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Monday, July 1

Lies, Damned Lies, and Official U.S. Explanations About NSA Programs

"Until recently, the United States had positioned itself as such an innocent victim of cyber intrusions by Russia and China that the State Department issued a secret demarche, or official diplomatic communication, in January scolding Beijing."

One of my favorite journalists from the Afghan War days, Greg Miller, has written a laugh-cry report for the Washington Post about verbal sleights of hand that U.S. officials have used to mislead the public about NSA programs without outright lying. Here are some passages from the June 30 report, Misinformation on classified NSA programs includes statements by senior U.S. officials, which Julie Tate contributed to:

[...]

Beyond inadvertent missteps, however, an examination of public statements over a period of years suggests that officials have often relied on legalistic parsing and carefully hedged characterizations in discussing the NSA’s collection of communications.

Obama’s assurances have hinged, for example, on a term — targeting — that has a specific meaning for U.S. spy agencies that would elude most ordinary citizens.

“What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails,” Obama said in his June 17 interview on PBS’s “Charlie Rose Show.”

But even if it is not allowed to target U.S. citizens, the NSA has significant latitude to collect and keep the contents of e-mails and other communications of U.S. citizens that are swept up as part of the agency’s court-approved monitoring of a target overseas.

The law allows the NSA to examine such messages and share them with other agencies if it determines that the information contained is evidence of a crime, conveys a serious threat or is necessary to understand foreign intelligence.

The threshold for scrutinizing other data not regarded as content but still potentially revealing is lower than it is for the contents of communications. A 2009 report by the NSA inspector general and obtained by The Washington Post indicates that the agency for years examined metadata on e-mails flowing into and out of the United States, including “the sender and recipient e-mail addresses.”

President George W. Bush at times engaged in similarly careful phrasing to defend surveillance programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

[...]

For now, the crumbling secrecy surrounding the programs has underscored the extent to which obscuring their dimensions had served government interests beyond the importance of the intelligence they produced.

Secret court rulings that allowed the NSA to gather phone records enabled the spy service to assemble a massive database on Americans’ phone records without public debate or the risk of political blowback.

The binding secrecy built into the PRISM program of tracking international e-mail allowed the NSA to compel powerful technology companies to comply with requests for information about their users while keeping them essentially powerless to protest.

The careful depiction of NSA programs also served diplomatic ends. Until recently, the United States had positioned itself as such an innocent victim of cyber intrusions by Russia and China that the State Department issued a secret demarche, or official diplomatic communication, in January scolding Beijing. That posture became more problematic after leaks by the former NSA contractor and acknowledged source of the NSA leaks, Edward Snowden [...]

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