A sheet of talking points for employees of the National Security Agency and Central Security Services, was sent out ahead of Thanksgiving to help guide conversations with family and friends during the holiday season.
Firedoglake obtained a copy of a two-page document that was sent out on November 22. It was clearly put together for rebutting statements about the NSA from news stories on documents disclosed by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, and it encouraged employees to “share the following points with family members and close friends.”
The “talking points” sheet suggests that employees make five key points: (1) NSA’s mission is of great value to the Nation”; (2) NSA performs its mission the right way—lawful, compliant and in a way that protects civil liberties and privacy; (3) NSA performs its mission exceptionally well. We strive to be the best that we can be, because that’s what America requires as part of its defense in a dangerous world; (4) The people who work for NSA are loyal Americans with expert skills who make sacrifices to help protect the freedoms we all cherish; (5) NSA is committed to increased transparency, public dialog and faithful implementation of any changes required by our overseers. (No emphasis added. Underlines appear in the document.)
Each key point includes sub-points that presumably an employee could additionally cite if a family member disputed their main point.
A Misleading Statistic on Disrupting Terrorism the NSA Won’t Stop Promoting
“NSA programs protect Americans and our Allies,” the document reads. “As an example, they have helped to understand and disrupt 54 terrorist events since 9/11: 25 in Europe, 11 in Asia and 5 in Africa. Thirteen of those had a homeland nexus.”
Deputy Director John Inglis admitted in August during a Senate hearing, when pressed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, that US bulk records phone spying had been “critical” in stopping just one terrorist plot. He clarified that the spying on phone records had only “made a contribution” to discovering the 13 plots.
Sens. Ron Wyden, Mark Udall & Martin Heinrich, who filed a brief in support of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit challenging the collection of phone records of all Americans, explained the Executive Branch has defended the program by conflating it with “other foreign intelligence authorities.” The senators highlighted the fact that the collection under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act had played “little or no role in most of these disruptions.”
“Indeed of the original fifty-four that the government pointed to, officials have only been able to describe two that involved materially useful information obtained through the bulk call-records program,” the senators added. “Even the two supposed success stories involved information that [the senators] believe—after repeated requests to the government for evidence to the contrary—could readily have been obtained without a database of all Americans’ call records.”
At this point, any intelligence agency leader, member of Congress or government official who highlights 54 “thwarted” plots is advancing propaganda to save the NSA from being forced into giving up this power to collect the phone records of all Americans.
FISA Court Opinions Show the NSA Has Not Performed Its Mission in Lawful and Compliant Manner
The claim that NSA “performs its mission” in a manner that is “lawful, compliant, and in a way that protects civil liberties and privacy” is demonstrably false.
A Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) judge ruled, when reviewing a program that was collecting records of Internet communications” that the agency had committed “longstanding and pervasive violations” of prior orders by the court. It found that government officials knew or had reason to know that “portions” of collection constituted “unauthorized electronic surveillance.” This unauthorized and illegal surveillance “included information concerning the identity of the parties and the existence of communications to or from persons in the United States.”
FISC Judge John Bates stated that the government had a “history of material misstatements”—otherwise known by Director for National Intelligence James Clapper as “least untruthful” answers and known among non-members of the national security state as lies. The government had a “poor track record” of exceeding the implementation constraints or going beyond purported privacy safeguards represented to the court.
Another ruling by the FISA Court in 2009 found, the NSA “frequently and systematically violated” the agency’s “minimization procedures,” intended to protect Americans’ privacy, “that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall [business records] regime has never functioned effectively.”
As Julian Sanchez of the CATO Institute recently recounted, “For the first three years of the call records program’s current incarnation, the FISC was misinformed about how it really worked. As a result, software tools routinely accessed the data without the required approvals: Of the 17,835 phone numbers searched by one automated alert list from 2006 to 2009, only 1,935 had been vetted for “reasonable suspicion.” Query results were also improperly shared with the CIA and FBI.”
In fact, journalist Marcy Wheeler, who has written in extensive detail on all the released NSA documents so far, has demonstrated through multiple posts that the NSA has continued an illegal wiretapping program that has grown in size since it was first exposed under President George W. Bush.
Targeting a US Person’s Porn Viewing Without Probable Cause
The agency claims the “NSA does not target US citizens or permanent resident aliens unless that targeting is premised on a finding of probable cause to believe that the person is a foreign power or the agent of a foreign power.” But journalists Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Gallagher and Ryan Grim recently published parts of a document for a story at Huffington Post that showed NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander had sought to discredit radical Muslims by spying on their porn-viewing habits. One of the six targets discussed in the document was a US person.
None of these people targeted were believed by the NSA to be involved in any terrorist plots. The NSA wanted to embarrass them because they had a history of espousing views that the agency considered dangerous to the United States. There was no “probable cause” to suggest the persons targeted with this COINTELPRO-style spying tactic had committed any criminal acts of violence.
The NSA Asserts It Doesn’t Steal “Industry Secrets” or Demand Changes By Vendors to Any Products
“NSA does not and will not steal industry secrets in order to give US companies a competitive advantage,” according to the talking points. However, documents have shown that the NSA targeted the private networks of Brazilian state-controlled oil company, Petrobras.
The NSA has partnered with the British spying agency, GCHQ, to target the private networks of companies, which are considered “important.” Documents have shown they have worked to exploit “private network traffic” from energy companies, financial organizations and even airlines. They have used a technique to hack into the computer systems of telecommunications or billing companies and create gateways to gain access to those companies’ computer systems.
The talking points further assert, “NSA does not and will not demand any changes by any vendor to any product, nor does it have any authority to demand such changes.” That sharply conflicts with a goal in the agency’s 2013 budget request, which according to ProPublica, suggested the agency would work to “‘influence policies, standards and specifications for commercial public key technologies,’ the most common encryption method.”
ProPublica’s report indicated the NSA had convinced the “National Institute of Standards and Technology, the United States’ encryption standards body,” and the International Organization for Standardization, which has 163 countries as members” to adopt a weaker standard of encryption.
Even agency programs ostensibly intended to guard American communications are sometimes used to weaken protections. The N.S.A.’s Commercial Solutions Center, for instance, invites the makers of encryption technologies to present their products and services to the agency with the goal of improving American cybersecurity. But a top-secret N.S.A. document suggests that the agency’s hacking division uses that same program to develop and “leverage sensitive, cooperative relationships with specific industry partners” to insert vulnerabilities into Internet security products.
The NSA talking points argue, “Terrorists and weapons proliferators use the same technology many of us do, such as e-mail. that is why the US Government compels providers to provide webmail for these carefully identified threats.” Yet, the agency run by Gen. Collect It All” Alexander should not be permitted to make such a claim. Through PRISM program collection from Internet companies and “upstream collection,” millions upon millions of emails and other records of Internet communications are being stored for later searches regardless of whether the records actually contain information on “carefully identified threats.”
NSA’s Newfound Commitment to “Increased Transparency”
The NSA claims it is committed to “increased transparency” and “public dialog,” which is laughable if you’re an attorney who has been arguing Freedom of Information Act lawsuits for the ACLU or Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) over the past years. The government had, up until now, refused to release even redacted versions of FISA court opinions showing how judges had interpreted the legality or constitutionality of NSA surveillance.
“We will be more transparent in discussing the business of NSA, the work that we do, the authorities under which we operate and the governance over them to ensure that Americans understand the NSA,” the talking points state. As the Director for National Intelligence has done for the past months, this declaration omits the fact that the agency has been forced into this newfound commitment to transparency. A court has ordered the government to release many of the documents that they have been declassifying in the past months. And, it took Snowden blowing the whistle by releasing documents to journalists for the NSA to finally begin to admit that it would have to, at least for the time being, give up some of the secrecy that has made it possible for it to engage in largely unrestrained, unchecked and often illegal surveillance.
The talking points go on to mention that the “President and senior Administration officials are reviewing NSA’s programs, and we stand ready to execute their policy guidance with our full support.” Clapper controls this review.
The Associated Press reported:
The panel’s advisers work in offices on loan from the DNI. Interview requests and press statements from the review panel are carefully coordinated through the DNI’s press office. James Clapper, the intelligence director, exempted the panel from U.S. rules that require federal committees to conduct their business and their meetings in ways the public can observe. Its final report, when it’s issued, will be submitted for White House approval before the public can read it.
The “review” the NSA expects us all to appreciate is being overseen by the man who lied to Congress and has also permitted various employees under his purview to lie to the secret surveillance court purportedly in place to prevent abuses of surveillance powers.
Finally, the talking points point out that all of NSA’s employees are loyal Americans. Nobody reporting on the NSA or critiquing it in an official capacity has ever questioned the loyalty of NSA employees. This is an obvious red herring inserted to insinuate that fierce critics of the agency are attacking employees’ patriotism and employing such a talking point should be seen as further evidence of the lengths NSA will go to obscuring the extent of its illegal activities.
This is not the first time the agency has sent home material for employees to share with their family members. Earlier this year, on September 13, employees took home a “Dear Family” letter to help reassure family that the NSA will survive. “We have weathered storms before and we will weather this one together, as well,” the letter stated.
The letter was much more pretentious in its presentation of what the NSA was dealing with in the aftermath of Snowden’s disclosures. The letter also accused media outlets of “sensationalizing” leaks. These talking points refrained from specifically suggesting media reports have been incorrect. Sending these kinds of documents home with employees to share with family is emblematic of the insular culture of people who have committed their lives to Top Secret America and have placed themselves above criticism by any person, whether they be in the halls of power, a media organization or a civil society group in this country. And, while the talking points are for employees’ family members, they could also be for employees too.
Snowden told New York Times reporter James Risen, “There’s a lot of dissent—palpable with some, even,” inside the NSA. The NSA uses “fear and a false image of patriotism,” like “obedience to authority,” to keep employees from challenging anything happening internally.
The talking points—as well as another set of agency talking points journalist Jason Leopold obtained in October—represent the best efforts of intelligence community leaders to convince employees to keep deluding themselves with thoughts that what the agency does is all justified, legal and does not unnecessarily jeopardize any US person’s civil liberties.