The PJ Tatler

Greenwald: Low-Level NSA Analysts Can Listen to your Phone Calls Without FISA Court Approval

Ordinary NSA analysts have access to trillions of phone calls and emails and can easily read and listen to your communications without a warrant from the FISA court.

This is according to Glenn Greenwald who appeared on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

Today on “This Week,” Glenn Greenwald – the reporter who broke the story about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs – claimed that those NSA programs allowed even low-level analysts to search the private emails and phone calls of Americans.

“The NSA has trillions of telephone calls and emails in their databases that they’ve collected over the last several years,” Greenwald told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. “And what these programs are, are very simple screens, like the ones that supermarket clerks or shipping and receiving clerks use, where all an analyst has to do is enter an email address or an IP address, and it does two things. It searches that database and lets them listen to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you’ve entered, and it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address or that IP address do in the future.”

Greenwald explained that while there are “legal constraints” on surveillance that require approval by the FISA court, these programs still allow analysts to search through data with little court approval or supervision.

“There are legal constraints for how you can spy on Americans,” Greenwald said. “You can’t target them without going to the FISA court. But these systems allow analysts to listen to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents.”

“And it’s all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst,” he added.

It may be heresy to some, but I remember Glenn Greenwald when he was a ranting, frothing left wing blogger on a Blogger site, spewing the most vile, exaggerated nonsense toward the objects of his sneering derision. He was a serial exaggerator back in those days:

One could spend every day highlighting the contrast between the pious moral standards preached by many Bush supporters and the lowly character smears and political filth they peddle. But sometimes their hypocrisy is so severe that it makes one’s head spin, and at least I have great difficulty ignoring it even when an argument can be made that it should be ignored.

No exaggeration or hyperbole there, huh?

To my mind, he has never been a reliable source and only the simple, naive honesty of Edward Snowden has given this story any credibility at all.

But given Greenwald’s penchant for drama, is it beyond imagining that he would dress up the facts a bit to garner a few headlines?

But the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee told Stephanopoulos he would be shocked if such programs existed.

“It wouldn’t just surprise me, it would shock me,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, said on “This Week” Sunday.

Chambliss said he recently spent time with NSA officials and was assured that the programs Greenwald describes have been exaggerated.

“I was back out at NSA just last week, spent a couple hours out there with high and low level NSA officials,” Chambliss said. “And what I have been assured of is that there is no capability at NSA for anyone without a court order to listen to any telephone conversation or to monitor any e-mail.”

Chambliss said that any monitoring of emails is purely “accidental.”

“In fact, we don’t monitor emails. That’s what kind of assures me is that what the reporting is is not correct. Because no emails are monitored now,” Chambliss said. “They used to be, but that stopped two or three years ago. So I feel confident that there may have been some abuse, but if it was it was pure accidental.”

Forget comparing the credibility of Chambliss, the NSA officials, and Greenwald. Snowden himself gave us a hint of this capability, but qualified it by saying that there were periodic computer audits to ensure that analysts stuck with the rules. Snowden also hinted at technical obstructions (too easily circumvented, he thought) to performing the kind of searches Greenwald is alleging.

My guess is that the truth is probably not as dramatic as Greenwald suggests. Greenwald is a strutting egoist, an ideological absolutist who tends to exaggerate the characteristics of his political foes or, in this case, the object of his hate. I am skeptical at his claim of easy access to phone and email records.

If it’s true, someone with a lot more credibility than Glenn Greenwald is going to have to come forward.