Journalism in the Public Interest

The NSA Black Hole: 5 Basic Things We Still Don’t Know About the Agency’s Snooping

The recent leaks have shed light on one of the darkest corners of the U.S. government—but when it comes to mass surveillance practices, clarity remains elusive.

The headquarters of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland.

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.

For more on mass surveillance in America, read our timeline of loosening laws and practices

All of us including ProPublica should not let Obama off the hook using the excuse that Bush did it.

It is clear beyond any doubt that Obama has taken the spooking to a grand scale. If we all left, middle of the road and right to not come together and hold them responsible it will continue at even a greater scale. Each day they [the NSA, IRS, DHS,FBI, local police and the like] will get better and better. All of us are just beginning to wake up to the fact that a police state is emerging.

We must not take this lightly.

The irony is that Obama was a Constitutional Law Professor in his past life.  I wonder what Professor Obama would have to say about President Obama’s use of these programs and the national security excuse not to inform the public?  What would Candidate Obama have to say about President Obama’s making the government more opaque over his 2 terms, and not more transparent?  What would Senator Obama have to say about President Obama’s DOJ going after whistle blowers who are doing the public a service by shedding some light on these Orwellian activities?

James M Fitzsimmons

June 10, 2013, 5:19 p.m.

Difficult to blame this all on Bush/Cheney with the current administration being in its 2nd term. The discussion by PP and the mainstream media of this important balance between freedom and security will be much more civil given the fact of a Democrat “Progressive” president in his 2nd term.This is a good thing however it is a reminder of the contrasting media treatment of the Bush administration’s difficult counter-terrorism/counter-espionage decisions that were often characterized as illegal, immoral, criminal, lies etc.

We’re not left with much, but to hope the people overseeing this program, and others similar to it, know what they’re doing.

Comparing presidents, and the current president with his former self only continues to beg the question:  Would we, having the knowledge officials at that level are privy to, approve of these programs?  Viewpoints change upon receiving previously unavailable information, and the fact that both Bush and Obama pursue(d) this course suggests there are reasons, beyond what we know, for its necessity.

Michael Rivero

June 10, 2013, 5:51 p.m.

For reasons detailed below it is obvious the NSA is keeping recordings of the phone calls as well. The storage capacity of that facility in Utah is 1000,000,000 times larger than needed for the meta-data for every phone call by every American since the program started 7 years ago, and already the NSA is building an additional facility in Maryland.

Something else we need to be aware of. During his career as head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover was notorious for keeping is “personal” secret files and was legendary for using those files to blackmail politicians, even Presidents like John F. Kennedy. It was why no President dared replace him as head of the FBI. But those were just paper files, scant traces of personal lives. Now realize the NSA has every phone call you have made for the last 7 years, every email, every text message, every photo, every video, on every single American, including members of Congress and the President. Do you think the NSA is any more moral than the FBI?

Obviously, what they should catch they do not,e.g. Boston Bomber.  They claim they thwarted many attacks, but that is a lie because we always read in the paper that they made arrests but then it was a false flag!  So what are they looking for?  Expensive and useless programs.  When it comes to 9/11,and they ignored it, Benghazi, well, whatever their explanation but they always seem to miss the boat?

Let us not forget that now the government under the DOJ can disapear all that may be arrested without due prossess. Heck they can arrest without seeking a warrant in advance.

One prominent figure continuing from Bush to Obama is Sen. Feinstein. She has played a prominent role in targeting dissent within the USA. Her Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act defines environmental and animal activists as terrorists. Presumably the NSA is monitoring opponents of the transnational Keystone XL pipeline as international terrorists as defined by AETA and the Patriot Act, with bipartisan congressional approval.

What it all comes down to is, do we trust our government to keep this data for its intended purpose?

Will the data cross the line and be used to blackmail or bully us in, say a negative encounter with local law enforcement, or the IRS?

Or will it sit quietly, mulled over by a computor algorithm until triggering an alert?  (And even then, we must realize that probably 99% of all calls to investigate are false leads.)

I think the intent is good, and I would trust our government far more than almost any other.

Unfortunately, spying on your citizens is something every country does and we must learn to accept that in the future we will have less privacy, not more.  Let’s just make sure that doesn’t mean trading liberty for safety (without measuring the costs first).

Let’s be realistic and not pretend to live in a perfect black and white world where we can have both absolute safety and complete freedom.

We live in the equivalent of fascist E. Germany.

The Stasi watches everything we do.

Anyone who gets out of line will be indefinitely detained or droned. Anyone who reveals crimes of the state will be thoroughly investigated, tortured and then mercilessly prosecuted well beyond the full extent of the law.


.....I find it fascinating that some people/ groups are calling for more transparency of our surveillance techniques. Pro Publica writes “...
that NSA analysts use “search terms” to try to achieve “51 percent confidence” in a target’s “foreignness.” How do they do that? Unclear.” Would it make sense to provide the world with the algorithms used to try and find possible problems? While our government classifies too many things as secret or top secret, procedures or algorithms used to find potential problems need to be kept secret.
.....What is clear is that news organizations such as the Washington Post should take more care in disseminating information that they do not understand. The Post was not “technically wrong” - they were absolutely wrong with respect to Prism.
.....We should call to question how a low level analyst had access to so much information that could be extremely harmful if made public and how easy it was to make this information public. There could be an operative working for a private firm contracted by our spy agencies who gathered up information and instead of leaking it, gave it to our enemies.
.....This whole situation points out that we need to carefully evaluate procedures used to collect data. But in order to look for patterns in data, one must first have data. The govt. must continue collecting data but under careful oversight. The process for collection needs to be made clear but the analyses needs to be kept secret.

Ever lost an email, and spent time looking for it to no avail?

Relax, the NSA has a copy.

In fact, the NSA could really provide a true public service in finding lost emails.

Everyone on the planet looking for a lost email should sit right down and email for help in finding that lost email.

If they aren’t helpful, well, ask them again.  And again. And…well, you get the idea.

Let’s find out if the NSA is really working in our best interests like POTUS says.  In short, does the NSA walk the talk.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

June 10, 2013, 9:05 p.m.

So, let me get this straight. Our government is spending billions upon billions to catch who? To protect who? They cannot give us a straight answer to ANY questions that congress is trying to bring to light.

No straight answers as to how many plots have been foiled.

So, that tells me A. No terrorist plots have emerged at all. Non existant.
                  B. The method is totally inept and useless.
                  C. Both A & B

Many laws have been passed to “protect” us from terrorist, seems like these laws only encroach on our freedoms by small bites. On occasion, giant leaps. Then when a real event occurs, (Boston) so many indicators raise a red flag to me and tell me something is just not right here. Don’t piss down my neck and tell me it’s rain.

If these reports do not wake people up and cause us to stand up, we are finished as a free people!

For those of you that believe the government is truly trying to protect us, be of good cheer! The new mulitbillion dollar NSA center just went online out there in Utah, you should be very safe.

For those of you that believe you can put 2 plus 2 together and it still equals 4, be watchfull. Be aware. Be careful. Be smart. Be vigilant. Be prepared.

I find it hard to know of those men that fought against governments doing the same things to their populations of peoples, are lying in their graves for some very high ideal, a very high calling of freedom. Not only that, but those men that fought against it that are still here, witnessing it firsthand and some even being victims of abuse of power. Many other countries fought these wars with us, they also had losses for the cause of freedom.

The 4th Ammendment is supposed to protect us from these intrusions. We can certainly scratch that pesky little right off of our Bill of Rights. We were not using it anyway, unless the common citizen wants to go broke trying to defend himself against the government.

All in the name of freedom.

The Alphabet agencies have been gathering and storing data on all of us at an alarming rate. What are the intentions behind this? How long before we truly find out? Since everything is held so secret, no one is claiming accountablity or responsibilty, why is that? “In the interest of national security” is an easy out for anything, seems like. WHY IS THAT?

Remember this. Everything Hitler did was legal in his own country and occupied countries. Do you really think that the same events could not take place again? Do you actually think, given the right circumstances were arranged that our government would not execute people here in the good ole USA? Just label you as a terrorist. In the first instance of this happening outside a court of law with due process we must stand up and resist this no matter who it is the recipent of the punishment! How long do you think it would be before the powers that be would come for you?

If we claim to be citizens of a free country, we now have an opprotunity, with recent current events to demand of our representatives any way we can to represent us by following the oath of office they took.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

June 10, 2013, 9:08 p.m.

Mr. Elliott, Mr. Meyer, Great article!

Has anyone reread 1984 recently? It has been a long time since I have read it but it seems to me all of the horrible things imposed on that populace are present in our society now.

I read it durning the turbulent 60’s and, at the time, thought how horrible it would be if it came true. That is the one thing about fiction. One can rest comfortably in the knowledge that it isn’t true, we live in a better society that guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and it could never happen here. What I didn’t notice (and the rest of us haven’t either) is that by making the changes in small increments for reasonable sounding reasons (public safety, terrorism, health, etc) we all accepted them until we are now in the mess that we now have.

What to do about it? I have no idea. If you think for one minute that if we were to have the NSA stop Prism they wouldn’t have another program already in place, you are very wrong. Do I know that for a fact? No, but I am sure they would.

Placing blame does not help at all. It is not one individual. It is all those who seek/are in power. I am kind of glad that I am old and will probably not see the ultimate result of the eroding of our rights.

carroll price

June 10, 2013, 9:44 p.m.

Rest assured that the information gathered on you will lie forever undisturbed unless you happen to one of those troublemakers who criticize the government for engaging in criminal activities. Also rest assured that if you fall into the category of troublemaker you will be investigated and harassed by government agents who will twist every word and phrase you ever posted or uttered as a way of shutting you up.

If ever there was a kick in the ass to get with using encrypted email this looks to be it!

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

June 10, 2013, 10:49 p.m.

Mr. Price, I agree with your thoughts on this.

Allan, I have children. I cringe at the thoughts of the world we have to leave to our future generations. I have told my son that my generation has left the world in a mess for them to clean up, either by activism or apathy. It doesn’t matter how we did it, we did allow it is the point.

Wes, I am at the point to where I am disgusted with the whole issue. I no long really care if they want to keep a closer eye on me. As Mr. Price says, they will fabricate whatever they want out of whatever you say or write.

I will remain silent no more.

I am a free man!        For now…

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

June 10, 2013, 11:07 p.m.

Allan, yes, I suffered through most of it about ten years ago. It got so depressing, I put the book down.

Are you people really that naive?
Years ago I gave up the farie tale that electronic communications were
private. For years people have been telling you that you should never write anything in an email that you would not want published in the next day’s newspapers. For years ISPs and web sites have been tracking what you search for, what ads you respond to, and what videos you watch. Your are watched by survellience video, your movements (by cell phone) are tracked.
You’ve known this, or been advised, of this for years.

So what is so shocking?

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

June 11, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

Bob, we are not shocked. We just see it as illegal.

My father was employed by Ma Bell, the Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company for 32 years. He knew of many ways they could listen in on anything they wanted to back in the ‘60s. It was not their intent to listen, it was just part of the job to keep the phone system working. He didn’t work for the government.

6. You don’t really know what is at stake? Are incidents to date trivial in comparison to what might happen?

This is serious; as we are approaching 1984.
If Staling had seen this, he would been laughing.

This is serious, as we are approaching 1984.
If Stalin had seen this, he would have been laughing.

Pieter Reyneke

June 11, 2013, 4:09 a.m.

After reading this, the US government classifies everybody on earth as the enemy of the USA.

It is a fact that the US targets even its own citizens with drones. They execute these citizens without trial. The rule of law, habeas corpus and due are not applicable anymore to US citizens.

Many people are held on Guantanamo Bay without trial and even after US courts found some of these people not guilty of any crime. The rule of law, habeas corpus and due are not applicable to any non US citizen by definition.

The trial of Manning, the source of the Wikileaks, does not have fair trial. According to the old apartheid South African constitution and the current one, his trial would be considered unfair and would not withstand any appeal, never mind the fact that no court would in the old apartheid South Africa would have ignored his rights to defend himself, exploring any and all legal defense. President Mandela was convicted of high treason in an old apartheid court of law, but the world acknowledged it as a fair trial. This cannot be said about Manning.

As a non-US citizen you will just be executed, your government, nobody can protect you against the power abuses by the US government. 

I have never thought that we lived in days like these where you are not safe from the power abuses of a super power.

The US government is acting like the old government of the USSR, the old Chinese governments under Mao and like dictatorships and even Nazi Germany.

How can the US stand up against any country to protest human rights abuses?

I hereby declare that I don’n support President Obama anymore. I have never been let down by a politician on this scale before.

I sing with Leonard Cohen:

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

I am shocked!

Why would anyone trust the administration when they say the PRISM slides are not accurate?

Blind trust is well blind.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

June 11, 2013, 7:49 a.m.

Pieter, thank you for the enlightening comment. Just know this, that all of the citizens of the US do not agree with what our government is doing to us, or those of other nations.

Drone warfare is as being used today, a tool of terror.

No wonder other nations cringe at the thought of the USA coming to “help” them!

Some would trust the Government no matter what.

The shrill voice of unreasonableness has spoken!
We live in a Fascist state!  Worse than Staling (do you mean Stalin, who killed over 6 million of his own people?).
We can’t trust ANYTHING the government does!  We should all just move to China, or maybe the EU, where there is complete freedom.
No other country in the world would do this “spying” thing!  Of course.

Oh, did I mention that Obama is the spawn of Satan and that the black helicopters keep flying over my house?

Put your tinfoil hats on, gentlemen.  They are reading your very thoughts right now!

You’d think that “Foreign Intelligence” could include persons living in the U.S. who are not citizens.

Presumably, the NSA would review phone records of those making calls to foreign countries or whose phone had access to make long distance calls to foreign countries. It could also include calls to non-citizens living in the U.S. calling other non-citizens living in the U.S.

Perhaps some sections of the Patriot Act need to be revisited and altered or removed all together.

A bit issue I find missing in the discussion is the “51% Rules” that seem scattered throughout the discussion.

The United States has banned the use of the military within borders, except under strict civilian control and under limited, pre-defined circumstances.  How the heck is 49% uncertainty good enough to trump Posse Comitatus?

The argument is that we’re a nation at war.  With who, exactly?  Was I sleeping when we declared war on someone?  “Terror” doesn’t count any more than “Drugs” or “Poverty” are actual wars.

Who has access to this military database?  How many people have an opportunity to, say, use it to see who their exes have been talking to or whether their children are running with the right crowds?  How many hot stock tips on mergers and bankruptcies “accidentally” fell out of the magic box?  How many journalists’ informants got picked up, figuring they were probably guilty of something?  How many captains of industry foiled hostile takeover attempts or shareholder revolts?

What protects this database?  I think we’re all agreed that this is a treasure trove for America’s enemies and for ordinary criminals.  This government also has a habit of selling used laptops with unencrypted, unerased hard drives on eBay.  Even if I trust the administration and all future administrations (I don’t), what prevents a North Korean hacker or even a rabid lobbyist, say, from threatening or blackmailing a politician or industry leader?

What laws protect us from abuse?  To date, the courts have ruled that one needs to show direct evidence of being spied on in order to have standing to challenge the warrantless wiretapping, and evidence can presumably be rejected because it’s classified.  If we’re not allowed to defend ourselves against surveillance, then laws protecting us from the unethical use of that data is mandatory.  If those laws don’t exist, then the government has chosen to endanger the population it claims to serve.

Why do both sides agree to this when they cannot agree on anything else? Well, maybe it is because they are worried about the material people have sent to them will be exposed because both parties are hiding the data that could and should hold most of them accountable. Data that they should have acted upon and didn’t and that could, would, should expose them for not doing their job or maybe yet some things that they had done already that should have not been done! Wars, money theft, the negatives that affect us all and we still wonder why!

So, to the persons that commented that Bush and Obama must have had their reasons for engaging in and expanding the wiretapping programs: have you ever heard of lobbyists?  There have been several stories done on the explosion of the security apparatus, the number of contractors that are hired to do work (one of which apparently had the conscience and guts to tell the rest of us what their up to), and these third parties are raking in billions.  Do you think they might make some campaign contributions to keep their cash cow going? 

As to the “why did they pick on Bush so bad” crowd, Bush’s program, unlike Obama’s, was actually illegal - WARRANTLESS wiretapping, as in no FISA Court approvals, as in a violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillence Act, as in per se criminal conduct.  This is what they got Nixon to resign for. Obama only barely makes the legal qualification, at least in statutes and legislation passed by a piss poor Congress, except that the PATRIOT Act and its ilk are unconstitutional.  So, us “liberals” actually think Obama’s program is also illegal, but he at least has the smarts to operate under the color of law.

As to those who say, “well, privacy is a thing of the past”, the data being collected isn’t merely available to the public at large, a great effort has been made to collect it.  Further, it is not the collection of the data, but its use that should give everyone pause.  As @John stated, how do we know that there aren’t some officials picking through this treasure trove to gain the political upper hand?  How do we know that some government agent isn’t selling that data to foreign entities?  Because, that never happens, does it (see Robert Hannssen and Aldrich Ames)? 

To those who support the government’s data collection programs, you should also be mindful that this is actually making the government WORSE at its job.  The data programs are fishing expeditions at best, casting a wide net in search of something.  Rather than spending that money on creating actual intelligence sources, fostering cooperative relationships with other governments, and developing and using actual investigative techniques, now our intelligence apparatus is in reactionary mode.  NONE of the plots that have come to light were detected ahead of time by these programs; they were detected by alert and observant citizens.  So, the fatal cycle now is, plot happens, NSA failed to detect, widen net, redo algorithm, plot happens, NSA failed to detect, widen net, redo algorithm, rinse and repeat.

Finally, the standard for any of these actions since September 11, 2001 should have been, and still should be, would any of these programs, including that monolith called Homeland Security, have prevented the World Trade Center Attacks if they had been in place before September 11, 2001.  Considering the facts that these were crimes (yes, I used that word, “crime”) committed by foreign nationals, KNOWN to be on American soil with terrorist ties, I don’t see how spying generally on Americans’ conversations would have done anything to prevent it.  Thus, these programs are not only useless, they are wrong.

We always want to jump the gun and debate the morality of such issues.  A worthy task…  But it’s not necessary to have that conversation quite yet. We can agree to disagree and still move on to the other big question: has this “metadata” even done what it’s supposed to do?  I.e. protect our so-called “safety”...  (Not to disregard the fact that Americans have always opted to take risks to protect our liberties anyway, rather than have perfect safety.)

The other point that needs a greater spotlight right now is this: any time we create a monolith such as the NSA, it will continue to grow and feed, and voraciously defend its right to exist. (This also happens with private corporations, folks.)  It will struggle and claw and find any way it can to justify its existence.  Makes it very hard to downsize or even control.  It’s the nature of any beast, and we should think well before authorizing these things to begin with. 

The dragon is out of the lair and breathing fire.  I just hope that Edward Snowden is wearing his asbestos suit right now.

Michael Dishon

June 11, 2013, 5:43 p.m.

I would like to know what the NSA is doing by way of oversight. From comments made by Edward S., it appears that it is fairly easy to ‘snoop’ on calls and emails. In my view, that should be prevented and of violated an investigation is called for. Moreover, it sounds like the level of restrictions on individuals are not properly set.

Sam in Texas suggests there’s an irony, but there’s no irony about Unviversity of Chicago law faculty types, whether it is Antonin Scalia on the US Supreme Court, or Barack Obama in the White House, one always expects the same of the school funded by the Rockefeller family.

SAincolumbusis,  You said this: any time we create a monolith such as the NSA, it will continue to grow and feed, and voraciously defend its right to exist. (This also happens with private corporations, folks.)  It will struggle and claw and find any way it can to justify its existence.  Makes it very hard to downsize or even control.  It’s the nature of any beast, and we should think well before authorizing these things to begin with.”

This is exactly the point we should fear. No party once in power will relinquish the power. NSA is growing bigger as I type. The new mantra of the Obama administration is “partnering with business” . I personally wouldn’t call this partnering since they are harassing these businesses to get what they want. Big government getting bigger and overreach will get more broad.

Good post you made.

This NSA headquarters comes as close as any building can to the Qa’aba in Saudi Arabia. A religious obsession with knowledge not accessible to the publc, i.e. non-insiders, non-priests.

Ironically all this spying and collecting data and presumably connecting the dots - what dots really and for what figure? - didn’t prevent the Boston bombing. An outbreak of martial law clothing down an entire city to hound an injured, unarmed 19 year old which the police ultimately couldn’t find, a private citizen found him, without tanks and guns, shows exactly what an atrocity “national security” has become. A behemoth to protect the power of a few at the exposure and complete disregard of the majority. This entire spying program is a national shame and should be dismantled in its entirety. Snowdon did humanity an immense favor. It is to hope that his disappearance doesn’t mean the CIA already killed him to prevent him from talking more about what he knows.

Dina, the cynic in me is starting to suspect, increasingly, that the “polarization” is a fraud, because you’re right.  They can’t pass a budget that keeps the country running, but there’s always money to compile dossiers on law-abiding Americans “just in case.”

The thought occurred to me when I started hearing about “solutions” to break the “gridlock,” like making the President part of Congress like a Prime Minister would be (thus destroying the separation of powers), banning filibusters (thus making it trivial to marginalize minority viewpoints), and outsourcing (thus allowing profiteers control over our lives).  If you needed to sell those sorts of neo-feudal institutions to Americans, wouldn’t you drag your feet on important bills and emphasize government dysfunction?

Sam, I agree.  Even if these programs weren’t unethical and unconstitutional, they’re clearly broken.  When you have a dragnet of data and you can’t even find a likely terrorist the Russians tell you about?  You’re wasting resources that could be kept out of the deficit everybody in Washington has been mewling about or spend it on the people who can’t find jobs because we still give tax breaks for offshoring jobs.


I completely agree with you, the “gridlock” is a farce.  In fact, poll after poll shows that the vast majority of the America electorate is in agreement on several issues: higher taxes on the wealthy, not cutting social security and welfare programs, putting Wall Street bankers in jail, stopping the outsourcing of our military and intelligence. 

I fear that corporate power now rules the day, and the real problem with this discussion of the NSA and US Intelligence is that it is not just the NSA we are talking about; it includes all of their private contractors.  I bet it would alarm the American populace how much of our intelligence services are now being outsourced to private companies.  And, therein lies the rub: our data is not merely in the hands of “the government”, it is accessible by all sorts of these private players.  And, Mr. Snowden, was a contractor himself!!  Not only did he show us what the NSA is up to, but he kind of showed us how they are conducting their business.

I already heard the former federal prosecutors who are making the talk show circuits this morning disparage Snowden by saying that “he’s just a high school drop out, washed out of the military, and is disaffected”, as if to say that the knowledge he has brought to light is of no significance.  I also love the way every politician seems to find it necessary to repeat the refrain: “there was nothing illegal done here.”  I think they doth protest too much, don’t you?

AN article in the Sacramento BEE, was printed by Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, stating that according to a Professor Harry Rudin that “the Germans and Americans are the most willing to trade civil liberties for personal security”. I surely do not and never will accept trading my civil liberties for personal activity and should even be a choice!!!!!because spying is wrong and doesn’t deserve to be a big business like phony wars. Just as is injuring workers that has turned into a trillion dollar business with the injured receiving next to nothing and being forced to go on SS & Medicare, another tax payer travesty set forth by our legislators in D.C.  in favor of and all for the corporate and insurance companies including self insured employers like kaiser, Safeway, Lowe’s and even the Catholic Church!
In a SLAPP suit by a former GSA employee, Stuart Lichter who owned the toxic land with his movie studio built on it plus a kaiser medical complex, I had to call the FBI to put a stop to my PC being hacked and my phone calls being tapped in a harassing way. These actions were especially heavy just a day prior to when a court hearing was scheduled. The owner of the had to daily reassemble many of the PC data (thousands upon thousands of pages even though Stuart in his SLAPP SUIT stated in big bold letter’s that Kaiser Permanente was not involved. The FBI asked who my server was and it appeared that the illegal activity had stopped but seems to have reappeared again.  AND IT does depends on my activities!
The first time I was aware of my phone being tapped was back in 1992. Not too long after I left my job at kaiser and my many whistle blowing activities against this “health care complex”. I had to call my phone company because some of my phone words were brought up in someone else’s case. No one but the person and myself had known about the specifics. My reason for writing this IS because there are more than the just the CIA,NSA & FBI spying on folks. When any lawsuit is filed or an injury occurs and the insurance industry (self-insured corporations/employers included, at least 3000 in CA alone) is involved, be guaranteed that they have the power to spy on you anyway possible just like the CIA FBI, NSA does and it is called sub rosa. Police of all types, county, city, state patrol, interpol, help in this greatly and even help out AFTER THE POLICE retire on a WC or other stress claims. The NICB-National Institute Crime Bureau, a non profit created by the insurance industry claims to spend 5 BILLION dollars a year to fight fraud.  Then there are fraud commissions that are paid for by the self-insured employers who pay many many millions to do more of the same. Well, when it comes to the insurance or employers doing fraud, IT IS NOT DONE! Just persecution and prosecution on a few individuals that does not justify 5 BILLION. Just as tax dollars pay for the NSA, CIA & FBI and other agencies to spy on us, the extra 5 Billion comes out of our health care premium money! So, we’re now getting spied on by our own money at least two ways. The spying behemoth is out of control and we can thank people like Joe McCarthy from over 60 years ago and J. Edgar Hoover to allow this. What is the most disturbing is that corporations have been involved for many decades are now in complete control with private contractors such as the one Snowden worked for and who is to say that his employer isn’t part of the spying in other cases like the SLAPP suit or the insurance claims. I personally am glad the FBI was able to help me and I know that they have the capabilities to stop the harassment of U.S.citizens but what was really scary is all the info these private corporations have on us and who is to say the NSA is owned by corporations?!?. Now most people in the polls, said that if they aren’t doing anything wrong, then they don’t care, well, until one of them get harassed on their PC’s or phones, they have no idea just how bad it can be or get. I don’t like my phone conversations tapped and emails read (faxes too) and I know that is still being done because I am an advocate for injured workers and patients and certainly the corporate spying machine doesn’t want me to move ahead to help either the injured worker or the patient! The corporations do have more to hide than anyone and they are making sure of their illegal activity by violating with and and on our privacy,  that theirs illegal activity doesn’t get discovered!

AND anyone who dares to whistle blow an illegal activity will be ALWAYS be discredited (their backgrounds perceived to be in an ugly light) so those that commit any illegal activity will be able to continue illegal violations of our 1st, 4th and 14th Amendments and yes this shows why the violators DO protest too much!

On Thursday evenings there is a program called “Person of Interest”. The program is right on with the fact that we are being spied for anything BUT Terrorism, It seems now the biggest terrorism we have to worry about is from within… our govt and corporations!

According to the US Supreme Court in Smith v Maryland, (1979) telephone metadata (Numbers called, calls recieved, time and duration of calls) is NOT protected under the 4th Amendment.
The phone companies are free to give up that data without a warrant.

ARE they free to spy on you while talking, without a warrant?

And also, are private companies allowed to spy on you and hack your PC allowed without a warrant?
I too read about the U.S.Supreme Court v. Maryland, 1979 case in the above mentioned article in today’s Bee!

@Bob Elston:

Our current phone system, I think you will agree, is vastly more complex and has much more data involved than the phone system in 1979.  Today, unlike in 1979, depending on the extent of the government’s definition of “meta data” (which I guarantee you will not be the conventional notion of it) you will get location data, program data, phone OS data, texting data, data on social networks that were used, etc.  Since our phones now mirror our computers in many ways, there is a lot more data and activity being transmitted.  To rely on a 1979 case today is a bit like relying on rules for a horse and buggy when it comes to automobile safety.

Did you read the SCOTUS ruling? They weren’t concerned about what the nature of the data was, rather their opinion was couched in “the expectation of privacy”.
Please read the ruling and I believe that you will discover that the nature of data was immaterial.

You asked “ARE they free to spy on you while talking, without a warrant?”
If you are asking are they free to wiretap, without a warrant the Maryland case did not address that, and I would suggest that that action would be illegal.
However, I have yet to see any evidence that the NSA was conducting wiretaps without the benefit of a specific warrant.

The metadata is like the address on the outside of a envelope, as contrasted with the message inside that would be considered private.

Dina & Sam,
Here is the link to the Smith v Maryland ruling:

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Dragnets: Tracking Censorship and Surveillance

ProPublica investigates the threats to privacy in an era of cellphones, data mining and cyberwar.

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