Friday, August 16, 2013

The NSA: Back in the News!

The Washington Post this morning is publishing the claim that the "NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, audit finds." This claim is on the basis of yet another document that Edward Snowden stole from his previous employer.

I'm a former Arabic linguist at the NSA, and I've argued in another post that Snowden didn't entirely understand the documents he stole. This is certainly another case of that, and the WP's title seems to want readers to also misunderstand the true significance of the leaked document.

Let's parse just the title:


The word "FINDS" for many people implies the discovery of
something that was intended to be hidden and not found. That is not the case here. If this were an independent entity that went into the NSA, found evidence of breaking the rules, and then wrote an audit report, you could then state "AUDIT FINDS." But this was an internal audit (which the full article does state), as required by law. Far from hiding this information, the NSA carefully preserved it and compiled it into a detailed report!  A more accurate description would be "INTERNAL AUDIT DISCLOSES." Granted, it wasn't (for obvious reasons) disclosed publicly, but it was disclosed, as required by law, to the appropriate oversight bodies governing the Intelligence Agencies.


Again, the word "BROKE" is interpreted by most people to imply that someone knowingly did something they know they were not supposed to do. Players in sports "BREAK THE RULES" in order to win, but they hope they don't get caught. The exact opposite is true of the activities described in this document. 

The report carefully and comprehensively describes exactly how technical and human errors resulted in the inadvertent collection of  electronic communication associated with US Citizens. So this document certainly proves that the NSA is NOT, in fact, engaging in wholesale, widespread surveillance of Americans.

A reader pointed out that I did not provide an alternative to this title. The most accurate description of the incidents the NSA disclosed in this internal audit would be:


Readers may be surprised, given my overall positive tone towards the NSA, that I would use the word VIOLATED. But, despite all other nuances, VIOLATED does not imply cognizant wrong-doing the same way BROKE THE RULES does. The NSA is charged, per Executive Order 12333 to collect foreign intelligence. Any collection of the communications of a US Citizen, even if inadvertent or through human error or, in the case of the S2A51 office, insufficient review of targets, is a violation of that charter. Full disclosure of such violations is required by law, and these leaked documents demonstrate that the NSA exercises due diligence in this area.

Later in the article there is a link to another leaked document, with the title:

FISA Court finds illegal surveillance

Again this title is quite misleading if you read the actual leaked document in question.  "FINDS" implies the NSA was hiding it and FISA found them out. 

illegal surveillance

Read the document. The word "ILLEGAL" does not appear. In fact, FISA rules that certain collection methods were "deficient on statutory and constitutional grounds." But this followed the NSA clearly submitting all of its activities to the FISA court for examination. It is quite telling, in fact, that the FISA court did not order the immediate termination of this collection, rather gave the NSA time to pursue other approaches. The NSA quite deferentially states here that they will submit their proposed solutions to the judge and then comply with whatever the judge decides. The title implies that the NSA was doing something illegal and got caught. Rather, the document describes an agency under strict oversight adjusting its functions in accordance with deferential respect for legal authorities.

As long as I have you here, it's not every day that a former NSA Agent turned author has a chance to plug his books in the wake of a media frenzy! So here's my post in which I get over my shyness at shameless self-promotion.