THE N.S.A.’S PRISM REMAINS OPAQUE
A week after the exposure of mass-surveillance programs built and managed by the National Security Agency, we know that the leaker is a twenty-nine-year-old contract I.T. worker named Edward Snowden. We know his past online identity, TheTrueHOOHA, and the details of his personal life and political beliefs posted with that alias—he appears as a sort of techno-libertarian agnostic, a common archetype of Internet forums. We know about his girlfriend, a photogenic dancer. We even have reports that he smuggled the documents he leaked to theGuardian and the Washington Post out of the Hawaiian base where he worked on a thumb drive—or maybe on four laptops, or both. But we still know distressingly little about the programs Snowden sought to expose.
Snowden’s actions revealed a few distinct, though interrelated, N.S.A. programs. The first, of which we have the clearest picture—largely because government officials have acknowledged and defended the program—collects the records of nearly every call placed within the United States. Snowden leaked to the Guardian a secret court order demanding that Verizon Business turn over the records—“telephony metadata”—of calls within, to, and from the United States that cross its network. It then emerged that the N.S.A. has been collecting such records for seven years, from every major carrier in the country. The President and others in the Administration emphasized, in response, that the N.S.A. wasn’t listening to actual conversations. But the vast database of records the N.S.A. collects can say far more than a phone conversation. Metadata, which can include caller and location information, is fairly talkative. (Senator Dianne Feinstein has stated that the N.S.A. does not require a court order to search its database of call logs; it needs only “reasonable, articulable cause to believe that that individual is connected to a terrorist group.”)
Another program, Boundless Informant, tracks and maps where the N.S.A.’s Internet intelligence comes from on a country-by-country basis, even though the N.S.A. had told Congress that it did not possess the "technical insights" to make such detailed assessments.
Meanwhile, the program called Prism, which aims to collect digital intelligence about foreign targets, remains frustratingly opaque. The leaked slides of the PowerPoint presentation that formed the basis for the news—its intended audience within the N.S.A. remains unclear—claim that nine leading tech companies participate in Prism, permitting the N.S.A. to gather data like e-mails, chat records, photos, videos, file transfers, and more. An additional slide published by theGuardian states that Prism features “collection directly from the servers” of those tech companies. The Post wrote that the N.S.A. and F.B.I. “are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies.”
But it increasingly appears that the technical descriptions in the Post and the Guardian may have been imprecise. This would be unfortunate, whether it resulted from the limited knowledge of the reporters and their editors, or simply from flawed claims in the internal documents. The technical details of Prism matter; they carry implications in terms of the nature of the program itself and the extent of tech companies’ coöperation. While the Times, citing “people briefed on the negotiations” between the government and the companies, has described Prism as functioning like a “locked mailbox” to which the government has the key, the Post has reported that, according to anonymous “intelligence community” sources, “government employees cleared for PRISM access may ‘task’ the system and receive results from an Internet company without further interaction with the company’s staff.” It added that “companies cannot see the queries that are sent from the NSA to the systems installed on their premises.”
The office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said in a statement that the “government does not unilaterally obtain information from the servers of U.S. electronic communication service providers.” (Though we do not know what “unilaterally” means in this context, and Clapper falsely told the Senate, before the leaks, that the N.S.A. did not “wittingly” collect any sort of data on millions of Americans.) Google’s response to the allegations has also been aggressive. The company’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, wrote in a post, “We cannot say this more clearly—the government does not have access to Google servers—not directly, or via a back door, or a so-called drop box. Nor have we received blanket orders of the kind being discussed in the media.” The company has publicly requested that the government allow it to disclose the number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act national-security requests it receives—which must currently be kept secret—because its “numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made.” (Microsoft and Facebook have followed suit.) What Google says is very different from what the N.S.A. documents that the Post and the Guardian have published allege. But it seems unlikely that Google would intentionally engage in even minor misdirection, given its high price: if Google were caught lying, it would lose users’ trust forever, which could actually destroy the company.
We also lack details about Blarney, a program mentioned in a slide as part of the N.S.A.’s “upstream” data-collection efforts, which a leaked slide describes as the “collection of communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past.”
The Post characterizes Blarney as collecting metadata about Internet communications—similar to the call-records program—possibly allowing the N.S.A. to build an index of Internet traffic and how devices and people connect. Blarney may be far more invasive than Prism, but it remains unclear. Two other presumably ongoing “upstream” data-collection programs remain unnamed, their titles redacted from the slide.
Snowden has also reportedly shown documents to the South China Morning Post that allege that the N.S.A. has been hacking computers in Hong Kong and China since 2009—including those belonging to civilian students and businesses. (Wired magazine, in a profile of N.S.A. Director Keith Alexander, reports on the development of a massive offensive apparatus within the Agency to conduct cyber-attacks.)
Alexander has said that the Agency will release more information about its surveillance programs, and it appears this information will largely concern its collecting of call data; the Timesreported that Alexander wanted, again, to dissuade the public from believing that “the N.S.A. is listening to Americans’ phone calls.” We may learn no more about Blarney or related data-collection programs, even if—especially if—they are the most invasive of all. But we will undoubtedly continue to hear more about Snowden.
Photograph, of James Clapper (center) at the United States Capitol, by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters.
After the recent Washington Post and Guardian disclosures about the National Security Agency (the subject of my Comment in this week’s magazine, by the way), a three-month-old colloquy from an open session of the Senate Intelligence Committee got a second look.
It’s March 12th, a few months before the disclosures. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, is in the witness chair. Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, is doing the questioning.
“So,” Wyden says, “what I wanted to see is, if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question, Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Clapper does not look happy. He rubs his bald pate, looks down at the table. He glances up furtively, not quite meeting Wyden’s eyes.
“No, sir,” he replies.
Wyden seems surprised. “It does not?”
Now Clapper looks thoroughly miserable. He rubs his head harder. “Not wittingly,” he finally says. “There are cases where they could in—inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not, not wittingly.”
A number of respected commentators saw this as a straightforward lie, to the point of being afiring offense. Perhaps so. I saw it a little differently, though.
A truly straightforward lie would have stopped at “No, sir.” But, by adding a caveat, Clapper was signalling that his “No” stopped short of being wholly the opposite of “Yes.”
And then there was this: he didn’t say “unknowingly” or “not knowingly.” And he didn’t say “unwittingly.” He said “not wittingly.”
Clapper’s slightly peculiar word choice took me back to early 1967.
I was living in San Francisco, working as a cub reporter for Newsweek. (Believe it or not,Newsweek had a whole bureau there: a chief, two full-time reporters, and an office assistant who doubled as a photographer.) I had just finished spending my first year out of college on the staff of the National Student Association, in Washington, where I edited a magazine distributed mainly to student leaders abroad. In San Francisco, I often hung out with people from Rampartsmagazine, a rambunctious lefty slick that was the ancestor of today’s Mother Jones. One day aRamparts friend called me and said, “What would you say if I were to tell you that the N.S.A. was a front for the C.I.A.?”
By N.S.A., of course, he meant my immediate former employer, not the agency currently much in the news.
“I’d say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” I replied. And I meant it.
But the more my friend filled me in on Ramparts’ about-to-be-published scoop, the more plausible it seemed. It made sense of a good many things I’d half-noticed around the N.S.A. office without thinking much about them—odd comings and goings, furtive whisperings, long meetings behind closed doors.
The magazine I’d edited, including my modest salary, had been financed by a grant from the Foundation for Youth and Student Affairs. The source of the money, I’d been told, was a reclusive heir to the Corning Glass Works fortune who was interested in, well, youth and student affairs. Now I learned that FYSA—“Fie-sah,” we called it—was one of many conduits for C.I.A. cash.
As would soon come out, the C.I.A.’s financing of the N.S.A. was part of a larger secret program, established in the early years of the Cold War, under which funds were routed through foundations (some otherwise legitimate, some entirely fictional) to a variety of left-of-center organizations and publications, including the Socialist International, the overseas operations of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Encounter magazine. The project was run by what you might call the liberal wing of the C.I.A., whose members recognized that activities like supporting the Franco regime in Spain, overthrowing democratically elected governments, and backing the colonial status quo in Africa and Asia were unlikely to win the Cold War. This part of the C.I.A. understood that Communism’s most effective enemy was the noncommunist left, not the authoritarian right.
Some of the organizations that got the C.I.A. money were entirely ignorant of its ultimate source. In other cases, a few senior staff members would be made aware of the arrangement and enjoined, emphatically, to keep it a secret—from their colleagues and everyone else. The N.S.A. was in the latter category. The N.S.A.’s president, its international-affairs vice-president, and those staff members who regularly travelled abroad on the organization’s behalf were let in on the secret. The rest of us were not.
For around fifteen years, this arrangement “worked.” Those who knew about it accepted it—sometimes queasily, more often eagerly. It made them feel important, adventurous, grown up. It meant that they weren’t just playing in a student-government sandbox. Anyway, promoting liberal-democratic ideas among Third World students, opposing Communist and Soviet influence, and helping anti-apartheid student groups in South Africa did not present problems of conscience. Moreover, while the C.I.A. money was earmarked for overseas activities, it freed up funds derived from other sources to be used for the N.S.A.’s domestic purposes, which included campaigning for academic freedom, demanding the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and supporting the civil-rights movement. (For example, the N.S.A. helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and provided it with crucial political and financial assistance.) For these reasons, it’s too simple, and not truly correct, to dismiss the N.S.A. as nothing but a C.I.A. front. It was better than that. But it was deeply compromised. The secrecy and deception inherent in the arrangement amounted to a kind of moral corruption.
In the mid-sixties, with the postwar, Cold War liberal consensus collapsing under the weight of the Vietnam disaster, the C.I.A.-N.S.A. relationship became increasingly untenable and unpleasant. By the time a disillusioned former staffer decided to take the story to Ramparts(after being rebuffed by the Times and the Washington Post, among others), the N.S.A. leaders were trying—desperately, quietly, futilely—to get out from under it. The revelation did the job for them.
It’s a long story—a hell of a lot longer than this little summary—and a surprisingly little-known one, given the radicalizing, disillusioning, highly consequential impact that the C.I.A.-N.S.A. revelations had on a generation of politically engaged liberal and leftist students.
But why am I telling you all this? What does it have to do with James Clapper, that other N.S.A., and “wittingly”?
Just this: at the N.S.A., the staff members who knew the secret were known to one another as “witting” or “witty.” Those who’d been kept in the dark (me, for example) were known, though of course not to ourselves, as “not witting” or “not witty.”
Maybe I’m wrong, but here’s my guess: Clapper instantly knew that he’d made a serious mistake when he said “No.” He groped for some way to mitigate it, and what he found, an instant later, was an intelligence-community term of art, a bit of tradecraft jargon having to do with the difference between the on purpose and the incidental, the guilty and the not guilty: witting and not witting, witty and not witty. Wittingly and not wittingly.
It wasn’t enough to turn a lie into a not-lie. But at least it suggested the lingering presence of, if not quite a conscience, at least a sense of shame.