Snowden shines a light on methods; White House tosses us a bone on phones

“These types of programs allow us to collect the information that enables us to perform our missions successfully – to defend the nation and to protect US and allied troops abroad.”
– National Security Agency statement to The Guardian, on the phone and internet surveillance programs

The dribble of revelations coming from Edward Snowden, via Glenn Greenwald of The (UK) Guardian, poured out a little flood of information, Wednesday, that looks into the nuts and bolts of the process the National Security Agency goes through to monitor our emails and phone calls. Complete with screen-grabs from the user interfaces of the software the secretive agency uses, the revelation refers to an intelligence monitoring system called XKeyscore.

XKeyscore frame grab
From “The Guardian”

You may remember that one of the first things Snowden said, in that video interview taped for the Guardian, two months ago, was a reference to being able to find out everything he needed to know, even about President Obama, if all he had was a valid email address. “Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere,” he said. “…I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a Federal judge to even the President if I had a personal e-mail.”

According to Greenwald’s latest article, that is precisely one of the tools XKeyscore makes available to the NSA. “XKeyscore provides the technological capability, if not the legal authority, to target even US persons for extensive electronic surveillance without a warrant provided that some identifying information, such as their email or IP address, is known to the analyst.”

And there’s more: “Beyond emails,” he writes, “the XKeyscore system allows analysts to monitor a virtually unlimited array of other internet activities, including those within social media.”

Meanwhile, the White House released documents, Wednesday, related to the subpoenaing of metadata from phone records. Specifically, they revealed a FISA court warrant, issued in April, requesting records from a redacted telephone service provider, through July 19, 2013. According to the New York Times, the government’s disclosure matched a secondary order by the FISA court, previously revealed by Snowden, naming Verizon as the provider.

The data subpoenaed includes:

“…all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”

There are a couple of reasons the federal government decided to release their information on metadata collection the same day that Snowden’s recent revelations were published in The Guardian. A remote possibility could be that this is a deliberate effort to conflate the stories, and make it seem that the United States chose to release the details of the XKeyscore program, even though that was the NSA leaker’s doing.

But the more likely reason for the coincidental disclosures is, it gave the administration a way to answer critics of the NSA surveillance program, without actually addressing Snowden’s allegations directly. The FISA warrant issued to Verizon has some language the government definitely wants you to see, albeit in a footnote, regarding the scope of the order:

“Telephony metadata does not include the substantive content of any communication … or the name, address, or financial information of a subscriber or customer.”

The document also makes clear that no record should be kept for longer than five years. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and an outspoken supporter of the data gathering programs, said in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Tuesday, that she would like that cut to two or three years. She also called for greater transparency, and “ideological diversity” of judges on the FISA court, an overwhelming majority of whom (86%) have been appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

As for XKeyscore, Greenwald writes, the NSA defends the integrity of that program, as well. “Allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are simply not true,” the agency wrote, in a statement to The Guardian. “Access to XKeyscore, as well as all of NSA’s analytic tools, is limited to only those personnel who require access for their assigned tasks … In addition, there are multiple technical, manual and supervisory checks and balances within the system to prevent deliberate misuse from occurring.”

Meanwhile, the House narrowly defeated a bipartisan attempt, unsanctioned by either party’s leadership, to pull the plug on the surveillance activities, and the Senate continues to question the NSA’s dragnet approach to data gathering. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Wednesday, questioned representatives of the office of the Director of National Intelligence about the veracity of the NSA’s claims that the phone surveillance programs have thwarted 54 attacks. “If this program is not effective, it has to end,” he said.

President Obama has reportedly invited Senators from both parties, on both sides of the issue, from both sides of the Capitol, to the White House, Thursday, to discuss possible changes to the law that allows the NSA programs to continue. The invitation came after the president met with Democrats on the Hill, to discuss his push for middle class jobs. According to Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats, the president said he wants to talk about “the balance we are all trying seek between privacy and national security.”

If you care about this at all, and you want to be in the room with the president, call your representatives and let them know you would like to see changes to the NSA programs. There is rare, bipartisan political will on this issue. Let’s show them that at least we support that.


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