NSA: Can’t Tell You Who We Spy On; That Would Violate Their Privacy

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Dear Senator Wyden and Senator Udall:

Thank you for your 4 May 2012 letter requesting that my office and the National Security Agency Inspector General determine the feasibility of estimating "how many people inside the United States have had their communications collected or reviewed under the authorities granted by section 702 of the [FISA Amendments Act of 2008].…

The NSA IG provided a classified response on 6 June 2012. I defer to his conclusion that obtaining such an estimate was beyond the capacity of his office.… He further stated that his office and NSA leadership agreed that an IG review of the sort suggested would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.

I concur with their assessment that we should, in essence, just tell you to fuck off.


        I. Charles McCullough, III
        Inspector General of the Intelligence Community

Okay, I added that last sentence there, just so there would be at least one honest statement in the letter. Even if I did have to make it up.

The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 was supposed to limit the government's ability to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens during what are supposed to be terror investigations, but the question being raised now is whether the Section 702 exception is being abused. Basically, it allows the government to intercept a communication as long as it provides the FISA court with an "assurance" it's "targeting" someone believed to be outside the United States, even if the person the target is talking to is inside the United States. Also, the government is not required to identify the person it's targeting. So, is that a real limitation, or a loophole big enough to drive a bunch of suspiciously unmarked white vans through?

The answer depends in part on how often the exception's being used. The letter excerpted above was in response to a request that the NSA figure out whether it could estimate how many U.S. persons it has listened to while supposedly targeting someone outside the United States. Not to stop doing it, or even to provide the number, just to determine whether it'd be feasible to estimate the number. But sadly, it appears to be "beyond the capacity" of the NSA—almost certainly the biggest, most sophisticated and powerful electronic-intelligence agency in the world—to even take a shot at estimating this. So sorry. Wish we could help.

Hey, here's an idea—I'm guessing that you do know how many people you've actually targeted, or at least it seems like you should. (If you don't write that stuff down, you might be able to estimate it by counting the number of times you've gone over to the FISA court to give it one of these "assurances." Check your cab receipts, maybe.) Once you have that number, multiply it by one, the minimum number of people the target was talking to. That would result in a serious underestimate, but it'd be an estimate. Is that not within your capacity? I have a calculator on my iPhone if all your supercomputers are down at the moment.

Just to make sure the senators knew they were being told to go screw themselves, they tossed in the privacy claim at the end. You can't count the people whose privacy you're violating because that would violate their privacy. Really?

Hence my addition of the final sentence above. I'm pretty sure that was part of the first draft anyway.

(via Wired magazine)