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NSA Tries to Assure Congress, Public of Tactics with Document Dump

But key lawmakers remain unconvinced that surveillance is all benign: “What will be next?" said Leahy. "And when is enough, enough?”

Bill Straub


July 31, 2013 - 5:08 pm
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WASHINGTON – Sen. Patrick Leahy questioned the effectiveness of a National Security Agency program that gathers data from domestic telephone calls and strongly suggested that the law must be changed to rework the controversial practice.

Speaking at the outset of a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the panel chairman, insisted that Congress should carefully consider the powerful surveillance tools provided to the government’s security agencies and ensure “stringent oversight, accountability and transparency.”

“The government is already collecting data on millions of innocent Americans on a daily basis, based on a secret legal interpretation of a statute that does not on its face appear to authorize this type of bulk collection,” Leahy said. “What will be next? And when is enough, enough?”

Leahy was particularly dismissive of claims by NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, who maintains that the surveillance practice has thwarted 54 militant plots since the program was initiated in 2006. The lawmaker said records provided to Congress fail to show disruptions that number in the dozens “let alone 54 as some have suggested.”

Tuesday’s hearing was called as the result of recent revelations by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency and onetime Central Intelligence Agency employee, who leaked details about U.S. surveillance programs to the press.

Snowden, currently seeking asylum in Russia, revealed that the NSA was collecting telephone metadata, most of it involving American citizens, in an effort to thwart terrorist initiatives under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Snowden also offered details about another program, code-named PRISM, which monitored Internet communications for the same purpose.

The secret initiatives were approved by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees sensitive security practices and operates behind closed doors.

Under Section 215, the so-called FISA court permitted the NSA to gather telephone company records that contain numbers that were dialed, the date and time when the call was placed, and the length of the connection. The information passed on to intelligence agencies doesn’t contain the identity of those involved in the connection.

The PRISM program collects content, like email messages, but only involves non-Americans who are thought to be located overseas. The initiatives, an outgrowth of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000, began during the administration of former President George W. Bush.

On Tuesday, shortly before the beginning of the hearing, the White House released a stream of declassified documents related to the operations and considerations that went into the controversial surveillance programs.

Among the released papers was the text of an April 2013 ruling by the FISA court ordering a subsidiary of Verizon, the telecommunications giant, to turn over the customer phone logs it had maintained for a three-month period to the NSA.

The court determined, according to the document, that the federal government may access otherwise confidential phone records when the executive branch provides information “giving rise to a reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the numbers could lead to terrorists.

The White House document dump also established that Congress was advised of the NSA’s dealings despite earlier claims from some lawmakers that they were kept in the dark. The Obama administration offered a pair of briefing papers from 2009 and 2011 explaining that Section 215 of the Patriot Act opened the door to data collection. The information, according to the briefings, offered an “early warning system” regarding terrorism suspects.

During the hearing, Leahy said he doesn’t condone Snowden’s activities but he asserted the revelations provided an opportunity to reconsider FISA’s scope along with “the government’s sweeping new powers to collect information on law-abiding Americans.”

“And we must carefully consider now whether those laws have gone too far,” he said, adding that “the patience and trust of the American people is starting to wear thin.”

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All Comments   (9)
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Perhaps if the Good Senator from Vermont was not an inveterate leaker (thus the nickname, "Leaky Leahy") he could have kept his position on the Intelligence Cmte and nipped some of this in-the-bud. But, because he had an urge to see his name in print, or to curry favor with journalists with his little gems, he's forced now to engage in a battle to change what is already in place - not the easiest task, as he well knows.
Poor thinking, Senator!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Reportage is creating an alternate reality with nouns and verbs borrowed from elsewhere which do not fit. Snowden did a document dump. NSA clones ongoing traffic into a form searchable for addresses then searches for addresses of interest. How can this be described without altering the reality?

Starting in 1898, the State Department got a clone of the perforated paper tape of all cable traffic through NYC every day. They read the coded perforations for addresses of interest. Finding one, they snipped the message out. Later, the snippets would be printed to alphanumeric and sent to the code breakers. (State code breakers had the Zimmerman Telegram before the British presented it to President Wilson.) This is about what NSA is doing, but it is mis-described. It is not "Hoovering" up information as Hoovering separates one part out from the whole on the basis of pre-existing conditions. Reading cables was stopped in 1933, something which guaranteed the Pearl Harbor attack was a US disaster.

Inaccurate words lead to inaccurate thoughts. My favorite: Firepower. It is Muzzle Statistics and a volume of noise plus possible physical threat. The only thing which counts in reality is Target Statistics, which has almost no attention or weight. Line soldiers in Vietnam were tested and found to have 75 times the Firepower of our flintlock riflemen of 1775. The tests also showed they had one-quarter (0.25) the Target Statistics of the American flintlock-users.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I want to know what all those spying spots scattered along the coast of Antarctica are about.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The only acceptable disclosure from the NSA is that it will stop the blatant spying on Americans and return to the need for individual warrants from open courts. The NSA may have started out to find needles in haystacks but now all they are doing is harvesting the hay.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I think we will find that XKeystroke is a much greater threat than the phone megadata or Prism cases. Commander Zero can watch our every move on the net every day and every where. That is power.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Meant to reply not 'Like'
I read the Guardian XKeystroke articles, since all of the others are based on them other than the der Speigel one that came out weeks ago (which is interesting in of itself). There are two articles that have facts. One is the PDF of the XKeystroke training manual and the main article.
Looking at the main article and ignoring the rhetorical text, the pics there actually have more information. The drop downs *prevent* US citizens from being targeted in that there is no selector except for foreign entities. That pic is around 1/3 down the page. The one directly under it even has a pop out referencing USSID 18, which is the foundational legislation preventing targeting of US citizens.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If they can keep our emails, they should also be allowed to scan every piece of USPS mail and keep that as well. In fact, I'll bet there are x-ray scanners that can already do this without opening the envelope. I think the reason that there's not enough outrage about this is that many people are "new" to email and look at it as some kind of novelty.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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