emails)
  • Given the record thus far, it appears that there is no contemporaneous written record of the face-to-face complaint (we asked the NSA for any and that’s when they decided to just release the emails in the middle of the night instead of responding, though I assume there is an FBI 302 from an interview with the training woman)
  • Given the record thus far, NSA only wrote up that face-to-face complaint the day after and because NSA first saw teasers from the April 2014 Vanity Fair article revealing Snowden’s claim to have talked to “oversight and compliance”
  • In spite of what I agree was a very extensive (albeit frantic and limited in terms of the definition of “concern”) search, NSA did not — and had not, until our story — revealed that second contact, even though it was written up specifically in response to claims made in the press and well before the May 29 release of Snowden’s email
  • In the wake of NSA not having acknowledged that second contact, a senior NSA official wrote Admiral Rogers a fairly remarkable apology and (as I’ll show in a follow-up post) the NSA is now moving the goal posts on whom they claim Snowden may have talked to

Now, I actually don’t know what happened in that face-to-face contact. We asked both sides of the exchange very specific questions about it, and both sides then declined to do anything but release a canned statement (the NSA had said they would cooperate before they saw the questions). Some would say, so what? Snowden was complaining about training programs! Training programs, admittedly, that related to other documents Snowden leaked. And at least one training program, as it turns out, that the NSA IG had been pushing Compliance to fix for months, which might explain why they don’t want to answer any questions. But nevertheless “just” training programs.

I happen to care about the fact that NSA seems to have a pattern of providing, at best, very vague information about how seriously NSA has to take FISA (or, in the one program we have in its entirety, perfectly legal tips about how to bypass FISA rules), but I get that people see this as just a training issue.

I also happen to care about the fact that when Snowden asked what NSA would like to portray as a very simple question — does what would be FISA take precedence over what would be EO 12333 — it took 7 people who had been developing that training program to decide who and how to answer him. That question should be easier to answer than that (and the emailed discussion(s) about who and how to answer were among the things conspicuously withheld from this FOIA).

But yes, this is just two questions about training raised at a time (we noted in the story) when he was already on his way out the door with NSA’s secrets.

Which is, I guess, why the balance of Cordero’s post takes what I find a really curious turn.

If this is all there is – a conversation and a question  – then to believe that somehow NSA attorneys and compliance officials were supposed to divine that he was so distraught by his NSA training modules that he was going to steal the largest collection of classified documents in NSA history and facilitate their worldwide public release, is to live in a fantasy land.

No, what this new report reveals is that NSA lawyers and compliance personnel take questions, and answer them. Did they provide a simple bureaucratic response when they could or should have dug deeper? Maybe. Maybe not.

Because what they apparently do not do is go on a witch hunt of every employee who asks a couple legal questions. How effective do we think compliance and training would be, if every person who asks a question or two is then subject to intense follow-up and scrutiny? Would an atmosphere like that support a training environment, or chill it?


NSA is an organization, and a workforce, doggedly devoted to mission, and to process. In the case of Snowden, there is an argument (one I’ve made before) that its technical security and counterintelligence function failed. But to allude – as today’s report does – that a couple questions from a low level staffer should have rung all sorts of warning bells in the compliance and legal offices, is to suggest that an organization like NSA can no longer place trust in its workforce. I’d wager that the reason the NSA lawyers and compliance officials didn’t respond more vigorously to his whispered inquiries, is because they never, in their wildest dreams, believed that a coworker would violate that trust.

Cordero turns a question about whether Snowden ever complained into a question about why the NSA didn’t notice he was about to walk off with the family jewels because he complained about two training programs.

There are two reasons I find this utterly bizarre. First, NSA’s training programs suck. It’s not just me, based on review of the few released training documents, saying it (though I did work for a number of years in training), it’s also NSA’s IG saying the 702 courses, and related materials, are factually wrong or don’t address critical concepts. Even the person who was most negative towards Snowden in all the emails, the Chief of SID Strategic Communications Team, revealed that lots of people complain about the 702 test (as is also evident from the training woman’s assertion they have canned answers for such complaints).

Complaints about fairness/trick questions are something that I saw junior analysts in NTOC … would pose — these were all his age and positional peers: young enlisted Troops, interns, and new hires. Nobody that has taken this test several times, or worked on things [redacted] for more than a couple of years would make such complaints. It is not a gentleman’s course. *I* failed it once, the first time I had to renew.

I’m all for rigorous testing, but all the anecdotes about complaints about this test may suggest the problem is in the test, not the test-takers. It’s not just that — as Cordero suggested — going on a witch hunt every time someone complains about training courses would chill the training environment (of a whole bunch of people, from the sounds of things). It’s that at precisely the moment Snowden took this training it was clear someone needed to fix NSA’s training, and Cordero’s response to learning that is to wonder why someone didn’t launch a CI investigation.

Which leads me to the other point. As Cordero notes, this is not the first time she has treated the Snowden story as one primarily about bad security. I happen to agree with her about NSA’s embarrassing security: the fact that Snowden could walk away with so much utterly damns NSA’s security practices (and with this article we learn that, contrary to repeated assertions by the government, he was in an analytical role, though we’ve already learned that techs are actually the ones with unaudited access to raw data).

But here’s the thing: you cannot, as Cordero does, say that the “foreign intelligence collection activities [are] done with detailed oversight and lots of accountability” if it is, at the same time, possible for a SysAdmin to walk away with the family jewels, including raw data on targets. If Snowden could take all this data, then so can someone maliciously spying on Americans — it’s just that that person wouldn’t go to the press to report on it and so it can continue unabated. In fact, in addition to rolling out more whistleblower protections in the wake of Snowden, NSA has made some necessary changes (such as not permitting individual techs to have unaudited access to raw data anymore, which appears to have been used, at times, as a workaround for data access limits under FISA), even while ratcheting up the insider threat program that will, as Cordero suggested, chill certain useful activities. One might ask why the IC moved so quickly to insider threat programs rather than just implementing sound technical controls.

Carrie Cordero’s lesson, aside from grading the participants in this email scrum with across-the-board As, is that Snowden complaining about the same training programs the IG was also complaining about should have been a counterintelligence issue but wasn’t because of the great trust at NSA. That argument, taken in tandem with Cordero’s vouching for NSA’s employees, should not, itself, inspire trust.

Section 702 Used for Cybersecurity: You Read It Here First

I have been reporting for years that the government uses Section 702 for cybersecurity purposes, including its upstream application.

ProPublica and NYT have now confirmed and finally liberated related Snowden documents on the practice. They show that DOJ tried to formalize the process in 2012 (though I have reasons to doubt that the NSA documents released tell all of the story, as I hope to show in upcoming posts).

Without public notice or debate, the Obama administration has expanded the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of Americans’ international Internet traffic to search for evidence of malicious computer hacking, according to classified NSA documents.

In mid-2012, Justice Department lawyers wrote two secret memos permitting the spy agency to begin hunting on Internet cables, without a warrant and on American soil, for data linked to computer intrusions originating abroad — including traffic that flows to suspicious Internet addresses or contains malware, the documents show.

The Justice Department allowed the agency to monitor only addresses and “cybersignatures” — patterns associated with computer intrusions — that it could tie to foreign governments. But the documents also note that the NSA sought to target hackers even when it could not establish any links to foreign powers.

The disclosures, based on documents provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA contractor, and shared with the New York Times and ProPublica, come at a time of unprecedented cyberattacks on American financial institutions, businesses and government agencies, but also of greater scrutiny of secret legal justifications for broader government surveillance.

Jonathan Mayer, whom ProPublica and NYT cite in the article, has his own worthwhile take on what the documents say.

Stay tuned!

PCLOB Member Rachel Brand Asked NSA General Counsel to Help Her Dissent from PCLOB

Let me say straight out: Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board member Rachel Brand is no slouch. She’s very smart and very accomplished.

All that said, I am rather intrigued by the way she consulted NSA General Counsel Raj De several times — as illustrated by these emails Jason Leopold liberated from PCLOB —  as she worked on her dissent to the Democratic PCLOB members’ conclusion that the Section 215 dragnet is illegal.

On January 6, Brand emailed De. “Do you have a couple minutes to talk about a PCLOB matter today or tomorrow?” They scheduled some time to talk at midday the next day — though a request from Keith Alexander appears to have forced De to delay. Nevertheless, by 1:30 on January 7, it appears De and Brand spoke, because De forwarded two things: I Con the Record’s press release announcing the FISA Court had reauthorized the dragnet even after Judge Richard Leon ruled it unconstitutional (De makes no mention in his email, but the order had considered Leon’s ruling before reauthorizing the program), and the GPO transcript of Robert Mueller’s claim in a June 2013 House Judiciary Committee hearing that the dragnet would have prevented 9/11.

Ten days later, on January 17, Brand was emailing De again, after having seen each other that morning (that was the morning President Obama announced his own reforms to the dragnet, so it may have been in that context). She sent NSA’s General Counsel a paragraph, with one sentence highlighted, asking if it was accurate. He responded with “some suggestions for accuracy for your consideration … Feel free to give a call if you want to discuss, or would like more detail.”

Then, over that weekend, Brand and De exchanged the following emails:

Saturday, January 18, 12:31: Brand sends “the current draft of my separate statement” stating she wants “to be sure there is nothing factually or legally inaccurate in it;” she says it is currently 5 pages and tells De she needs to give PCLOB Chair David Medine the final by Sunday night

Saturday, January 18, 2:11: De responds, “happy to”

Sunday, January 19, 10:51: De responds, saying, “not that you need or want my validation, but for what’s [sic] it is worth it really reads quite well.” De then provides 3 “additional factual details” which “might fit in if you wanted to use them;” those bullets are redacted

Sunday, January 19, 3:47: Brand replies, stating that Beth (Elisebeth Collins Cook, the other Republican on PCLOB) “explicitly makes the first two in her separate statement” and that she’s “trying to keep this short, so have to forego making every available point”

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In Advance of PCLOB, WaPo Busts ODNI’s Limited Hang Out on Certifications

Earlier today, I got to tell the journalists who have long ignored that the FBI does back door searches — or even suggested I was guessing that they do, when it appeared in multiple public documents — that I had been telling them so for a long time.

But today I also have to admit I got suckered by a year-long Director of National Intelligence effort at a limited hangout. That effort was, I’m convinced, designed to hide that the Section 702 program is far broader than government witnesses wanted to publicly admit it was. Nevertheless, I was wrong about a supposition I had believed until about 2 months ago.

Since the first days after the Snowden leaks, the government has suggested it had 3 certificates under Section 702, covering counterterrorism, counterproliferation, and cybersecurity.  But — as the WaPo reports (as with the ODNI back door search numbers, in convenient timing that conveniently preempts the PCLOB report) — that’ s not the case. The NSA has a certificate that covers every foreign government except the other 4 members of the 5 Eyes (UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia), as well as various foreign organizations like OPEC, the European Central Bank, and various Bolivarist groups.

For an entire year, the government has been suggesting that is not the case. I even believed them, the one thing I know of where I got utterly suckered. I was wrong.

Frankly, this certification should not be a surprise. It is solidly within the letter of the law, which permits collection on any agent of a foreign power. From the very first PRISM revelations, which showed collection on Venezuela, it was clear NSA collected broadly, including on Bolivarist governments and energy organizations.

But consistently over the last year, the NSA has suggested it only had certifications for CT, CP, and cyber.

On June 8 of last year, for example, ODNI listed 3 Section 702 successes.

  • Communications collected under Section 702 have provided the Intelligence Community insight into terrorist networks and plans. For example, the Intelligence Community acquired information on a terrorist organization’s strategic planning efforts.
  • Communications collected under Section 702 have yielded intelligence regarding proliferation networks and have directly and significantly contributed to successful operations to impede the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and related technologies.
  • Communications collected under Section 702 have provided significant and unique intelligence regarding potential cyber threats to the United States including specific potential computer network attacks. This insight has led to successful efforts to mitigate these threats

The October 3, 2011 John Bates opinion, released in October, made it clear there were just 3 certificates at that point.

3 certificates



(Though note the Semiannual Compliance Review released last year looked to be consistent with at least one more certificate.)

The President’s Review Group emphasized the categorical nature of certificates, and in its second discussion thereof named those same three categories.

[S]ection 702 authorized the FISC to approve annual certifications submitted by the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) that identify certain categories of foreign intelligence targets whose communications may be collected, subject to FISC-approved targeting and minimization procedures. The categories of targets specified by these certifications typically consist of, for example, international terrorists and individuals involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.


Section 702 requires that NSA’s certifications attest that a “significant purpose” of any acquisition is to obtain foreign intelligence information (i.e. directed at international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, or hostile cyber activities), that it does not intentionally target a United States person, that it does not intentionally target any person known at the time of acquisition to be in the United States, that it does not target any person outside the United States for the purpose of targeting a person inside the United States, and that it meets the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.

And in March testimony before PCLOB, NSA General Counsel Raj De suggested those same three topics.

But beyond that there has to be a valid foreign intelligence reason within the ambit of one of those certifications that the FISC approves annually. Those are certifications on things like counterterrorism, encountering WMDs, for example, weapons of mass destruction.

Most recently, former DOJ official Carrie Cordero — who has been involved in this whole certification process — claimed in the CATO debate we’ve been engaged in “they are not so broad that they cover any and everything that might be foreign intelligence information.”

And yet, there’s a foreign intelligence certificate that covers any and everything that might be foreign intelligence information, a certificate that destroys the whole point of having certificates (though if there’s a cyber one, I suspect it has its own problems, in that it permits domestic collection).

Lots of people are claiming WaPo’s latest is no big deal, because of course the NSA spies on foreign government’s. They’re right, to a point. Except that the government has been strongly implying, since day one, that Section 702 was narrowly deployed, not available to use against all but our 4 closest spying allies.

PCLOB is surely about to make it clear that’s not the case. And voila! All of a sudden it becomes clear the government has been misleading when it claimed this was narrowly deployed.

Causing Exceptionally Grave Harm to National Security by FOIAing FOIA Process

Jason Leopold has a new article at the Guardian based off a FOIA of NSA’s FOIA process. Perhaps the funniest part of the documents he received, however, is the number of times the NSA claimed its own discussion of FOIA process — including praise for the FOIA responders! — was Top Secret, suggesting revealing details would cause exceptionally grave harm to national security.




That said, I think there’s a missing piece to this puzzle (and hope Leopold pursues it when he makes his inevitable appeal of some of these redaction decisions).

On June 11, NSA’s Chief of FOIA Office Pamela Phillips raised the possibility of having “a paper or sheet of unclassified facts that could be provided to the public.” (See PDF 1) She repeated that request on June 17. (See PDF 3) I believe that is separate from the efforts to come up with a standard Glomar letter (that discussion, incidentally, is redacted in some enormously interesting ways).

But I’m particularly interested in a redaction in an email from Deputy Chief of Staff Trumbull Soule to Associate Director for Policy and Records David Sherman and then Media Leaks Task Force head and now Deputy Director of NSA Richard Ledgett, and cc’ed to Phillips and (among at least 12 others) NSA General Counsel Raj De on June 26.

That’s because that email got sent on the day after the NSA had to pull what I believe was that unclassified fact sheet, which NSA first posted on June 18, after Ron Wyden and Mark Udall wrote a letter, on June 24, to Keith Alexander noting two problems with the letter, in that it misleadingly suggested,

  • NSA had the ability to determine how many Americans had been collected under Section 702
  • NSA may not search on the records of Americans (back door searches)

In addition, the letter had a classified attachment that, I suspect, noted that John Bates’ response to the upstream problems did not require the destruction of entirely domestic communications.

NSA withdrew the fact sheet from its website sometime before 1 PM on June 25.

Now, it may just be a coinkydink that the highest level of discussion among these emails come on that particular day (though I assume NSA withheld a bunch of emails). But I do find the timing rather interesting.

NSA’s New “Privacy Officer” Releases Her First Propaganda

Over at Lawfare, Ken Anderson released the public comment on Section 702 the NSA Civil Liberties and Privacy Office have submitted to the Privacy and Civil Liberties and Oversight Board. Anderson notes that the comment doesn’t appear to be online yet, and the name of the Civil Liberties and Privacy Officer, Rebecca Richards, doesn’t appear on what Anderson posted (though that may be Lawfare’s doing).

The statement, generally, makes me sad. The comment repeatedly backed off including known, even unclassified details about Section 702, and as such this doesn’t so much read as an independent statement on the privacy assessment of the woman at the NSA mandated with overseeing it, but rather a highly scripted press release.

I will probably do a piece on some potential holes this statement may indicate in NSA’s oversight (though it is written in such hopeless bureaucratese, we can’t be sure). But for the moment, I wanted to point to what, in my opinion, is the most glaring example of how scripted this.

The statement describes back door searches this way:

Since October 2011 and consistent with other agencies’ Section 702 minimization procedures, NSA’s Section 702 minimization procedures have permitted NSA personnel to use U.S. person identifiers to query Section 702 collection when such a query is reasonably likely to return foreign intelligence information. NSA distinguishes between queries of communications content and communications metadata. NSA analysts must provide justification and receive additional approval before a content query using a U.S. person identifier can occur. To date, NSA analysts have queried Section 702 content with U.S. person identifiers less frequently than Section 702 metadata. For example, NSA may seek to query a U.S. person identifier when there is an imminent threat to life, such as a hostage situation. NSA is required to maintain records of U.S. person queries and the records are available for review by both OOJ [sic] and ODNI as part of the external oversight process for this authority. Additionally, NSA’s procedures prohibit NSA from querying Upstream data with U.S. person identifiers.

The only new piece of information provided here is that the NSA conducts more back door searches on 702 metadata than on 702 content.

But then the statement immediately provides the most defensible example of back door searches — searching for a US person’s identifier in content when they’ve been kidnapped, a scenario that derives from a pre-PAA problem with NSA’s kludged FISC approved program. Notably, this scenario is almost certainly not a metadata search! This is also the same scenario used by Dianne Feinstein’s aides in November to obscure the true extent of the searches, suggesting it is a propaganda line NSA has developed to spin back door searches.

What I find so frustrating about this statement is how it compares with statements others have already made … to PCLOB.

In November, for example, after ODNI General Counsel Robert Litt admitted that the Intelligence Community treats back door searches of 702 data (and probably, EO 12333 data) like they do all “legally collected” data, NSA General Counsel Raj De admitted that NSA doesn’t even require Reasonable Articulable Suspicion to do searches on US person data, because doing so would involve adopting a higher standard for back door searches than for other data.

Raj De: Our minimization procedures, including how we handle data, whether that’s collection, analysis, dissemination, querying are all approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. There are protections on the dissemination of information, whether as a result of a query or analysis. So in other words, U.S. person information can only be disseminated if it’s either necessary to understand the foreign intelligence value of the information,evidence of a crime and so forth. So I think those are the types of protections that are in place with this lawfully collected data.

[Center for Democracy and Technology VP James] DEMPSEY: But am I right, there’s no, on the query itself, other than it be for a foreign intelligence purpose, is there any other limitation? We don’t even have a RAS for that data.

MR. DE: There’s certainly no other program for which the RAS standard is applicable. That’s limited to the 215 program, that’s correct. But as to whether there is, and I think this was getting to the probable cause standard, should there be a higher standard for querying lawfully collected data. I think that would be a novel approach in this context, not to suggest reasonable people can’t disagree, discuss that. But I’m not aware of another context in which there is lawfully collected, minimized information in this capacity in which you would need a particular standard.

Then, in March, Litt objected to requiring court review before doing back door searches (and he was asked specifically about back door searches of US person data, though he reportedly tried to back off the application of this to US persons after the hearing) because the volume of back door searches is so high.

[Retired DC Circuit Judge] Patricia Wald: The President required, or, I think he required in his January directive that went to 215 that at least temporarily, the selectors in 215 for questioning the databank of US telephone calls–metadata–had to be approved by the FISA Court. Why wouldn’t a similar requirement for 702 be appropriate in the case where US person indicators are used to search the PRISM database? What big difference do you see there?

Robert Litt: Well, I think from a theoretical perspective it’s the difference between a bulk collection and a targeted collection which is that–

Wald: But I would think that, sorry for interrupting, [cross-chatter]  I would think that message since 702 has actually got the content.

Litt: Well, and the second point that I was going to make is that I think the operational burden in the context of 702 would far greater than in the context of 215.

Wald: But that would–

Litt: If you recall, the number of actual telephone numbers as to which a  RAS–reasonable articulable suspicion determination was made under Section 215 was very small. The number of times that we query the 702 database for information is considerably larger. I suspect that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would be extremely unhappy if they were required to approve every such query.

Wald: I suppose the ultimate question for us is whether or not the inconvenience to the agencies or even the unhappiness of the FISA Court would be the ultimate criteria.

Litt: Well I think it’s more than a question of convenience, I think it’s also a question of practicability.

Admittedly, Litt’s answer refers to all the back door searches conducted by the Intelligence Community, including the both the CIA and FBI (the latter of which other reporters seem to always ignore when discussing back door searches), as well as NSA. So it’s possible this volume of back door searches reflects FBI’s use of the practice, not NSA’s. (Recall that former presiding FISC Judge John Bates admits the Court has no clue how often or in what ways the Executive Branch is doing back door searches on US person data, but that it is likely so common as to be burdensome to require FISC involvement.)

Still, the combined picture already provided to PCLOB goes well beyond the hostage situation provided by the Privacy Office statement.

Even the President’s comment about back door searches in his January speech appears to go beyond what the NSA statement does (though again, imposing new limits on back door searches for law enforcement purposes probably speaks primarily to FBI’s back door searches, less so NSA’s).

 I am asking the Attorney General and DNI to institute reforms that place additional restrictions on government’s ability to retain, search, and use in criminal cases, communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702.

We are slowly squeezing details about the reality of back door searches, so I wasn’t really relying on this statement in any case.

But it’s an issue of credibility. The Privacy Officer, to have a shred of credibility and therefore the PR value that Obama surely hopes it will have, must appear to be speaking from independent review within the scope permitted by classification restraints. That hasn’t happened here, not even close. Instead, Rebecca Richards appears to speaking under the constraint of censorship far beyond that imposed on other government witnesses on this issue.

That doesn’t bode well for her ability to make much difference at NSA.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Visit Pee-Clob

The first panel of an all-day Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board hearing on Section 702 of FISA just finished.

It featured NSA General Counsel Raj De, ODNI General Counsel Robert Litt, Deputy AAG for National Security Brad Weigmann, and FBI General Counsel James Baker.

While there were a number of interesting disclosures — which I’ll get at in the future — the most striking aspect of the hearing was the tooth-pulling effort to get the panel to define the terms they use.

There were a slew of terms defined, among others including “minimization,” “bulk collection,” “PRISM,”

But the most interesting redefinitions were for “purge” and “search.”

After much tooth-pulling, James Dempsey got De to admit that NSA’s definition of the word “search” is different from the one used in the Fourth Amendment. Actually, that may not be entirely true: Sometimes the actual collection of data counts as a search, sometimes only the querying of it does. NSA gets to decide which is which, best as I can tell, in secret or in legal filings where it will serve to deprive someone of standing.

Then there’s “purge,” which I can’t hear anymore without seeing a pink speech bubble and scare quotes surrounding the word. Purge does not mean — as you might expect — “destroy.” Rather, it means only “remove from NSA systems in such a way that it cannot be used.” Which, best as I understand it, means they’re not actually destroying this data.

I do hope EFF figures that out before they argue the protection order for Section 215 today, as on those terms it seems increasingly clear NSA is not complying with the Jewel protection order.

“Purge.” To keep. Somewhere else.

In Sworn Declaration about Dragnet, NSA Changes Its Tune about Scope of “This Program”

I’ve been tracking the sudden effort on the part of NSA to minimize how much of the call data in the US it collects (under “this program,” Section 215).

That effort has, unsurprisingly, carried over to its sworn declarations in lawsuits.

Along with the response in the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA suit the government filed last Friday (this is the EFF-backed suit that challenges the phone dragnet on Freedom of Association as well as other grounds), NSA’s Signals Intelligence Director Theresa Shea submitted a new declaration about the scope of the program.

Ostensibly, Shea’s declaration serves to explain the “new” “changes” Obama announced last month, which the FISA Court approved on February 4. As I have noted, in one case the “change” simply formalized NSA”s existing practice and in the other it’s probably not a big change either.

In addition to her explanation of those “changes,” Shea included this language about the scope of the dragnet.

Although there has been speculation that the NSA, under this program, acquires metadata relating to all telephone calls to, from, or within the United States, that is not the case. The Government has acknowledged that the program is broad in scope and involves the collection and aggregation of a large volume of data from multiple telecommunications service providers, but as the FISC observed in a decision last year, it has never captured information on all (or virtually all) calls made and/or received in the U.S. See In re Application of the FBI for an Order Requiring the Production of Tangible Things from [Redacted], Dkt. No. BR13-109 Amended Mem. Op. at 4 n.5 (F.I.S.C. Aug. 29, 2013) (publicly released, unclassified version) (“The production of all call detail records of all persons in the States has never occurred under under this program.“) And while the Government has also acknowledged that one provider was the recipient of a now-expired April 23, 2013, Secondary Order from the FISC (Exhibit B to my earlier declaration), the identities of the carriers participating in the program (either now, or at any time in the past) otherwise remain classified. [my emphasis]

Shea appears to be presenting as partial a picture of the dragnet as she did in her prior declaration, where she used expansive language that — if you looked closely — actually referred to the entire dragnet, not just the Section 215 part of it.

Here, she’s selectively citing the declassified August 29, 2013 version of Claire Eagan’s July 19, 2013 opinion. The latter date is significant, given that the day the government submitted the application tied to that order, NSA General Counsel Raj De made it clear there were 3 providers in the program (see after 18:00 in the third video). These are understood to be AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon.

Shea selectively focuses on language that describes some limits on the dragnet. She could also note that Eagan’s opinion quoted language suggesting the dragnet (at least in 2011) collected “substantially all” of the phone records from the providers in question, but she doesn’t, perhaps because it would present problems for her “virtually all” claim.

Moreover, Shea’s reference to “production of all call detail records” appears to have a different meaning than she suggests it has when read in context. Here’s what the actual language of the opinion says.

Specifically, the government requested Orders from this Court to obtain certain business records of specified telephone service providers. Those telephone company business records consist of a very large volume of each company’s call detail records or telephony metadata, but expressly exclude the contents of any communication; the name, address, or financial information of any subscriber or customer; or any cell site location information (CSLI). Primary Ord. at 3 n.l.5

5 In the event that the government seeks the production of CSLI as part of the bulk production of call detail records in the future, the government would be required to provide notice and briefing to this Court pursuant to FISC Rule 11. The production of all call detail records of all persons in the United States has never occurred under this program. For example, the government [redacted][my emphasis]

In context, the reference discusses not just whether the records of all the calls from all US telecom providers (AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, which participated in this program on the date Eagan wrote the opinion, but also T-Mobile and Cricket, plus VOIP providers like Microsoft, owner of Skype, which did not) are turned over, but also whether each provider that does participate (AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon) turns over all the records on each call. The passage makes clear they don’t do the latter; AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon don’t turn over financial data, name, or cell location, for example! And since we know that at the time Eagan wrote this opinion, there were just those 3 providers participating, clearly the records of providers that didn’t use the backbone of those 3 providers or, in the case of Skype, would be inaccessible, would be missed. So not all call detail records from the providers that do provide records, nor records covering all the people in the US. But still a “very large volume” from AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, the providers that happen to be covered by the suit.

And in this declaration, instead of using the number De used last July, Shea instead refers to “multiple telecommunications service providers,” which could be 50, 4, 3, or 2, or anywhere in between. Particularly given her “either now, or at any time in the past” language, this suggests the number of providers participating may have changed since July.

Which brings me to the two other implicit caveats in her statement.

First, she suggests (ignoring the time ODNI revealed Verizon’s name a second time) that the only thing we can be sure of is that Verizon provided all its domestic data for the 3 months following April 23, 2013.

Actually, we can be fairly sure that at least until January 3, Verizon still participated. That’s because the Primary Order approved on that date still includes a paragraph that — thanks to ODNI’s earlier redaction fail — we know was written to ensure that Verizon didn’t start handing over its foreign call records along with its domestic ones.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 9.33.00 AM

Though curiously, the way in which DOJ implemented the Obama-directed changes — the ones that Shea’s declaration supposedly serves to explain — involved providing substitute language affecting a huge section of the Primary Order, without providing a new Primary Order itself. So we don’t know whether ¶1(B) — what I think of as the Verizon paragraph — still exists, or even whether it still existed on February 4, when Reggie Walton approved the change.

Which is particularly interesting given that Shea’s declaration just happened to be submitted on the date, February 21, when a significant change in Verizon’s structure may have affected how NSA gets its data. (That date was set in December by a joint scheduling change.)

One way or another, Shea’s claim that the dragnet doesn’t collect all or even virtually all phone records is very time delimited, certainly allowing the possibility that the scope of the dragnet has changed since the plaintiffs filed this suit on July 16, 3 days before Eagan explicitly excluded cell location data from the dragnet collection, which is the reason NSA’s leak recipients now give for limits on the scope of the program.

The claim is also — as claims about the Section 215 always are — very program delimited. In her statement claiming limits on how much data the NSA collects, Shea makes 2 references to “this program” and quotes Eagan making a third. She’s not saying the NSA doesn’t collect all the phone data in the US (I don’t think they quite do that either, but I think they collect more US phone data than they collect under this program). She’s saying only that it doesn’t collect “virtually all” the phone data in the US “under this program.”

Given her previously expansive declaration (which implicitly included all the other dragnet collection methods), I take this declaration as a rather interesting indicator of the limits to the claims about limits to the dragnet.