The latest on phone spying, data mining and the Obama administration -

The latest on phone spying, data mining and the Obama administration

Our Washington correspondent on emerging details about U.S. surveillance


(Charles Dharapak, AP Photo)


Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer turned civil libertarian journalist/author who now writes for the UK newspaper, The Guardian, was leaked documents detailing two massive U.S. government data-mining programs that collect data on the phone calls of U.S. citizens and Internet communications of foreigners.

1. Greenwald obtained a copy of a top-secret court order from April authorizing the National Security Agency to collect on a “daily, ongoing basis” bulk information on all calls made from a subsidiary of the U.S. phone company Verizon. U.S. senators briefed on the program said it is one of many such orders that have been in place at telecommunications providers for seven years. The contents of the calls are not eavesdropped upon through the program, but the government has been collecting phone numbers, call-duration information and other identifying information, using it to look for networks of suspected terrorists.

2. Greenwald separately obtained documents that outline a secret NSA program that for the past six years has allowed the U.S. government to gather user data about non-U.S. citizens abroad from Internet companies Microsoft, Yahoo,  Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple. (The Guardian and, separately, the Washington Post also portrayed this effort as involving direct tapping of the companies’ servers, but the companies’ executives denied giving the government a backdoor to their raw data.) The access allows officials to collect material “including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats” from non-U.S. citizens outside the U.S.

In a statement Thursday evening, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, strongly condemned the unauthorized leak of the court order as harmful to national security. He stressed the court order did not give the NSA access to the contents of telephone conversations or identifying information about the callers. Clapper wrote that there are strict rules around accessing the information, which he described as “meta-data.” It can only be queried when there is “reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts” that a query has to do with a foreign terrorist organization. Handling of the information is overseen by the Justice Department and a special court.

In a separate statement about the “PRISM” program, Clapper did not deny its existence, but emphasized, “it cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States.” He also wrote, “information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”

Coming on the heels of disclosures that the Obama administration had used subpoenas to demand telephone-calling logs for reporters at the Associated Press as part of a national security leak investigation, the new documents highlight the extent to which the Obama administration has embraced the ever-growing surveillance state as a counter-terrorism and national security tool.

Obama is now being accused by civil libertarians of using the same policies he criticized as a candidate who ran on a platform of “change” from the policies of George W. Bush. However, defenders of Obama have responded that while  Bush claimed a broad power as commander-in-chief to carry out his policies — including warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens in the course of terrorism investigations — the Obama-era policies have been approved by courts and authorized by Congress. As has been observed earlier in his presidency, Obama turned out not to be a civil libertarian — and his critique of Bush had more to do with the lack of court and congressional authorization of early Bush policies, than with their content.

This excellent New York Times timeline details the evolution of surveillance policy under the Bush and Obama administrations.

The leaks, coming one after another, also suggest there is a new, high-level Deep Throat within the U.S. security establishment with access to high-level secrets. As the Times noted in a comprehensive take on the disclosures:

The dual revelations, in rapid succession, also suggested that someone with access to high-level intelligence secrets had decided to unveil them in the midst of furor over leak investigations.

Whatever the identity and motives of the individual, there is likely more to come.