So, what did the leaks tell us? First, they confirmed that the U.S. government, without obtaining any court warrants, routinely collects the phone logs of tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of Americans, who have no links to terrorism whatsoever. If the publicity prompts Congress to prevent phone companies such as Verizon and A.T. & T. from acting as information-gathering subsidiaries of the spying agencies, it won’t hamper legitimate domestic-surveillance operations—the N.S.A. can always go to court to obtain a wiretap or search warrant—and it will be a very good thing for the country.
What, one wonders, did Snowden think the N.S.A. did? Any marginally attentive citizen, much less N.S.A. employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications. Perhaps he thought that the N.S.A. operated only outside the United States; in that case, he hadn’t been paying very close attention. In any event, Snowden decided that he does not “want to live in a society” that intercepts private communications. His latter-day conversion is dubious.
Connor Friedersdorf | The Atlantic
Americans would never welcome a secret surveillance state to reduce diabetes deaths, or gun deaths, or drunk-driving deaths by 3,000 per year. Indeed, Congress regularly votes down far less invasive policies meant to address those problems because they offend our notions of liberty. So what sense does it make to suggest, as Obama does, that “balancing” liberty with safety from terrorism — which kills far fewer than 3,000 Americans annually — compels those same invasive methods to be granted, in secret, as long as terrorists are plotting?
Eli Lake | The Daily Beast
The people who began chasing Snowden work for the Associate Directorate for Security and Counterintelligence, according to former U.S. intelligence officers who spoke on condition of anonymity. The directorate, sometimes known as “the Q Group,” is continuing to track Snowden now that he’s outed himself as The Guardian’s source, according to the intelligence officers. Snowden began final preparations for his departure three weeks ago, The Guardian reports, copying the final documents he intended to share, telling his supervisor that he would need time off for medical treatment, and his girlfriend simply that he would be away.
. . . Snowden’s disappearance in May was immediately noticed by the directorate, and when The Guardian published the first court order and then documents associated with a program called PRISM, Snowden immediately became the leading suspect in the leak, the intelligence sources said, adding that the FBI was now investigating the leak as well.
Josh Barro | Business Insider
56% said it was “acceptable” for the NSA to get secret court orders to track the cell phone data of millions of Americans.
45% even said they were OK with the government monitoring everyone’s email and online activities “if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks.”
Eli Lake and Daniel Klaidman | The Daily Beast
Obama’s evolution on surveillance came at a time when the Democratic nomination looked increasingly likely. Former campaign advisers say he was already beginning to pivot toward the possibility that he would soon have to shoulder the burdens of protecting the American people as commander in chief.
After Obama was elected, that shift accelerated. He acted quickly to absorb the extraordinary counterterrorism powers that would soon be at his disposal.
Among the earliest briefings he requested was on the NSA’s surveillance program and the progress the government had made placing it on a firmer legal foundation.
Obama peppered his Justice Department briefers on how the program was working now that it was operating under new guidelines and congressional authorities. According to two sources familiar with the session, Obama asked detailed questions about how the program worked, whether it was yielding valuable leads in the effort to identify and thwart terrorist threats, and what specific checks and balances had been worked into the program to guard against violations of Americans’ civil liberties.
Timothy Lee | Wonkblog | The Washington Post
If Snowden had surrendered himself to U.S. authorities, he almost certainly would have faced charges that carry penalties of decades in prison. He might have rationally feared being subject to years of pretrial detention and the kind of degrading treatment Manning faced. And if he had chosen to fight the charges, he would have risked spending decades in prison if he lost.
Mike Konzcal | Wonkblog | The Washington Post
. . . how can we distinguish between better and worse surveillance states? Balkin identifies and contrasts two. The first is an authoritarian surveillance state, while the second is a democratic surveillance state. And the recent scandals clearly reveal that we live in an authoritarian one.
What do authoritarian surveillance states do? They act as “information gluttons and information misers.” As gluttons, they take in as much information as possible. More is always better, indiscriminate access is better than targeted responses, and there’s a general presumption that they’ll have access to whatever they want, at any time.
But authoritarian surveillance states also act as misers, preventing any information about themselves from being released. Their actions and the information they gather are kept secret from both the public and the rest of government.
Even though the paper is from 2008, this description of an authoritarian surveillance state fits perfectly with recent revelations about the Obama administration. The information that the National Security Agency has been seeking, from phone metadata to server access, is about as expansive as one could imagine. Meanwhile, the administration’s war on whistleblowers, which received public attention after revelations about the surveillance of AP reporters, shows a lack of interest in measures of transparency and accountability.
What would a democratic surveillance state look like? Balkin argues that these states would be “information gourmets and information philanthropists.” A democratic surveillance state would limit the data it collects to the bare minimum. Meanwhile, maximum transparency and accountability across branches would be emphasized. Congress and the public would need to be far more involved.
A democratic surveillance state would also place an emphasis on destroying the data that the government collects.
Spencer Ackerman | The Guardian
“It has been estimated that the average annual cost of a United States Government civilian employee is $126,500,” the committee found, “while the average annual cost of a ‘fully loaded’ (including overhead) core contractor is $250,000.”
In addition to the contractor support, there is another lucrative private interest deeply involved with the NSA and the FBI: the telecommunications firms themselves.
Thomas Tamm saw that relationship up close when he worked for the Justice Department, preparing eavesdropping requests for the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during the Bush administration. Eventually, Tamm would grow so disturbed by the scope of the spy efforts that he would leak information about it to the New York Times, an act that brought him into the crosshairs of his own department.
“We were in bed with the huge telecoms,” Tamm said. “There was always pressure to renew [surveillance requests] after 90 days. I once asked what the big deal was if we went down one, two days on Fisa, we’re not listening in real time anyway. Well, the telecoms charge a lot of money to flip the switch, to turn it off and turn it back on.”
But the reliance on contractors carries risks for the intelligence community. The more contractors it hires, the more contractors receive access to sensitive US security information – making it harder to keep that classified data out of the public eye.
Glen Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill | The Guardian
The Guardian has acquired top-secret documents about the NSA datamining tool, called Boundless Informant, that details and even maps by country the voluminous amount of information it collects from computer and telephone networks.
The focus of the internal NSA tool is on counting and categorizing the records of communications, known as metadata, rather than the content of an email or instant message.
The Boundless Informant documents show the agency collecting almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March 2013. One document says it is designed to give NSA officials answers to questions like, “What type of coverage do we have on country X” in “near real-time by asking the SIGINT [signals intelligence] infrastructure.”
. . . Iran was the country where the largest amount of intelligence was gathered, with more than 14bn reports in that period, followed by 13.5bn from Pakistan. Jordan, one of America’s closest Arab allies, came third with 12.7bn, Egypt fourth with 7.6bn and India fifth with 6.3bn.
Josh Barro | Business Insider
It turns out, the federal government already has a board tasked with answering these questions: the Public Interest Declassification Board. And it issued a report with recommendations to the president last fall.
Many of the PIDB’s big recommendations address one big theme: agencies have lots of incentives to keep secrets and few incentives to share them. If we want the government to keep fewer secrets, we have to get agencies to properly treat secrecy as costly and weigh the cost of secrecy against the benefits.
The board’s ideas for improving that cost-benefit balance include changing the guidelines for classification to account for the cost of secrecy, creating a more streamlined and automatic process for declassification, and forcing agencies to share their declassification guidelines with each other.
James Fallows | The Atlantic
Among the strongest arguments against a surveillance state is that it depends on the subjective judgment of its millions of employees (a) to be applied without over-reach or abuse, or (b) to exist at all. One 29-year-old has just demonstrated the second point. Edward Snowden didn’t like the way the system worked, and so he has effectively blown it up. The bigger problem may be with the first point, option (a) — people who think there should be more intrusiveness or prying. The Founders’ fundamental concern, often distilled as “If men were angels…”, was to avoid giving anyone powers that, in the wrong hands, could be abused. The surveillance state is giving too many people too much power — either to destroy its workings, as Snowden has tried to do, or to abuse and extend them.
Shane Harris | Passport | Foreign Policy
Metadata is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Content of emails and instant messages — what PRISM helps gather — is. An order issued to Verizon by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court instructs the company to supply records of all its telephony metadata “on an ongoing, daily basis.” Although legal experts say this kind of broad collection of metadata may be legal, it’s also “remarkably overbroad and quite likely unwise,” according to Paul Rosenzweig, a Bush administration policy official in the Homeland Security Department. “It is difficult to imagine a set of facts that would justify collecting all telephony meta-data in America. While we do live in a changed world after 9/11, one would hope it has not that much changed.”
. . . But the administration has not explained why broadly and indiscriminately collecting the metadata records of millions of U.S. citizens and legal residents comports with a law designed to protect innocent people from having their personal information revealed to intelligence analysts. Nor have officials explained why the NSA needs ongoing, daily access to all this information and for so many years, particularly since specific information can be obtained on an as-needed basis from the companies with a subpoena.
Stephen Walt | Foreign Policy
The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people — even on just a single issue — and you decide to go public with your concerns, there’s a possibility that someone who doesn’t like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you. It doesn’t have to be the attorney general either; it might just be some anonymous midlevel bureaucrat or overly zealous defense contractor. Or maybe it will be someone who wants to suck up to their superiors by taking down a critic or who wants to have their own 15 minutes of fame. It really doesn’t matter: Unless you’ve lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times.
Neil Irwin | Wonkblog | The Washington Post
The leaker of sensitive documents from the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest and most successful contractors for defense and intelligence agencies. So who are these guys? Here’s what you ought to know, according to information gleaned from the company’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Beverly Gage | Slate
Under Hoover the FBI devoted enormous resources to investigating people who publicly criticized intelligence operations or sought to challenge the powers of the FBI. Hoover’s targets extended from high-ranking members of the media and Congress down to ordinary citizens shooting the breeze. On one occasion, for instance, agents showed up to interview a Brooklyn liquor importer who had made the mistake of repeating a rumor that the FBI director might be “queer.” After a few minutes with the agents, who reminded him that Hoover’s “personal conduct is beyond reproach,” the man assured them that he held “no malice toward Mr. Hoover; that as a matter of fact he thinks Mr. Hoover has done a wonderful job.”
Ryan Gallagher | Slate
Before the disclosure of PRISM, a handful of European politicians were trying to amend data protection regulations to shield against suspected sweeping secret U.S. surveillance programs. The politicians’ concerns seemed to fall on deaf ears. However, the disclosure of PRISM has provided a level of confirmation that the suspicions were not rooted in paranoia, and the importance of this cannot be overstated. It has finally jolted senior European officials into action. Viviane Reding, vice president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, said in a statement Friday that “a clear legal framework for the protection of personal data is not a luxury or constraint but a fundamental right,” suggesting that the commission may support the introduction of more stringent privacy safeguards Europe-wide in response to PRISM.