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PBS Newshour Gets Played By NSA Lawyers

The other night, to it’s credit, the PBS Newshour had NSA whistleblowers William Binney and Russell Tice on for an interview segment, titled, “NSA Collects ‘Word for Word’ Every Domestic Communication, Says Former Analyst.” Presumably for “balance” the Newshour also had two NSA lawyers appear. To its detriment, the Newshour’s talking head, Judy Woodruff, sat there like a friendly lump and challenged nothing, while the NSA lawyers played her like a cheap violin.

If you haven’t seen the segment, watch it here and we’ll dissect the transcript below.

Here’s a link, for whatever reason the PBS video viewer won’t load.

The appearance of Binney and Tice goes well and is a very short summary of the revelations that they have previously made, now in light of documentation that has appeared in the Guardian and elsewhere, courtesy of Edward Snowden.

Then, the NSA was given an opportunity to rebut the facts…

First up was the NSA general counsel Robert Litt. I have emphasized the weasel words for your convenience:

ROBERT LITT, NSA general counsel: We do not indiscriminately sweep up and store the contents of the communications of Americans or of the citizenry of any country. We do collect metadata, information about communications, more broadly than we collect the actual content of communications, but that’s because it is less intrusive than collecting content and in fact can provide us information that helps us more narrowly focus our collection of content on appropriate foreign intelligence targets.

But it simply is not true that the United States government is listening to everything said by the citizens of any country.

So what we get are wily statements that are true but probably misleading from the NSA general counsel.

Of course there is nothing indiscriminate about the way that the NSA sweeps up and stores the contents of the communications of Americans – it is undoubtedly carefully planned and executed. The collection of metadata probably is less intrusive, but that doesn’t say specifically that metadata is all that they collect, nor does it deny that the collection of metadata is intrusive, especially when it is used with powerful data mining tools. Of course, it’s also worth noting that the way that NSA has been revealed to be collecting metadata is controversial as to its legality, despite the fact that the NSA touts it as “less intrusive.”

Litt’s statement that the NSA is not “listening to everything said by citizens” is likely literally true. The man-hours that it would take to do all of that listening would make it virtually impossible to arrange logistically. Revelations suggest that NSA is obtaining and storing all electronic communications of citizens and that they could in real time or retrospectively (as the video clip of Tim Clemente above suggests) listen to any citizen’s communications.

Next up in the weaselfest is Joel Brenner, the NSA’s former inspector general:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joel Brenner, who was the NSA’s inspector general and then senior legal counsel, says the intelligence agency obeys the law and the directions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court.

JOEL BRENNER, former NSA inspector general: It’s really important to understand that the NSA hasn’t done anything, as I understand it and from all I know, that goes one inch beyond what it’s been authorized to do by a court.

This is quite distinct from a denial that the NSA does not exceed the authorities of a court. Beyond that, to be truthful, the NSA would have to disown responsibility for the actions of its employees, who got quite a bit of publicity for tapping, recording and sharing the intimate conversations of soldiers calling their significant others back home – unless, of course, that was “legal.” Further, and more importantly, it is far from a denial that the NSA’s activities do not exceed the authorities intended by Congress in the various laws that regulate their activity as several senators have been warning for years. The chief architect of one of the primary sources of that authority, the PATRIOT Act, recently stated that the NSA’s activities are “Un-American” and that the FISA court order was inconsistent with the legislation.

But wait, there’s more, much more, Brenner is just warming up…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, tell us, how extensive is the NSA’s collection of data on American citizens, on their phone calls, on their e-mails, on their use of the Internet?

JOEL BRENNER: This is… the program only involves telephony metadata, not e-mails, not geographic location information.

The idea that NSA is keeping files on Americans, as a general rule, just isn’t true. There’s no basis for believing that. The idea that NSA is compiling dossiers on people the way J. Edgar Hoover did in the ’40s and ’50s or the way the East German police did, as some people allege, that’s just not true.

Always duck when a government figure who is on the spot starts talking about “the program,” prevarication is sure to follow. Those who have been paying attention to these issues will remember the Alberto Gonzales perjury flap, when Gonzo started spouting off about a program in front of Congress and what saved his bacon from perjury charges was that he created confusion about which program he was discussing in order to evade answering about what he was asked directly and pointedly about.

So, it’s certain that the NSA has a program that they want to talk about which “only” collects telephony metadata, however, we now know due to revelations made by Snowden that there are other NSA programs that collect other things. Brenner is being evasive and disingenuous here.

Does the NSA “as a general rule” keep files on Americans? Probably not, they only “keep files” on the Americans that they have determined through mining every American’s data that they are interested in. It’s not necessary for the NSA to store a file with your name and a number on it. The descriptors that they use to find Americans are things like telephone numbers, the IP address they’re using, the search terms that they’ve plugged into a browser – all seemingly impersonal things, except that they can be reliably used to identify the person whose data they’re seaching.

So no, the NSA doesn’t use the exact methods of J. Edgar Hoover or the Stasi; Hoover and the Stasi didn’t have the sort of tools available to them that the NSA does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we have been talking to a couple of former NSA employees and one of the allegations they make is that it’s not just collecting this metadata on telephone conversations; it’s recording those conversations and it’s storing them and keeping them for possible future use.

JOEL BRENNER: I think you’re talking about Mr. Tice and Mr. Binney.

Mr. Binney hasn’t been at the agency since 2001. Mr. Tice hasn’t been at the agency since 2005. They don’t know what’s going on inside the agency.

Notice that this answer is completely unresponsive to Woodruff’s question. Brenner only attacks the whistleblowers and attempts to degrade their credibility – he issues no denials of the facts they assert.

Whether Tice and Binney work at the agency now is not dispositive as to whether they know what is going on there now. For that matter, seeing as Brenner is a “former” IG, we could say the same of him. Tice claims to have had contact with current NSA employees on relevant questions, so on the face of it, his claims can be said to have current relevance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another allegation we heard from them, from Mr. Tice, is that back as of the time before he left the NSA in the early 2000s, that there was spying going on, on news organizations, on Supreme Court justices, on presidential candidates, then Senator Barack Obama, on military leaders, top generals in the army.

JOEL BRENNER: Mr. Tice made the allegations you have just indicated having to do with the period before 2005, eight years ago. They’re just coming out now. I wonder why.

The farther he gets from the period when he could have known what he was talking about, the more fanciful his allegations have become.

Once again, Brenner is unresponsive to the question put forward and attacks the whistleblower. That Woodruff lets this go and allows Brenner to keep up his attacks and snide deprecations is disturbing. There was a time when newspeople were expected to actually interact intelligently with guests and call them out for bad behavior and biased information. Those days are apparently over for PBS.

Woodruff follows up Brenner’s performance by allowing him to insert a blatant and once again unchallenged plug for the NSA:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brenner claims that oversight of information gathering has actually improved.

JOEL BRENNER: We have turned intelligence into a regulated industry in a way that none of our allies, even in Europe, have done.

We have all three branches of government now involved in overseeing the activities of the NSA, the CIA, the DIA, and our other intelligence apparatus. This is an enormous achievement.

Woodruff could have questioned the quality of that oversight, given that congressmen are complaining that they are not allowed information needed to perform their oversight role and many congressmen claim that they have been completely surprised by the information that has been revealed in the media.

Instead, Woodruff sat there, smiled and allowed the NSA lawyers to turn the Newshour into a propaganda tool for the NSA as it tries to beat down allegations backed with factual evidence about their behavior.

Really, can’t a news organization with the resources of the PBS Newshour do better than this?

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