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FRINFORMSUM 10/17/2013: Another Intelligence Chief Admits to Lying, NSA Knows your ‘Buddies’, and More

October 17, 2013
NSA director Keith Alexander, who will be leaving his post early next year. AP Photo

NSA director Keith Alexander, who will be leaving his post early next year. AP Photo

National Security Agency (NSA) head, General Keith Alexander, continued the tradition of intelligence leaders blatantly lying about their programs. During a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Alexander admitted he lied when saying the NSA’s phone surveillance programs had prevented 54 terrorist “plots or events,” a claim he made while deflecting criticism about the agency’s surveillance programs in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations. Senate Judiciary Chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, was understandably frustrated with Alexander’s admittance that “only 13 of the 54 cases were connected to the United States…that only one or two suspected plots were identified as a result of bulk phone record collection.” It’s worth noting that Alexander will be leaving his eight-year post as NSA director early next year.

Speaking of NSA practices, documents confirm that the NSA secretly collects email address books and instant messaging “buddy lists” –as many as 500,000 a day- from Gmail, Facebook, Yahoo and Hotmail accounts around the world. According to The Washington Post, “[r]ather than targeting individual users, the NSA is gathering contact lists in large numbers that amount to a sizable fraction of the world’s e-mail and instant messaging accounts.” This is significant because these contact lists “commonly include not only names and e-mail addresses, but also telephone numbers, street addresses, and business and family information.” The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) hasn’t authorized the buddy list program, and in order to bypass any FISA restrictions regarding it, the NSA doesn’t capture data within the US, even though many of the accounts belong to Americans.

The documents behind FISA itself are making news this week, as efforts are underway to declassify the original judicial interpretation, written by Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, which ruled that the bulk collection of Americans’ data is lawful. Senator Leahy said he is ‘“particularly interested” in seeing the administration declassify and release “any additional legal analysis” related to the phone records program. “That,” he said, “is exactly the sort of transparency we need in order to have a full and open debate about whether this program is legal and appropriate or needed.”’

Either in spite of or because of the NSA’s quest to compile as much metadata as it can, the US government appears to be losing control over the Internet. A recent Wired article reports that “the directors of ICANN, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, the World Wide Web Consortium, the Internet Society and all five of the regional Internet address registries have vowed to break their associations with the US government.” What this looks like in practice, however, remains to be seen.

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks, the Department of Defense is now required to inform Congress “whenever a DoD official discloses classified intelligence to a reporter on an authorized basis, or declassifies the information specifically for release to the press.” As Secrecy News’ Steven Aftergood notes, the “requirement does not apply to regular declassification activities, or to releases under the Freedom of Information Act or through litigation.” Another interesting development emerging from the leaks is the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s new submission tool, Secure Drop, which is geared to protect government whistleblowers. The program, initially the brainchild of the late Aaron Swartz, accepts encrypted documents and facilitates communication between sources and journalists while maintaining the source’s anonymity, a big draw given the Obama Administration’s crackdown on leakers and the journalists who publish their stories.

Norm Eisen was a great FOIA champion, and hopefully not the Obama Administration's last.

Norm Eisen was a great FOIA champion, and hopefully not the Obama Administration’s last.

Finally this week, The Washington Post Style section ran a great piece on Norm Eisen, the current U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. However, before he left for Prague, Eisen co-founded Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a government watchdog organization, and was appointed by President Obama to be the White House’s Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform. In this role Eisen expanded the application of the FOIA and was its vigorous –and much needed– champion. Unfortunately, since Eisen left the White House, the administration’s FOIA and transparency compliance efforts, have gone to pot been lacking. To be taken seriously on its transparency and FOIA pledges, the White House needs to invest in a new “FOIA czar” posthaste.

Happy FOIA-ing!

  1. October 17, 2013 5:40 pm

    On October 27, 2009, Judicial Watch staff visited with White House officials led by Norm Eisen, Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government, to discuss Judicial Watch’s pursuit of White House visitor logs through FOIA, as well as other transparency and ethics issues. During the meeting, Eisen asked Judicial Watch to scale back its request and expressed hope that Judicial Watch would publicly praise the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency — even though the White House refused to abandon its legally indefensible line of reasoning that White House visitor logs are not subject to FOIA law.
    Eisen is only a friend of FOIA when it’s politically expedient.


  1. FRINFORMSUM 12/12/2013: John Podesta Joins the Obama Administration, NSA Chief Argues for Continuation of Bulk Data Collection, and a Top National Security Lawyer Seems to be Trying to Avoid the FOIA | UNREDACTED

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