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.)




Doug Hagmann with the Canadian Free Press explained his encounter with a DHS insider:

“If anyone thinks that what’s going on right now with all of this surveillance of American citizens is to fight some sort of foreign enemy, they’re delusional. If people think that this ‘scandal’ can’t get any worse, it will, hour by hour, day by day. This has the ability to bring down our national leadership, the administration and other senior elected officials working in collusion with this administration, both Republican and Democrats. People within the NSA, the Department of Justice, and others, they know who they are, need to come forth with the documentation of ‘policy and practice’ in their possession, disclose what they know, fight what’s going on, and just do their job. I have never seen anything like this, ever. The present administration is going after leakers, media sources, anyone and everyone who is even suspected of ‘betrayal.’ That’s what they call it, ‘betrayal.’ Can you believe the size of their cahones? This administration considers anyone telling the truth about Benghazi, the IRS, hell, you name the issue, ‘betrayal,’” he said.

“We know all this already,” I stated. He looked at me, giving me a look like I’ve never seen, and actually pushed his finger into my chest. “You don’t know jack,” he said, “this is bigger than you can imagine, bigger than anyone can imagine. This administration is collecting names of sources, whistle blowers and their families, names of media sources and everybody they talk to and have talked to, and they already have a huge list. If you’re not working for MSNBC or CNN, you’re probably on that list. If you are a website owner with a brisk readership and a conservative bent, you’re on that list. It’s a political dissident list, not an enemy threat list,” he stated.

Darwin's choice

Big Dog...which one of these..??
Obama vs. Obama


Right after President Obama’s re-election, Maxine Waters (D – CA) said, what Glenn described as, one of the dumbest things he’s ever heard anybody say.

During an interview with Roland Martin on TV One, Waters praised the President for putting together a campaign database that has information “about everything on every individual.”

…sounds like this is starting to become a hobby of President Obama’s.

“And that database will have information about everything on every individual in ways that it’s never been done before,” Waters said, referring to President Obama’s Organizing for America.

Organizing for America has since been converted from a campaign organization to a 501(c)(4) called Organizing for Action.

“The inauguration represented the beginning of his second term, but it also represented the countdown to the end of his presidency. And the reality is, like anything else, you better get what you can while he’s there because, look, come 2016, that’s it,” Martin said.

“I don’t know, and I think some people are missing something here,” Waters said.
“The president has put in place an organization that contains a kind of database that no one has ever seen before in life,” she added. “That’s going to be very, very powerful.”

Martin asked if Waters if she was referring to “Organizing for America.”


The leaks of previous whistleblowers have been recalled and compared to that of the former government contractor who leaked to the media classified documents of the NSA’s collecting of metadata from phone conversations. But these previous whistleblowers aren’t the only ones who tried to warn of government spying.

Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf in 2008 during an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno detailed how he learned phone calls were allegedly being recorded.Promoting the film “Eagle Eye,” which according to IMDb shows how “technology of everyday life [is used] to track and control,” LaBeouf told Leno that an FBI consultant for the movie said one in five phone calls made are recorded and logged.

“And I laughed at him,” LaBeouf said.

“And then he played back a phone conversation I’d had two years prior to joining the picture,” LaBouf continued.

Both Leno and LaBeouf concluded it was “extremely creepy.”The conversation about the clip on Reddit, which originally dredged up the segment, identified the FBI consultant for the Steven Spielberg movie.

IMDb identifies the consultant as Thomas Knowles. A Redditor posted to Knowles’ LinkedIn page, which states he currently works as the CEO for Justus Consulting and Investigations.

His previous work experience, as listed per his non-public LinkedIn page, included being based in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and the Fresno Police Department.

Here’s some of the conversation on Reddit regarding Knowles:

captain_manatee: I know it’s fairly common for the military to consult on movies because filmmakers want expertise/ability to film military vehicles and the military wants to shape the public image. Guess the FBI does it too.

ItsMathematics: It’s probably former FBI working as a consultant because they have expertise. Not an active FBI agent on loan from the federal government.

ZoidbergMD: Why would he, personally, have a recording of Shia Lebeouf’s phone calls, if he wasn’t working for the government at that time?
ItsMathematics: Good point. I wonder why the FBI would even show Shia that kind of evidence. seems like a real dumb reason to admit to a covert domestic spy program.

Knowles talked about consulting for the film to KFSN-TV in 2008. The ABC affiliate reported Knowles being a retired FBI agent who had worked for former Congressman Tony Coelho. He said that when it comes to the film taking “theatrical lee way” with some scenes that “seem a little crazy about the FBI, I just had to step back.”Knowles doesn’t elaborate as to what these “crazy” scenes might be, but the FBI in recent year — even the last few months — has been trying to expand its capabilities

Darwin's choice

"Some 5 million people hold a government security clearance, according to a 2012 report by the Director of National Intelligence.

About 1.4 million people have top-secret clearance, and half of those are the employees of private businesses."

Yea, probably no possibility that a few of 'em won't use their access to private data for illegal purposes.

Oh wait...didn't Mr. Snowden just reveal NSA secrets???

Guess it COULD happen huh?


Yea, the NSA is building that $2 billion data collection center in Utah just so they could store that email that Aunt Tillie sent you which contained her oatmeal cookie recipe.


"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."


Obama Obama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Darwin's choice

Here's more for you from your messiah....
You voted this in, hope your happy with the change!


Obama! Obama!


Re: "Obama Obama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

The wealthy have gained 1% in value above what they lost during the Recession, while the majority of Americans have lost 11% when adjusted for inflation.

Yea...right!!! Obama, Obama, Obama!!! :)

Obama loves the "useful idiots" chuggin' down that kool-aid.

swiss cheese kat's picture
swiss cheese kat

Got Koolaid? :)


Re: "terrorism is really about fear and making one fearful."

And to help keep the military industrial complex and the Endless War goin', the American Ruling Class needs to keep the paranoia and fear alive.

The REAL conspiracy theorists are doin' well and livin' in DC supported by tax dollars.


"And to help keep the military industrial complex and the Endless War goin', the American Ruling Class needs to keep the paranoia and fear alive.

The REAL conspiracy theorists are doin' well and livin' in DC supported by tax dollars."

Good comment!


Yep! After the Soviet Union collapsed, the ARC needed to find a new monster to fight with blood and money to help keep them in power and wealth.

The wealthy East Coast libs and the Country Club Repubs have been in control for decades and they like it that way.

"On March 12 Ron Wyden who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee asked DNI James Clapper if the NSA collects data on millions of Americans. Clapper answer that no the NSA does not at least not wittingly collect info on American. In light of the report about the NSA collecting phone records from Verizon"

Liar, liar, pants on fire
Your nose is longer than a telephone wire


In the 1950s, under "McCarthyism," lookin' for "communists" under every rock and in every nook and cranny was considered by the American left to be heavy handed fascism.

But, in the 21st Century, compiling databases chock full of info. about ordinary Americans 'hoping' to 'maybe' catch a "terrorist,” the American left considers it to be the price of security.

So the American left needs to support the shredding of the Constitution in order to preserve our American way of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"?

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, it was the "anarchists," then the fear became the "communists," now we have the "terrorists."

Over time, the name of the fear changes, the wealth and power grab by the American Political Ruling Class (nomenklatura) DOESN'T.

The Big Dog's back

So Joe was your hero ehh winnie?


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


I'll ask AGAIN:

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

"Obama Obama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Ain't much of a 'convincing' argument. :)

Darwin's choice

Maybe out in the driveway scraping off the "Obama" stickers from their cars, so they don't feel so foolish....


Obama! Obama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

swiss cheese kat's picture
swiss cheese kat



Obama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Obama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You guys are soooooooooooo jealous! Hilarious!


Re: "Obama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Obama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

So why hasn't he been taking credit for the rise in the stock market?


Re: "You guys are soooooooooooo jealous!"

Got a man-love crush huh?

The Big Dog's back



^^^ “Coming from Mr. Wannabee.” - The Big Dog's back, 6/4/13 :-7

The Big Dog's back

Don't like the law pooh write your congress person to change the law. Laws are good when used against Liberals huh poo.


^^^ “Burp.” - The Big Dog's back, 6/6/13 :-7