2 Senators Say the NSA Is Still Feeding Us False Information

How can a democratic republic function when the bureaucrats are constantly misleading the people?
wyden full.jpg
Senator Ron Wyden departs after a full-Senate briefing by Director of the National Security Agency General Keith Alexander. (Reuters)

President Obama avows that he welcomes a debate about the NSA, privacy, and national security. Before Edward Snowden's leak, Americans lacked the information necessary for that debate; Obama would strongly prefer that we were still oblivious to his domestic surveillance activities. Still, national-security officials right up to Obama himself continue to give the impression that they're eager to level with Americans about certain aspects of their behavior, if only to persuade the polity that what's happening every day isn't as alarming as we've been told.

Hence the NSA's decision to release 15 talking points about its interpretation of surveillance law. Lots of ground is covered -- do take a look -- but the document basically portrays a surveillance agency going to great lengths to avoid spying on the private communications of U.S. citizens.

There's just one problem: Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall say that at least one of the NSA's statements is inaccurate, and another one is misleading. "We were disappointed to see that this fact sheet contains an inaccurate statement about how the section 702 authority has been interpreted by the US government," they write. "In our judgment this inaccuracy is significant, as it portrays protections for Americans' privacy as being significantly stronger than they actually are."

Notice that these two senators feel unable to tell us what the false information is or to correct the record -- just further evidence that classified programs subvert not only public debate, but also the ability of Congress to openly discuss policy and communicate with constituents.

Wyden and Udall go on to address the NSA talking point that they characterize as "merely" misleading:

.... this same fact sheet states that under Section 702, "Any inadvertently acquired communication of or concerning a US person must be promptly destroyed if it is neither relevant to the authorized purpose nor evidence of a crime." We believe that this statement is somewhat misleading, in that it implies that the NSA has the ability to determine how many American communications it has collected under section 702, or that the law does not allow the NSA to deliberately search for the records of particular Americans. In fact, the intelligence community has told us repeatedly that it is "not reasonably possible to identify the number of people located in the United States whose communications may have been reviewed under the authority" of the FISA Amendments Act.

To sum up, America, the privacy protections you're afforded are much weaker than you're being led to believe, and when it comes to destroying communications that concern U.S. citizens, the NSA is either lying to the Senate about its ability to flag those communications, or else misleading the public about how reliably the communications of American citizens are destroyed.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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