Lies, damned lies and the NSA

By Eric Mink

It’s five months since the debut of Edward Snowden’s traveling intelligence leak show, and the hits just keep on coming.

Last Friday, U.S. ambassador James Costos met with his hosts in Madrid and assured Spain’s foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, that America’s National Security Agency only spies in Spain in collaboration with Spain’s intelligence agencies and always respects Spanish law.

Sure it does.

But recent disclosures of the NSA’s escapades with allies and adversaries overseas are little more than diplomatically embarrassing distractions. Far more alarming is the torrent of revelations that has gushed from Snowden’s stash of secrets, which the former mid-level employee for a firm doing contract work for the NSA snatched with apparent ease from America’s highly classified intelligence computers.

These documents, memos, charts and graphs have revealed that the NSA is seizing and compiling in unimaginably huge databases the records of Americans’ telephone and Internet usage, financial transactions, routine government records, travel activity, social connections and essentially anything else that produces or can be derived from an electronic document trail.

The potential for malevolence of such massive information reservoirs was summed up by William Binney, a former senior NSA analyst identified by investigative reporter James Bamford as a “crypto-mathematician largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network.” In a highly detailed story about the NSA for the respected magazine Wired and, Bamford described this chilling moment with Binney: “Sitting in a restaurant not far from NSA headquarters, the place where he spent nearly 40 years of his life, Binney held his thumb and forefinger close together. ‘We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.’”

Of course, creating electronic infrastructure, databases and software suitable for tyrannical control of the United States is not the NSA’s mission. The National Security Agency and its jointly directed Central Security Service are military entities assigned to gather, analyze and distribute classified electronic information relating to foreign intelligence. Spokespeople invariably emphasize its focus on terrorism, nuclear proliferation and cybersecurity.

But as William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently on the Lawfare blog, a legal site with conservative leanings, “It may be true that, as currently staffed and administered, the new institutions of surveillance do not threaten our liberties. It is also true that in the wrong hands, they would make it much easier to do so.”

Snowden’s leaks and separate independent investigations have provoked widespread discussion from many points on the political compass about how to better limit the risks of the NSA’s data-driven adventurism and better protect American principles as well as security.

The problem is that all these discussions rely almost entirely on information supplied by the U.S. intelligence community, a culture inherently rooted in secrecy, deception and lying. 

“Lying” is not a word responsible journalists use lightly. To qualify as a “lie,” a statement must be incorrect, and the person saying it must know it is incorrect at the time. To wit:

At a televised American Enterprise Institute event on July 9, 2012, Fox News reporter Catherine Herridge asked Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA, about the agency’s plans for a one-million-square-foot installation under construction near Bluffdale, Utah. “Will the Utah Data Center hold the data of American citizens?” she asked.

“While I can’t go into all the details at the Utah Data Center,” Alexander replied, “we don’t hold data on U.S. citizens.”

As Alexander knows perfectly well, the NSA collects huge amounts of data on U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike, and the Bluffdale facility will hold massive amounts of it.

On March 12, 2013, during a public hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, this question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

“No, sir,” Clapper responded under oath. “Not wittingly.”

As Clapper well knows, the NSA has been wittingly collecting the telephone calling records of millions of Americans for at least seven years under the authority of a series of secret court orders.

On June 6, the Washington Post published one of those secret orders, having received it through Edward Snowden. Later that day, reporter Michael Hirsh of National Journal asked Clapper about his March exchange with Wyden. Clapper lied again. “What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails. I stand by that.” Clapper had said no such thing.

Clapper was asked about Wyden again on June 9 in a televised interview with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell. “I responded in what I thought was the most truthful — or least untruthful — manner by saying ‘No,’” he told her. Clapper did not indicate what would be more untruthful than “no.” Nor did he tell Mitchell that Wyden provided him with a copy of the question a day in advance so Clapper could prepare an answer without any misunderstanding. 

Clapper finally admitted, in a June 21 letter to Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that his response to Wyden was “clearly erroneous.” He explained that he had confused two different NSA programs. (Both programs collect data on millions of Americans.) 

The NSA also invents its own definitions for such common words as “target,” “incidental,” “minimize” and “relevant,” thus obscuring facts and confusing reform ideas. It also exaggerates the positive effects of agency programs, a recurring tactic that led Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., to caution that “such assertions should not simply be accepted at face value by policymakers or oversight bodies.”

Likewise, investigations into NSA operations have discovered repeated violations of procedures and judicial rulings aimed at preventing government abuses. John D. Bates, for example, a former chief judge of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, complained in a recently declassified 2011 ruling about “the third instance in less that three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program.”

In response to questions from the Guardian newspaper in Great Britain, an NSA spokeswoman warned earlier that “The continued publication of these allegations about highly classified issues … makes it impossible to conduct a reasonable discussion on the merits of these programs.”

In fact, stories about the NSA’s omnivorous data-gathering programs — Prism, Mainway, Marina, Nucleon, Boundless Informant, Dishfire, Tracfin, Pinwhale, XKeyscore, Turmoil, Muscular, Ironavenger, Spinaltap and on and on — are the only reason we know there’s something to discuss.

And if we’re to have reasonable discussions and find effective solutions, the American intelligence establishment needs to stop deceiving, distorting and lying and start telling the truth.

 Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected].