Hey media — this is the guy you’ve spent four and a half years protecting:
President Obama strolled out to the podium today in San Jose, CA and was immediately at a loss for words. Not only did the President not have teleprompter, his aides forgot his speech.
“My remarks are not sitting here,” the President declared awkwardly. “I’m uhhh….people….oh goodness….uhhhh…folks are sweating back there right now.”
President Obama, who’s often mocked for an over-reliance on scripts, shifted uncomfortably smiling for several moments buying time. An aide sprinted out with a hard copy of the speech, tripping at one point, adding to the drama.
Once Obama got a hold of his speech, he called concern over the surveillance programs “hype,” assuring the American people that the surveillance was overseen by the FISA court to make sure that government couldn’t “abuse” the programs.
But the Washington Post reported that administration lawyers have apparently not been giving the FISA court accurate information on the internet surveillance effort when it comes to Americans being caught up in the information dragnet:
The court-approved program is focused on foreign communications traffic, which often flows through U.S. servers even when sent from one overseas location to another. Between 2004 and 2007, Bush administration lawyers persuaded federal FISA judges to issue surveillance orders in a fundamentally new form. Until then the government had to show probable cause that a particular “target” and “facility” were both connected to terrorism or espionage.
In four new orders, which remain classified, the court defined massive data sets as “facilities” and agreed to certify periodically that the government had reasonable procedures in place to minimize collection of “U.S. persons” data without a warrant.
Do these sound like “reasonable procedures” used to minimize collection of “US persons data without a warrant”?
The Obama administration points to ongoing safeguards in the form of “extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons.”
And it is true that the PRISM program is not a dragnet, exactly. From inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes, but under current rules the agency does not try to collect it all.
Analysts who use the system from a Web portal at Fort Meade, Md., key in “selectors,” or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness.” That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by The Post instruct new analysts to make quarterly reports of any accidental collection of U.S. content, but add that “it’s nothing to worry about.”
Even when the system works just as advertised, with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content. That is described as “incidental,” and it is inherent in contact chaining, one of the basic tools of the trade. To collect on a suspected spy or foreign terrorist means, at minimum, that everyone in the suspect’s inbox or outbox is swept in. Intelligence analysts are typically taught to chain through contacts two “hops” out from their target, which increases “incidental collection” exponentially. The same math explains the aphorism, from the John Guare play, that no one is more than “six degrees of separation” from any other person.
Is the FISA court aware of the extent of data collection involving US citizens? Collection that increases “exponentially” under certain circumstances? It sounds like the FISA court has one idea of how much US citizens should be surveiled and the NSA and FBI have another, more expansive view.
Concerns over this program don’t sound like “hype” to me. But the president’s response sure sounds like a whitewash.