Obama Has New Whistleblower to Go After

I waited a couple days to write anything about the new revelations concerning the government’s ongoing surveillance and data mining program, mostly because there’s just so much information coming out and so much to look at. There are actually two different leaks, one involving Verizon and the other involving a number of internet companies and both being broken by the Guardian. Let’s look at the Verizon situation first.

In the Verizon case, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has ordered the company to hand over all of their metadata — that is, all calls originating or reaching their customers, the length of the call and possibly the location of the participants in the call — on a daily basis for the past month and a half.

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.

The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.

Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.

That was reported by the Guardian on Wednesday, which happens to have been the first day for my former colleague Spencer Ackerman in his position as the paper’s national security editor (a well-deserved honor; he knows more about national security and foreign policy than anyone I know). Hell of a first day. But the next day brought an even bigger revelation in the same paper, that the government has a program called PRISM that gives them backdoor access to most of the biggest companies that facilitate communication on the internet.

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation – classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies – which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program. The document claims “collection directly from the servers” of major US service providers.

Although the presentation claims the program is run with the assistance of the companies, all those who responded to a Guardian request for comment on Thursday denied knowledge of any such program.

In a statement, Google said: “Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a back door for the government to access private user data.”

Several senior tech executives insisted that they had no knowledge of PRISM or of any similar scheme. They said they would never have been involved in such a program. “If they are doing this, they are doing it without our knowledge,” one said.

An Apple spokesman said it had “never heard” of PRISM.

Do you believe those denials? I don’t. In the Verizon case, the court order explicitly forbids the company from disclosing the seizure of information, as do the National Security Letters that the FBI routinely uses to seize similar records from telecom and other companies. Not only do I not think they would tell the truth about it, I’m not sure they can. Indeed, the government has now acknowledged both programs, though we should trust them, they say, because there are lots of safeguards built into the system.

It was revealed late Wednesday that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records of hundreds of millions of U.S. phone customers. The leaked document first reported by the British newspaper the Guardian gave the NSA authority to collect from all of Verizon’s land and mobile customers, but intelligence experts said the program swept up the records of other phone companies too. The possibility of a third secret program letting the NSA tap into credit card transaction records emerged late Thursday in a report in The Wall Street Journal. The White House did not immediately respond to an inquiry about that program.

At the same time, Clapper offered new information about the phone program and another one that collects the audio, video, email, photographic and Internet search usage of foreign nationals overseas who use any of the nine major Internet providers, including Microsoft, Google, Apple, Yahoo and others.

“I believe it is important for the American people to understand the limits of this targeted counterterrorism program and the principles that govern its use,” he said.

Among the previously classified information about the phone records collection that Clapper revealed:

—The program is conducted under authority granted by Congress and is authorized by the Foreign intelligence Surveillance Court which determines the legality of the program.

—The government is prohibited from “indiscriminately sifting” through the data acquired. It can only be reviewed “when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.” He also said only counterterrorism personnel trained in the program may access the records.

—The information acquired is overseen by the Justice Department and the FISA court. Only a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed, he said.

—The program is reviewed every 90 days.

Feel better now? You shouldn’t, for many reasons. First of all, why should such wholesale data mining be necessary? If there is any reason to suspect someone of having a connection to terrorism, they can easily get a warrant from the FISC (which almost never turns down such a request). And if it’s an emergency, they are already empowered to start such surveillance immediately and retroactively ask for a warrant within 72 hours. But it seems even those minimal safeguards are too much for them to comply with.

Secondly, the potential for abuse here is almost impossible to overstate, especially in light of the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers. If they think a reporter has been talking to a source, like for these stories, they can now trace every single phone call, email, text message, Skype conversation, etc, between that reporter and anyone they’ve talked to. That takes the seizure of AP phone records seem like child’s play by comparison. But that’s just the beginning. They can also get all sorts of blackmail material, not only on their enemies but on their allies who may be reluctant to go along with them on some legislative matter.

Think I’m being paranoid? The government has already done this in the COINTELPRO program, blackmailing civil rights leaders by illegally wiretapping them in their homes, churches and offices. And don’t think that just because Obama is in charge, that wouldn’t happen. The illegal wiretaps of civil rights leaders was given the greenlight by alleged liberal Robert F. Kennedy.

There’s a tremendous amount of policy detail to dig into here and I’ll be doing that on Tuesday when I co-host Jamila Bey’s radio show. Our guest will be Marcy Wheeler, who has been digging into the documents and doing her usual great job of ferreting out the details that matter.

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  • marcus

    Welcome to the brave new world of the electronic panopticon.

  • http://www.rodlamkey.net reverendrodney

    Lots of safeguards. Uh huh. Like the one preventing leaks. That makes me feel so much better.

    I fear that this might have a bad impact on the Bradley Manning trial, that is, the government will lower the boom on him, increase his prison sentence and feed vilifying diatribes about him to the mimeograph MSM in order to dissuade more leaks.

  • TxSkeptic

    I always had a suspicion that the reason President Cheney Bush got so little pushback from congress on his warring ways, was that Cheney was running intense information gathering and blackmailing operation on congress. I’ve got no evidence, but it’s hard to explain how so much bad stuff was just ignored on a wholesale and bipartisan scale.

  • Michael Heath


    I always had a suspicion that the reason President Cheney Bush got so little pushback from congress on his warring ways, was that Cheney was running intense information gathering and blackmailing operation on congress. I’ve got no evidence, but it’s hard to explain how so much bad stuff was just ignored on a wholesale and bipartisan scale.

    I think the evidence we do have easily explains Congress’ reaction to Messers Bush and Cheney’s actions. On the GOP side it was ideology, fear, bigotry, and a great opportunity to transfer taxpayer funds to industries that have long financed the GOP.

    On the Democratic side for those who followed the GOP, it was fear of electoral losses for appearing soft to voters fearful of another 9/11 coupled to that same opportunity to fund massive spending programs beneficial to interests inside their districts.

  • http://www.rodlamkey.net reverendrodney

    This morning the Guardian has revealed yet another bon mot leak, the NSA’s “Boundless Informant” program.

  • http://www.gregory-gadow.net Gregory in Seattle

    The Guardian is a foreign paper, and its writers are mostly non-Americans. Under the precedents that Obama has fought very hard to get, he doesn’t need to pursue legal avenues to punish the whistleblowers, if you know what I mean.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Gregory@6: So we shouldn’t be too surprised if there’s a drone strike on the Grauniad?

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    I’d like to think that leaking and whistle-blowing are an equal and opposite reaction to government attempts to act in secret.

    If you want to puke, you can listen to Mike McConnell lie out his ass in a public debate:


  • http://wanderinweeta.blogspot.com Susannah

    Good news for an overweight nation. I think we’re going to see a lot more people going for walks. Without their phones.

  • chilidog99

    Just think of the marketing potential here.

    The government could sell those databases and pay off the deficit.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    I see Greenwald just did an article about the guy who leaked the latest bits of information. Good for him! That was an act of courage he’ll certainly have moments to regret.


  • Who Knows?

    Ever since 9/11 this is exactly what the government has said it wanted. We already know the government can look at your bank records, look at your utility bills, listen to your calls, use whatever technology to track you and peek through your walls, stop, frisk, and search us for the flimsiest reasons. I’m supposed to be outraged that the government is collecting generalized data about our online activities looking for patterns?

    I gave up being outraged after the renewal of The Patriot Act. This is what we asked the government to do, why waste the energy?

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    This is what we asked the government to do

    And by “we” you mean “I”

    ‘Cuz I sure as fucking on a tricycle ain’t part of your “we”

  • cholten99

    Originally I was a big fan of President Obama but the faith I had in him has whittled away to nothing over the last couple of years. That said, I genuinely can’t imagine what he will do about Edward Snowden and the effect of the latest leaks on the next set of elections.

    If Snowden is left in Hong Kong the GoP will scream that Obama is not pursuing a ‘terrorist that has leaked massive national security secrets’ and use it to whip up their base. If he asks China to extradite him the response could likely be “what this guy leaked shows that you’ve been hacking into our systems for years, lying about it and simultaneously repeatedly publicly accusing us of doing the same thing – fuck off”. If he is rendered back to the US not only will China lose it over someone being forcibly removed from their territory but the act would madden a huge number of people back in the US who view him as a hero – almost every one of which is a is a Democratic voter.

    The Democrats are really screwed. If they do nothing they lose votes from the “not acting on terror” group. If they do anything they lose votes from the supporters of Snowden.

    Much as I admire Obama for a lot for things (gay rights, health care), I despise his record in the civil rights area. The West Wing called it in an episode called The Supremes all the way back in 2004 when they said “privacy will be the major issue for the next generation”.

    That said – the idea of having the GoP back in power is even worse. I’m very glad I’m not an American (although what happens there affects everyone everywhere).

  • D. C. Sessions

    The Democrats are really screwed. If they do nothing they lose votes from the “not acting on terror” group. If they do anything they lose votes from the supporters of Snowden.

    Which would be exactly as it should be. Democracy, public accountability, yada yada.

    That’s not to say that I agree with your expectation that things will actually turn out that way, though.

  • Who Knows?

    No Marcus, I said and meant “we.”

    That’s the way it works here in the United States. We vote for people who represent us and they act on our behalf. So, we asked for this and we can’t act outraged or surprised that this is what we got.

  • D. C. Sessions

    So, we asked for this and we can’t act outraged or surprised that this is what we got.

    Of course we can — manifestly, since we do.

    Aside from the fact that consistency is rare in individuals, it’s even rarer in large groups since it only takes small shifts from a minority (hypocrisy, learning, demographic shift, etc.) to tip the same collective decision you cite.

    That in addition to those of us who have been agin’ it from the beginning (Ed, for one) who don’t give up their right be be outraged just because they were outvoted.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Washington Post, 2008: Whistleblowers May Have a Friend in the Oval Office

    Whistleblowers in the federal government and those who work to protect them see a longtime friend in the next president…

  • lanetaylor

    Sadly, we’ve lost this battle already, much like the conservatives have lost the battle against gay rights.

    A majority (56% according to a new Pew Poll) said they were totally OK with this surveillance program.