ProPublica: Much about NSA snooping remains unknown

Journalists still struggling for answers
Tom Jackson
Jun 10, 2013

by Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer
ProPublica, June 10, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

Last week saw revelations that the FBI and the National Security Agency have been collecting Americans’ phone records en masse and that the agencies have access to data from nine tech companies.

But secrecy around the programs has meant even basic questions are still unanswered.  Here’s what we still don’t know:

Has the NSA been collecting all Americans’ phone records, and for how long?

It’s not entirely clear.

The Guardian published a court order that directed a Verizon subsidiary to turn over phone metadata -- the time and duration of calls, as well as phone numbers and location data -- to the NSA “on an ongoing daily basis” for a three-month period. Citing unnamed sources, the Wall Street Journal reported the program also covers AT&T and Sprint and that it covers the majority of Americans. And Director of National Intelligence James Clapper himself acknowledged that the “collection” is “broad in scope.”

How long has the dragnet has existed? At least seven years, and maybe going back to 2001.  

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and vice chair Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said last week that the NSA has been collecting the records going back to 2006. That’s the same year that USA Today revealed a similar-sounding mass collection of metadata, which the paper said had been taking place since 2001. The relationship between the program we got a glimpse of in the Verizon order and the one revealed by USA Today in 2006 is still not clear: USA Today described a program not authorized by warrants. The program detailed last week does have court approval.

What surveillance powers does the government believe it has under the Patriot Act?

That’s classified.

The Verizon court order relies on Section 215 of the Patriot Act. That provision allows the FBI to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a secret order requiring companies, like Verizon, to produce records – “any tangible things” – as part of a “foreign intelligence” or terrorism investigation. As with any law, exactly what the wording means is a matter for courts to decide. But the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s interpretation of Section 215 is secret.

As Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman recently wrote, the details of that interpretation matter a lot: “Read narrowly, this language might require that information requested be shown to be important or necessary to the investigation. Read widely, it would include essentially anything even slightly relevant — which is to say, everything.”

In the case of the Verizon order -- signed by a judge who sits on the secret court and requiring the company to hand over “all call detail records" -- it appears that the court is allowing a broad interpretation of the Patriot Act. But we still don’t know the specifics.

Has the NSA’s massive collection of metadata thwarted any terrorist attacks?

It depends which senator you ask. And evidence that would help settle the matter is, yes, classified.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., told CNN on Sunday, “It's unclear to me that we've developed any intelligence through the metadata program that's led to the disruption of plots that we could [not] have developed through other data and other intelligence.”

He said he could not elaborate on his case “without further declassification.”

Sen. Feinstein told ABC that the collection of phone records described in the Verizon order had been “used” in the case of would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi. Later in the interview, Feinstein said she couldn’t disclose more because the information is classified. (It’s worth noting that there’s also evidence that old-fashioned police work helped solve the Zazi case — and that other reports suggest the Prism program, not the phone records, helped solve the case.)

How much information, and from whom, is the government sweeping up through Prism?

It’s not clear.

Intelligence director Clapper said in his declassified description that the government can’t get information using Prism unless there is an “appropriate, and documented, foreign intelligence purpose for the acquisition (such as for the prevention of terrorism, hostile cyber activities, or nuclear proliferation) and the foreign target is reasonably believed to be outside the United States.”

One thing we don’t know is how the government determines who is a “foreign target.” The Washington Post reported that NSA analysts use “search terms” to try to achieve “51 percent confidence” in a target’s “foreignness.” How do they do that? Unclear.

We’ve also never seen a court order related to Prism -- they are secret -- so we don’t know how broad they are. The Post reported that the court orders can be sweeping, and apply for up to a year. Though Google has maintained it has not "received blanket orders of the kind being discussed in the media."

So, how does Prism work?

In his statement Saturday, Clapper described Prism as a computer system that allows the government to collect “foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers under court supervision.”

That much seems clear. But the exact role of the tech companies is still murky.

Relying on a leaked PowerPoint presentation, the Washington Post originally described Prism as an FBI and NSA program to tap “directly into the central servers” of nine tech companies including Google and Facebook. Some of the companies denied giving the government “direct access” to their servers. In a later story, published Saturday, the newspaper cited unnamed intelligence sources saying that the description from the PowerPoint was technically inaccurate.

The Post quotes a classified NSA report saying that Prism allows “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” not the company servers themselves. So what does any of that mean? We don't know.

(ProPublica publishes "Journalism in the Public Interest." More articles here.)



The Big Dog's back

When Repubs do it it's called protecting the country. When Dems do the same thing it's called spying.


Big Dog, I though about this for the last hour or so, I didn't want to fire a quick snarky cheap shot. I think the reason those on the left and right are firing back hard is because the things he's doing now are things he was opposed to in his first term campaign speeches. His speeches spoke to the liberal base and enthused them unlike anyone since the early Clinton years. Hope, Change, Transparency, Integrity and outsider approach to change the Washington machine. Five years later it is appearing that nothing has changed, the military industrial complex may be winding down over seas but their coming to our front doors now. I thought Bush's Patriot Act was b^llshit when he signed it and I feel Obama's Patriot Act and NDAA are b^llshit as well. What I see is more of the same, no hope, no change, no transparency. While I don't agree with much of the liberal agenda, he had a chance to push his agenda forward, but he is now stuck with several scandals and it will not allow him to imprint his legacy. Once all of this is out in the open and we have a chance to digest what has been done, he might have to weigh his options and do what is right for the American people and possibly turn the reigns over to Biden.

The Big Dog's back

So you don't think things have changes for the better since 2009? By the way, these so called scandals are what's really bullspit.


^^^ “Your way of thinking? That's easy. You don't.” - The Big Dog's back, 5/15/13 :-7


I would say some things are better, if you own a home, are invested in the stock market and have a job then yes. If you are looking for a job, I'd say probably not. If you take the Fed out of the equation we are not recovering, I blame both parties for that. As far as the scandals, we'll find out in due time. I see the ACLU is suing the Obama Administration over the NSA spying.


Re: "I would say some things are better,"

IMO, largely due to the business cycle and the Fed.

Pres. Obama's stimulus did squat!


No argument there, most of the stimulus went to Wall Street and other Financial Institutions, it seems none of it went to "shovel ready" jobs. As far as the government picking winners and losers, they should have let the free market work out what green energy was beneficial and cost effective.


Re: "'shovel ready' jobs.

One of my favorites from the Comedian-in-Chief:

What's a few trillion of borrowed tax payer dollars to the Choom Gang King?

Also, Al Gore did OK. He invested in Johnson Controls and others that benefited from Energy Dept. investment $.


Maybe the Nobel Prize winner got a 'heads up' from some of his pals in DC? Couldn't be...


Only for partisan hacks like you, dog.


Yea, the Dems are 'kinder and gentler' in their approach to shredding the Constitution.

Where are all the resident useful idiots rushing to defend their Messiah????


Funny, the govt. now says that terrorists only ASSUMED that their emails and phone calls were being monitored, but now with this so-called "leak" - they KNOW and will change their behavior.

How did bin Laden stay hidden for so long? He only communicated by courier.

The Obama Admin. obviously believes that the American people as well as the terrorists are STUPID.


Well, aren't they?
People argue about who did all the bad stuff to us and the truth is,It's both political parties.


They did vote this President into office... twice... same with the last one... explains/says a lot.


@omg&grumpy You are both 100% right. Anyone who tries to tell you that one political is better than the other is an idiot!


Sorry for the error. Meant to say political party.

Darwin's choice

Even Jay Leno throws Obama under the bus....

"Edward Snowden's explosive NSA leaks have US in damage control mode

White House refers Snowden's case to Justice Department while Republicans in Congress call for whistleblower's extradition"

"Edward Snowden: Ex-CIA leaker drops out of sight, faces legal battle"

It is a shame that whistleblowers have to hide.


Hope and change? Bring the troops home to go after the domestic enemies who have taken over our country.


I agree with Contago about Bin Laden. It has to be said that when W. used the Patriot Act after 9/11, we were never again attacked by terrorist. However under Obama there have been 3 such terrorist attacks (Fort Hood, Benghazi, and the Boston Marathon) so if he claims to be using it to keep us safe he better do something different because it's not working.

The Big Dog's back

Except for these.
Terrorist Attacks During The Bush Administration:
1. 9/11
2. DC Sniper Terrorist Shootings
3. Anthrax attacks
4. Shoe bomber (albeit, i failed)
5. Center for Urban Horticulture destroyed. ELF members plead guilty.
6. Tacoma, Washington abortion clinic bombing
7. Attack at LAX against El Al ticket counter
8. Hughes & Dunahoe firebomb abortion clinic
9. Women’s Health Clinic bombed in Palm Beach burned
10. SUV attack at UNC
11. Seattle Jewish Federation shooting, Egyptian shoots six
12. McMenemy abortion clinic arson attempt. Not an actual clinic, he was mistaken.
13. IEDs tossed at Mexican Consulate in NYC.
14. Altman & Baca arrested for the abortion clinic arson
15. Planned Parenthood arson in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
16. IED attacked attempted at women’s health clinic in Austin
17. Virginia Tech Shootings
18. Dr. Nicholas Barth right-wing terrorism in NY
19. Dr. Tiller killed at the hands of a right-wing terrorist who worshiped Fox News and O'Reilly
20. 12 embassy attacks under his watch (where is the fake Benghazi-like outrage?


... your list is a bit bloated with incidences that had nothing to do with acts of terrorism... yes, things like the v-tech shooting and the burning of buildings may have been terrible, they weren't acts of terror.

To go further, most of your list is void of one nation attacking another. Yes, a few incidences you listed were nation on nation, but most of what you listed was Americans attacking other Americans.

Obama is a hypocrite to the fullest extent of the word, but you can't go around and compare and / or lump together actual acts of terrorism with you average hate crimes or mass shootings... they are not all the same.


Terrorism is relative. Regardless of who the terrorist is, it is really about the one being terrorized. Some want to define terror very narrowly but terrorism is really about fear and making one fearful. Be prepared not scared!


Re: "Terrorist Attacks During The Bush Administration:"

Where's the Obama Admin. list?

Deflect, dodge and deny.


what the heck are you smokin?

swiss cheese kat

@Big Pup: nice copypasta from the democraticunderground site.

Unbelievable. Soon Obama and the Obama Koolaid drinkers will be calling the marathon bombing ‘workplace violence’.

"Sadly, the truth is that Americans are embracing the secret police culture of the Nazis in local communities from coast to coast."

Title: Nineteen eighty-four
Author: George Orwell (pseudonym of Eric Blair) (1903-1950)
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0100021.txt
Language: English


My comment when I first read about adding Homeland Security bureaucracy was long the lines of: I thought republicans were supposed to be the party of smaller government. My reaction to the Patriot Act was: Will republicans be as accommodating when Democrats are in power?

I guess I have my answer. We will always be working to balance security and freedom/privacy. These are not easy answers.