Have US officials misled Americans about the activities of the NSA and the scope of their surveillance? Or does the Washington Post have a problem in interpreting the slides they’ve published? The Post’s Greg Miller charges that senior US officials have spread “misinformation” in the weeks after the exposure of the NSA’s PRISM and BLARNEY programs:
Jane Harman, a former ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that speaking about secret programs can be a “minefield” for public officials.
“Are people deliberately misleading other people? I suppose it can happen,” Harman said in an interview. Facts can be obscured through “selective declassification that means you put out some pieces but not others,” she said. “But I assume most people are acting in good faith.”
Acknowledging the “heated controversy” over his remark, Clapper sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 21 saying that he had misunderstood the question he had been asked.
“I have thought long and hard to re-create what went through my mind at the time,” Clapper said in the previously undisclosed letter. “My response was clearly erroneous — for which I apologize.”
Beyond inadvertent missteps, however, an examination of public statements over a period of years suggests that officials have often relied on legalistic parsing and carefully hedged characterizations in discussing the NSA’s collection of communications.
Obama’s assurances have hinged, for example, on a term — targeting — that has a specific meaning for U.S. spy agencies that would elude most ordinary citizens.
“What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails,” Obama said in his June 17 interview on PBS’s “Charlie Rose Show.”
But even if it is not allowed to target U.S. citizens, the NSA has significant latitude to collect and keep the contents of e-mails and other communications of U.S. citizens that are swept up as part of the agency’s court-approved monitoring of a target overseas.
The law allows the NSA to examine such messages and share them with other agencies if it determines that the information contained is evidence of a crime, conveys a serious threat or is necessary to understand foreign intelligence.
The threshold for scrutinizing other data not regarded as content but still potentially revealing is lower than it is for the contents of communications. A 2009 report by the NSA inspector general and obtained by The Washington Post indicates that the agency for years examined metadata on e-mails flowing into and out of the United States, including “the sender and recipient e-mail addresses.”
But how much has actually been misinformation on the part of public officials, and how much has been misinformation on the part of the media? TechDirt reviewed the five new NSA slides published by the Post in support of its reporting on the misinformation, and concluded that the Post may be spreading misinformation, too: