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Thursday, May 22

NSA Soap Opera: Someone call the Metaphor Police

After 9/11, the excuse for missing clues was too much data: "Trying to sip from a fire hose."  But with the priority now to excuse NSA spying, the metaphor is for more data: "You can’t find a needle in a haystack without a haystack" – a shift that former FBI agent Coleen Rowley dissects."
-- Consortium News ("Independent journalism since 1995"), October 7, 2013

Coleen Rowley's analysis at Consortium News of Sen. Diane Feinstein's argument for greater NSA data collection on U.S. citizens (which if I recall Feinstein backed away from a little under the continuing onslaught of released classified NSA files) is a highly informed and sometimes wryly funny fisking of attempts by NSA apologists to rewrite the history of intelligence failures related to the 9/11 attack. It's also a crash course on the problems with the metadata approach to intelligence gathering and how these are made worse by the practice of stovepiping; i.e., departments withholding key information. She reports as an insider and eyewitness to bureaucratic failures that caused critical data about the 9/11 plotters to elude the U.S. military's attention.

Fast forward to the May 13, 2014 publication of Glenn Greenwald's book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State and the Wall Street Journal review of the book on May 14. The review was penned by Michael B. Mukasey, a former Attorney General of the United States and former U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York.
Mukasey goes to lengths to portray Greenwald as paranoid but he overshoots the mark when he attempts to persuade the reader that the evidence of his own eyes can't be trusted.  This has to do with a Power Point chart in a leaked NSA file that was featured in Greenwald's book. Mukasey's review does not actually show the graphic, although Conor Friedersdorf's review of the book (A Conservative Critique of a Radical NSA) at Slate magazine does.

You can see for yourself at the Slate website that the graphic very clearly, very unambiguously, shows that NSA and its counterparts in the "Five Eyes" alliance were determined, at least as late as 2011, to collect every bit of data they possibly could that had an electronic signature.

Not so, explains Mukasey. This chart "is apparently from what is known as a "Signals Development" conference discussing what to do when you secure a major new source of electronic intelligence so that the wheat of useful information can be separated from the chaff of irrelevant communications."

Cold sober I don't know what wheat and chaff have to do with the chart, but I can report that after downing four glasses of absinthe I did see a certain logic in Mukasey's use of the metaphor.  It's just that I can't remember what it was.

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