MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Targeted Surveillance? NSA Says It Can't Distinguish American Emails From Foreign Missives.

How carefully targeted is National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance of email and other electronic communications? According to an internal NSA memo, "it is not possible to determine what communications are to or from U.S. persons nearly as readily as is the case with telephony, and often is not possible at all."

The revelation comes in documents pried from the governments' sticky fingers by the American Civil Liberties Union in the course of its efforts to plumb the parameters of Executive Order 12333, a secretive directive that lies behind much of the federal government's electronic surveillance. The executive order is intended to authorize efforts against foreign actors but, as the memo reveals, the snoopers are pretty much reduced to gathering everthing up and then separating out the material on which they're not supposed to be spying after the fact.

But there may be some problems with asking snoops to respect your privacy after they've gathered your communications. For one thing, they have a record of not doing that. An internal NSA legal memo also collected by the ACLU frets that signals intelligence personnel are engaged in the unauthorized "sharing of voice cuts and/or similar material compiled in the course of SIGINT collection with other SIGINT personnel." The memo goes on to suggest that the Inspector General "assess whether the SIGINT personnel involved were spending their work time engaged in non-productive activity."

The ACLU's Ashley Gorski points out that this almost certainly refers to the sharing of sexy best-of out-takes, as alleged in 2008 by a former NSA military intercept operator.

So when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper initially denied that government snoops were scooping up Americans' data, then described that answer as "the least untruthful" response he could give to questioning before finally conceding that his words were "clearly erroneous," he wasn't just blowing hot air. In the age of nude selfies, smartphone sex videos, and erotic texts, he was probably loath to lose out on some fine entertainment.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Knarf Yenrab!||

    According to an internal NSA memo, "it is not possible to determine what communications are to or from U.S. persons nearly as readily as is the case with telephony, and often is not possible at all."

    That's a shame. Maybe Costco is hiring.

  • ||

    "We don't spy on American citizens."

    "We can't tell whose communications are those of American citizens or not so we read them all."

    Both of these can't exist at the same time...except for the government, they can!

    Fuck. You. That's. Why.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    In government, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle works at the macro level.

  • Curtisls87||

    Huh, so those geo-IP services that could tell you that the IP address in the header comes from a specific location are bogus?

  • GILMORE||

    "the least untruthful"

    I've been startled by this characterization the moment it was uttered, and noted that it wasn't much explored by the major media for the epistemological/metaphysical assumptions it seemed to make.

    Because a more-common form of 'lie' is to answer a question with an 'unrelated truth', as clapper often did. e.g. "Do you collect data on Americans? - Not wittingly"... or turning the question around and assuming a different definition of "Collect". - as in, "I wasn't searching for PORN of fat women when I typed BBW!! I was looking for Bath and Body Works!!" The answer twists the question to mean, 'what were you intending to do'. They do 'acquire' intelligence which includes American communications... but they were "collecting" (or attempting to) foreign transmissions, you see. So 'in that sense', he could claim a truth.

    But calling something, "The Least Untruthful" suggests that - while many different things can be *true*, if misleading... that falsehoods come in *levels* of falseness.

    This is not how people typically think of 'untruth'. There are many kinds of 'truth', but falsehood is all 100% false. Not partially or with different degrees.

    He later claimed that he was unable to answer with a simple yes or no; in which case, any answer would be 'false', and he should have actually said he was unable to answer rather than pick 'the least (politically) bad'

  • Rich||

    he should have actually said he was unable to answer

    Or "Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!"

  • GILMORE||

    "Well, no one who speaks German could be an evil man! Case closed"

  • some guy||

    And if he was unable to say that he was unable to answer then he should have just sat there and stared at his questioner. Everyone would have understood what that meant...

  • some guy||

    "It only counts as illegal spying if we try to use it in a court of law and we have no intention of trying to punish our targets via courts of law."

  • GILMORE||

    this is the scary truth

    i find the whole 'parallel construction' thing that's been outed to be even more insidious than the 'omnipresent surveillance'... yet it seems like people in the general public/media either don't really appreciate how much it undermines the rule of law... or don't care, because it only affects 'bad people'

  • gaoxiaen||

    Others, however, may use parallel construction.

  • gaoxiaen||

    I should have read the next post before posting.

  • Clown Hunter||

    The memo goes on to suggest that the Inspector General "assess whether the SIGINT personnel involved were spending their work time engaged in non-productive activity."

    Not violating the law. Not violating Americans' Constitutional rights.

    None of that exists for these people. Only being "non-productive" in breaking the law and violating rights.

  • Gluesponge||

    Bull. Shit. NSA. You lying fuckweasels.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online