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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Key Facts Wrong in Rush to Report NSA ‘Scandals’

Last week there was report after report about a supposed bombshell with respect to NSA surveillance and data collection operations against Americans on American soil.  There is a major problem with those reports:  It seems much of that early reporting was wrong.  Bob Cesca at The Daily Banter summarizes it thusly:

To summarize, yes, the NSA routinely requests information from the tech giants. But the NSA doesn’t have “direct access” to servers nor is it randomly collecting information about you personally. Yet rending of garments and general apoplexy has ruled the day, complete with predictable invective about the president being “worse than Bush” and that anyone who reported on the new information debunking the initial report was and is an Obamabot apologist.

That, of course, is not really the end, but only the beginning.

Let’s start with the claim that the companies simply provided complete access to the government in obtaining information from corporate servers.  Here is what The New York Times reported back on Friday:

Each of the nine companies said it had no knowledge of a government program providing officials with access to its servers, and drew a bright line between giving the government wholesale access to its servers to collect user data and giving them specific data in response to individual court orders. Each said it did not provide the government with full, indiscriminate access to its servers.

And the reason that the companies did turn over information to the government?  They were simply complying with court orders, as they are obliged to do.  Did that mean they made it easy for the government?  Not necessarily, as The Times reported that Twitter, in fact, made it as difficult as it was legally allowed to do.

Then there is the issue that despite the reports that Americans were targeted under this program, that is actually not the case:

The legal process, the person said, is akin to how law enforcement requests information in criminal investigations: the government delivers an order to obtain account details about someone who’s specifically identified as a non-U.S. individual, with a specific finding that they’re involved in an activity related to international terrorism. Both the contents of communications and metadata, such as information about who’s talking to whom, can be requested.

CNet’s Declan McCullagh further explains:

That Section 702 procedure works like this: The Justice Department must demonstrate that its surveillance will not intentionally target anyone present in the United States or any American who’s overseas. And the surveillance process must comply with the Fourth Amendment.

Additionally, the initial story in The Washington Post was corrected, and per Ed Bott, this included important details from the original story:

Crucially, the Post removed the “knowingly participated” language and also scrubbed a reference to the program as being “highly classified.” In addition, a detail in the opening graf that claimed the NSA could “track a person’s movements and contacts over time” was changed to read simply “track foreign targets.”

And given the subsequent reports that the NSA did not, in fact, take information from the main servers of the corporations, Bott notes this particularly troubling element that remains in the story:

In fact, the revised story still claims the NSA and the FBI are “tapping directly into the central servers” of those companies when that allegation no longer appears to be true.

Finally, of course there is the reporting from CNet’s McCullagh that indicates PRISM is not, in fact, classified and that a former NSA general counsel called the powerpoint at the heart of the controversy “flaky,” stated that it “sound[s] more like a marketing pitch than a briefing” and that “we don’t know the full context.”

As Bob Cesca explains:

Attachment to empirical reality must remain a central trait of the left, otherwise the progressive movement is no better than the non-reality based propagandists on the right who will say and do anything to further the conservative agenda.

A debate upon the merits of increased surveillance, and the limit and scope thereupon, is certainly worthy of having.  Yes, as many note there is importance in maintaining individual privacy from government intrusion.  At the same time there is a government responsibility to protect its citizens from those that wish to cause harm.  It has been famously said that the Constitution is not a suicide pact.

So, yes, let us debate the merits.  Let us weigh the pros and the cons.  Let us discuss what is permissible and impermissible under the Constitution.  Let us discuss what we believe the government should and should not to.  But, at the same time, let us get our facts right rather than get caught up in a tempest of propaganda that has little regard for the facts.


  1. nchristine

    is right for the federal gov’t (and its contracted companies) to gather all the phone records from Verizon (or any other information from any other corp) before they have a question about a particular individual.  If the federal gov’t has probable cause to suspect something of a given person, get a warrant to get the specific information from a given company to prove the question.

    Many people have suspected that the federal gov’t has been collecting data for more than a decade now.  Many people know how to do the collection and search the data for specific targets.  This is just proof that they have been doing so.  I do not think that it is right for the federal gov’t to just collect any and all data for just incase they might get a clue someone might be up to no good.  They need a court order to go to the company to request the data.  Then the company should provide the data on the specific question and not just give away any ol’ data on no-one in particular.

  2. princesspat

    I grew up on a cattle ranch in Southern Nevada and our family cattle range became the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. I saw the flashes, heard the explosions and watched the mushroom clouds rise over the hill behind my school. We wore radiation badges and lined up for the AEC to read them with their Geiger counters. At times we were told it was “to hot” to go outdoors for recess. Yet several years ago when I inquired about the information in the reports I know were collected I was told that no such information existed yet that didn’t mean what happen to me didn’t happen.

    So, the government has been “spying” on me for at least 62 yrs now. And as a result of my early experiences I became and have remained quite cynical re “national security” programs.

    Do I want our government to responsibility keep this country secure? Yes I do. Will the realities of doing so be unacceptable to me at times? Yes it will, and yes it has been. Was I harmed by being monitored? No, but the radiation exposure may have had lasting health consequences. Will I ever know? Probably not.

    Thanks for initiating a factual discussion.

  3. virginislandsguy

    and other linked sources before finding your diary at GOS. It appears that the pushback to Greenwald and the WPs shoddy report is just beginning to gain speed. I suspect that most media with the exception of the Professional Left and all the paranoids on the Right will slowly back away from this issue and think twice about giving GG the national megaphone.

    Is there a debate to be had about sources and methods of the NSA? Of course, but Greenwald has no interest in a fair airing of such a debate. I look forward to what strange bedfellows (Rand Paul?) he allies with to try to cover his ass.

    This is all becoming of a piece. “Free Bradley Manning” is now joined by “Free Edward Snowden*” on their Biglist of Butthurt. (*Snowden will find that NSA stands for Never Sleeps Again until he’s in a stateside prison.) While I have an appreciation for the masochism of the Contrary Left, I have to believe even they have their limits. At some point, they will have to give up any pretense of being Democrats and seize the moral highground of some new Third Way.

  4. DeniseVelez

    I’ve spent a large portion of my life being spied on by the government. This is no paranoid fantasy, my COINTELPRO files are so extensive I couldn’t afford to pay the fees to get copies under the Freedom of Information Act.

    I lived with tapped phones, my mail would get opened, my trash would be hauled away (not by NYC garbagemen), and twice my apartment was ransacked – not by burglars.

    You could listen to every conversation taking place inside one of my apartments (which was bugged) on a radio frequency.  (there was an unmarked van parked outside – with shaded windows – from which the apartment was monitored)

    I live with the assumption that my phones are still monitored.

    I have even had to sit down with lawyers and look at some ridiculous transcripts of a few of my phone conversations in which the transcribers worked very hard to set me up on major conspiracy charges. The words on the page didn’t match up with the actual tapes.  Thankfully I had good lawyers.

    Though COINTELPRO was eventually exposed, I never believed that the government had stopped watching me, and groups I belong to.

    Moving into the era of the internet, and increasingly huge databases of information kept on every individual, by corporate and gov sources – I often wonder if my only privacy is inside my head.

    Try this experiment.  

    Go to Intelius people search.

    enter your name and state.

    (I use this program doing genealogy and adoption searches)

    It’s low level. But it not only identifies you – but your associations, people who live with you, past addresses etc.

    Databases tag my buying preferences, books I read, and when my car is due for a tuneup.

    I wonder why anyone is surprised about any of this.

    I certainly am not.

    Though I doubt the ability of the government to have sufficient staff to actual make any sense of all the data that is out there, I do know that if you should wind up on a list, they can acquire reams of info – legally.

    They don’t even have to resort of illegal activities.

    Experiences outside of the country brought me into the scope of INTERPOL.

    Should we demand transparency and oversight?  Sure.

    Is our current administration, and Congress any more or less different than those that proceeded it – nope.

    I really don’t know where my musing is headed, other than to say that I’ll keep organizing around issues at the top of my list.  

    I doubt I’ll be rounded up and put in a camp or be shot down in the street by government agents as has happened to friends of mine in other countries.

    I seriously doubt we’ll be able to stop data collection.

    What for me is important is that we have a government in place that won’t wind up like the Pinochet regime.

    I don’t hide my identity online – since I’ve never had any anonymity.

    I’ll just keep on blogging and organizing and trying to keep reasonably sane Democrats in office.

    I’ll leave this issue to those who have the energy for it to be their single focus.

    Sorry if I sound cynical, but I doubt we’ll be able to stop the avalanche of data collection.

    I need coffee.  Sorry if this didn’t really respond to the diary.


  5. Rustbelt Dem

    Word on the street is that you and people who agree with you are neoliberal shills, a direct threat to Democracy, possible culprits in the downfall of the Republic. Also, there is a sale on baseless hypocrisy amongst so-called Progressives.    

  6. HappyinVT

    As individuals, Americans are generally good at denying al-Qaeda the pleasure of terrorizing us into submission. Our cities are bustling; our subways are packed every rush hour; there doesn’t seem to be an empty seat on any flight I’m ever on. But as a collective, irrational cowardice is getting the better of our polity. Terrorism isn’t something we’re ceding liberty to fight because the threat is especially dire compared to other dangers of the modern world. All sorts of things kill us in far greater numbers. Rather, like airplane crashes and shark attacks, acts of terror are scarier than most causes of death. The seeming contradictions in how we treat different threats suggest that we aren’t trading civil liberties for security, but a sense of security. We aren’t empowering the national-security state so that we’re safer, but so we feel safer.

    It goes on to show all the ways tens of thousands of Americans have died that are not related to terrorist attacks.  Yet for some reason 9/11 has been allowed to give the government rights in ways we wouldn’t allow for other reasons.

  7. HappyinVT

    eichelberger_e 2:47pm via TweetDeck

    Everyone, correction: FISA Court Has Rejected .03 Percent Of All Government Surveillance Requests. Not .0003. My bad.

    Retweeted by MotherJones

  8. fogiv

    Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage – choose your verb – the US intelligence apparatus and policieis he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal. I think it’s easy to exaggerate how much damage these disclosures cause. But I don’t buy that there are no consequences. And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically – for better or worse – to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?

    I don’t have a lot of problem answering that question.

    Me either.

  9. Shaun Appleby

    Putin certainly has a sense of humour:

    President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov is quoted by Kommersant daily Tuesday as saying that Russia would consider an asylum request from Edward Snowden, who is on the run after leaking information on the US government’s monitoring of Internet use and phone records. US lawmakers are demanding Snowden’s immediate extradition from Hong Kong.

    Russia would consider Snowden asylum request Debka 11 Jun 13

    Prism envy?


    In a frank hour-long interview, the 29-year-old, who US authorities have confirmed is now the subject of a criminal case, said he was neither a hero nor a traitor and that:

    US National Security Agency’s controversial Prism programme extends to people and institutions in Hong Kong and mainland China;

    The US is exerting “bullying” diplomatic pressure on Hong Kong to extradite him;

    Hong Kong’s rule of law will protect him from the US;

    He is in constant fear for his own safety and that of his family.

    That the compare this person to MLK makes me want to vomit.

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